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Best in-ear monitors
In-ear monitors (IEMs), originally crafted for musicians and stage performers, offer a unique listening experience distinct from regular earbuds. These specialized earphones excel in delivering crystal-clear sound quality directly into the ear canal. They are designed to block external noise effectively and remain comfortable for extended use. If you prioritize audio fidelity and seek a more immersive sound experience, IEMs may be right for you. Whether you’re on stage or on the go, IEMs bring professional-grade sound quality to your ears. We’ve rounded up the best options available based on our lab testing and experience.
Editor’s note: this list was published on January 18, 2024, and is the first version of the article. Updates will follow as the market changes.
Best In-ear monitors for most people: Sennheiser IE 200
The Sennheiser IE 200 stands out as the ideal choice for those seeking quality in-ear monitors at an affordable price. With a balanced, subdued frequency response, these IEMs bridge the gap between studio-grade accuracy and consumer-friendly sound. They have a comfortable fit and hours-long wearability, with a durable over-ear cable design, and include both silicone and memory foam ear tips for optimal noise isolation.
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Sporting utilitarian plastic housings and removable MMCX cables, these IEMs weigh just 4 grams per bud. Sound-wise, they deliver clear high mids and treble, though bass enthusiasts might find the lower frequencies a bit subdued. The distinct depth and separation between instrument parts in the audio playback stand out, making these IEMs excellent for detailed listening and audio analysis.
As wired-only IEMs, the IE 200 connects via a 3.5mm headphone jack, suitable for most audio devices with the right adapter. They don’t require a headphone amp, either, thanks to their low impedance and high sensitivity. If you’re looking for fairly affordable (on the scale of Sennheiser IE models) wired IEMs, the Sennheiser IE 200 could be your Goldilocks choice.
Best sounding in-ear monitors: Shure SE215
The Shure SE215 earbuds excel in providing excellent acoustic isolation, making them a favorite in professional audio circles. Priced at around $99, these IEMs are a complete package, offering a sturdy, removable MMCX cable and a wide selection of ear tips, including three memory foam options for a snug fit.
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The SE215 boasts a good frequency response profile, particularly excelling in the lower frequencies, although it may under-represent the upper frequencies slightly. This IEM set is comfortable, with memory wiring that adapts to the ear’s shape, ensuring a secure fit. While the housing of the earbuds might protrude a bit, the overall fit is comfortable and stable, making them suitable for various ear shapes and sizes.
The SE215’s sensitivity and impedance mean they don’t require an additional headphone amp, and they offer significant passive noise isolation. Although not the top choice for treble-heavy music, the SE215 represents a solid investment for those seeking one of the most trusted in-ear monitors in the industry.
Best value in-ear monitors: Etymotic ER2SE
The ER2SE’s anodized metal housings are corrosion-resistant, featuring uniquely slim nozzles for extended comfort during long listening sessions. This design significantly reduces the pressure against the ear canal compared to standard wider nozzles. The package includes a variety of ear tips, a shirt clip, a filter removal tool, and a mixed-media zippered case, providing everything needed for maintenance and transport.
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These IEMs deliver accurate audio across the frequency range, though they under-emphasize bass and sub-bass frequencies. This can lead to a slightly louder upper midrange than some may prefer. However, there is clarity and balance in the rest of the frequency range, with vocals and instruments like pianos being reproduced with precision. Users can further refine the sound to their liking with equalization, boosting the sub-bass and adjusting the 1-5kHz range and the 6-10kHz band for a more balanced auditory experience.
The Etymotic ER2SE is an excellent choice for those who value high-quality audio and effective noise isolation without breaking the bank. While the earbuds may protrude noticeably, their distinct design and performance capabilities make them a compelling option for enthusiasts looking for premium in-ear monitors at an accessible price.
Best bang for your buck: Moondrop CHU II
The Moondrop Chu II offers good sound quality and a comfortable fit at a remarkably low price of $18.99 and represents a notable upgrade over its predecessor, the Moondrop Chu. While they are slightly heavier than average and offer only average isolation, their performance far exceeds what their price tag might suggest.
The Chu II earbuds are made from a zinc alloy with a brass machined nozzle, weighing 8g each. The over-ear cabling design helps distribute this weight, contributing to a comfortable fit for over an hour of use. The package includes three sizes of ear tips and a faux leather case, offering basic portability and protection. A notable improvement in this model is the removable cable, terminating in a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, which makes these IEMs more durable and user-friendly.
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While lacking active noise cancelation, the Moondrop Chu II still manages to provide decent passive isolation, particularly effective against high-pitched noises. The sound quality is impressive for the price, with a frequency response that closely follows preferred curves through the bass and midrange. The upper mid frequencies are slightly exaggerated, and there’s limited extension into the highest frequencies, but overall, the Chu II provides a balanced and enjoyable listening experience.
Best premium IEMs: Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus
The Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus, priced at $750, is a premium offering for audiophiles seeking top-notch sound quality. Boasting 14 drivers per earbud, these IEMs excel in delivering crisp, clear audio across the entire frequency range. The use of a seven-way crossover network ensures that each driver focuses on a specific frequency band, resulting in minimal harmonic distortion and optimal audio reproduction.
Despite their large housing and substantial driver count, the Zeus earbuds are surprisingly lightweight. They are built with acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic and feature a stainless steel nozzle. However, their larger size and less flexible ear hook design may not be ideal for those with smaller ears. The package includes high-quality Final Audio ear tips in five sizes for a customizable fit and passive isolation.
The removable braided 3.5mm cable ensures compatibility with most audio devices (aside from modern smartphones) and is efficient in power consumption. For those seeking the pinnacle of audio performance and are willing to invest in premium earphones, the Zeus offers a compelling combination of sophisticated sound reproduction, build quality and aesthetic appeal.
