Custom In-ear Monitor Buyer’s Guide

Custom In-ear monitors buyer's guide

Custom in-ear monitors, or CIEMs, as the name implies, are earphones custom-fitted to their owner’s ear.  This eliminates the need for ear tips, allows optimal placement of the drivers for better sound quality, and typically results in improved isolation and comfort compared to universal-fit in-ear monitors.  This custom in-ear monitor buyer’s guide features our favorite CIEMs in various price ranges.  Page one consists of recommendations from average_joe, who owns over 30 custom in-ear monitors and has heard hundreds of headphones and universal IEMs.  On page two, ljokerl’s recommendations come from his experience with over 300 in-ear monitors.

Each recommendation includes a short overview, but it is recommended to read the full reviews for more information.  We also strongly advise that sound signature preferences be taken into account before making a purchase.  The Best headphone article gives perspective on performance vs. sound signature and the Earphone buyer’s guide recommends sub-$200 IEMs that are broken down by sound signature, which may be helpful in deciding which signature is right for you. Additional earphones, complete with ratings and reviews, can be found in the CIEM table and the IEM table. These tables allow filtering and sorting to find what fits you best.  Enjoy, and be sure to comment with your thoughts and questions!

BELOW $300

Custom Art Music One custom in-ear monitorsCustom Art Music One ($280*) – With a very musical and tonally accurate sound, the Music One competes with much more expensive CIEMs when it comes to sounding natural.  It won’t wow you with its technical performance as it gives up extension on both ends, deep bass reverberation, and the ability to articulate complex material the way more expensive products can, but overall it performs at a very high level for a custom IEM at its price point. Impressions here

Perfect Seal Sportbud SilverPerfect Seal Sportbud Silver ($2501) – Using the Sonion 1723 AcuPass driver, the Perfect Seal Sportbud Silver might not sound the best of the 1723’s I have heard, but it is close enough that when combined with the lower price point, it gets a recommendation.  The canal sized custom monitor has a natural sound that has plenty of extension on both ends of the spectrum, doesn’t disappoint in the bass region, and provides plenty of detail.  While there is no full review yet, the performance warrants a recommendation.  1 Get 15% off in May 2014 with code THL15May.

In Earz IE-P250 custom in-ear monitorIn Earz IE-P250 ($295) – Another Sonion 1723 Accupass driver CIEM below $300 that brings excellent technical competence to the table with a V-shaped sound signature and plenty of clarity and bass capability for this price range.  There is a good balance that will please those that like mainstream sound, but more refined and detailed than what is typically at this price point.  The full review is coming.

 

 

$300 TO $500

Ambient Acoustics AM4 pro custom in-ear monitorsAmbient Acoustics AM4 pro ($499*)– Combining a very clean, clear sound with good extension at both ends of the spectrum and a relatively neutral and detailed signature, the AM4 pro is an impressive performer.  Overall, the sound is on the brighter side but there is a boost in the very capable bass region and the midrange is nicely balanced in the overall sound signature.   Performance is excellent for the price, but a quality source is required to get the most out of this CIEM. Full review here Note: The AM4 pro has been replaced by the AM4 MusicEdition, which as smoother treble and slightly enhanced deep bass.

Alclair Reference custom in-ear monitors - stock photoAlclair Reference ($399) – The Reference provides a warm, yet relatively neutral presentation with good clarity and decent extension on both ends of the frequency spectrum.  While no single characteristic really stands out with the Reference, the overall performance is impressive enough for a recommendation.  Center imaging isn’t a strong point, but with all the other good traits, the Reference is an excellent choice for the price. Full review here

 

 

 

$500 TO $750

Audio Earz AUD-5X by Dream Earz custom in-ear monitorsAudio Earz aud-5X ($565) – The 5X combines very high technical performance with a sound signature that is exciting, forward, and spacious.  With enhanced bass and a presentation that is on the thicker side, the 5X won’t win any clarity awards, but the details and layering are properly recreated if you listen for