Who should buy the Sennheiser IE 600?
The Sennheiser IE 600, priced at $699, is an ideal pick for audiophiles ready to invest in top-tier sound quality. Its use of AMLOY-ZR01, a material common in aerospace and medical fields, ensures durability and a unique texture. The balanced cables minimize distortion, offering a pristine audio experience that will satisfy discerning music lovers and audio professionals alike.
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With its comfortable fit, thanks to multiple ear tip options and impressive noise isolation, the IE 600 is suitable for extended listening sessions. It includes two cables for versatile connectivity — a standard 3.5mm jack and a 4.4mm Pentaconn jack for balanced audio, catering to various audio setups. While the IE 600’s price tag places it in the premium category, its exceptional build quality, sound performance, and innovative design justify the investment for those who prioritize high-end audio experiences.
The best in-ear monitors: Notable mentions
- KZ ZSN Pro X ($23.99 at Amazon): The KZ ZSN PRO X are wired earbuds that offer superb sound for very little money.
- Massdrop x Noble Kaiser 10 (on the product’s website): These IEMs house 10 drivers per earbud housing. The detachable cable lengthens the premium headset’s lifetime, and the pelican case protects it from the elements.
- Massdrop x MEE Audio Pinnacle PX ($241 at Amazon): These in-ear monitors can be worn around the ear or descending directly from it, and handle nearly all music genres well, making them a great pick for listeners with eclectic taste.
- Moondrop Aria ($79 at Amazon): If you want a good-sounding set of buds with nice-looking metal housings, the Aria ranks as a great option.
- Moondrop Aria SE ($79 at Amazon): These IEMs are comfortable, they have a pure focus on sound quality, and they’re repairable, though they do lack a microphone.
- Sennheiser IE 100 PRO Wireless ($149 at Amazon): This unique product by Sennheiser sounds great and offers a lot of flexibility for its price. You can use it on stage or take it to go and casually listen to music.
- Sennheiser IE 300 ($281 at Amazon): These sport more bass than the IE 200 and have a similar shaped housing that offers a similar amount of in-ear comfort. They are a bit pricier, but it is also not brand new, so you may find them occasionally discounted.
What you should know about in-ear monitors
IEMs tend to focus on balanced frequency responses, making music sound clear and detailed, contrasting with more bass-heavy consumer earbuds.
Fit and Comfort
The proper fit of IEMs is crucial for optimal sound quality and comfort. This involves selecting the right ear tip size and material (silicone or memory foam) and correctly inserting and positioning the IEMs in the ear. IEMs with memory foam tips are particularly effective in creating a seal and blocking external noise, enhancing the listening experience.
Considerations Before Buying
IEMs are an excellent choice for those prioritizing sound quality over features like voice assistants or companion apps. They typically offer better performance per dollar than comparable wireless earbuds. However, they may not be suitable for everyone, especially those who prefer the convenience features of consumer headphones or are prone to ear infections from occluding the ear canal. When choosing IEMs, brands like Sennheiser and Shure and newer budget-friendly options like Moondrop, KZ, and TIN HiFi offer a range of choices to suit different preferences and budgets.
How we test in-ear monitors
At SoundGuys, we employ a rigorous testing process for in-ear monitors to ensure accurate and reliable reviews. Our approach includes objective measurements using calibrated equipment and subjective analysis by experienced reviewers. We assess factors like frequency response, isolation, distortion, and build quality. Real-world testing complements our lab work, evaluating comfort, fit, and practicality in everyday scenarios. For detailed insights into our testing methodology, check out our dedicated page and learn more about our headphone review process here.
How we choose the best in-ear monitors
To select the best in-ear monitors, we consider a combination of sound quality, build quality, comfort, and value. Our choices are informed by rigorous testing, user feedback, and market trends. We strive to cater to a wide range of users, from professional musicians to casual listeners, ensuring that our picks offer something for everyone. We regularly update our selections to include the latest and most innovative IEMs, ensuring our recommendations stay current and relevant.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
SoundGuys is a team of audio experts and enthusiasts committed to delivering trustworthy, unbiased reviews and advice. Our reviews are based on comprehensive testing and analysis, free from brand influence. We adhere to strict ethical standards, ensuring our content is accurate and reliable. Our focus is on helping you make informed decisions about audio products. To learn more about our commitment to integrity and transparency, visit our ethics page.
Frequently asked questions
The Shure SE215 is a great choice for drummers, known for its durable build and excellent noise isolation. Another popular option for drummers is the Audio-Technica ATH-E70, praised for its detailed sound and comfortable fit, making it ideal for long performances
For musicians, both the Shure SE215 and Sennheiser IE 200 from our list are excellent options. The Shure SE215 offers great sound isolation and durability, while the Sennheiser IE 200 provides superb clarity and a comfortable fit. The Westone UM Pro 30 is also a popular choice among musicians for its sound quality and triple-driver design.
The Sennheiser IE 200, featured in our best list, is a top pick for singers due to its clear sound quality, especially in the vocal range. Additionally, the Shure SE535, known for its exceptional sound isolation and clarity, is a favorite among singers.
Expensive in-ear monitors can be worth the investment for users who prioritize superior sound quality, durability, and specialized features. For instance, the Massdrop x Empire Ears Zeus offers exceptional audio performance but comes with a high price tag. However, you can find quality in more affordable options, such as the Shure SE215.
In-ear monitors generally offer better sound quality than standard earbuds, especially in terms of clarity and isolation. The use of balanced armature drivers in many IEMs leads to a more precise and clear sound.
The disadvantages of in-ear monitors include potential discomfort from prolonged use, risk of ear infections if not cleaned properly, and sometimes a lack of the wide soundstage that over-ear headphones provide. Additionally, they can be quite expensive, especially for high-end models.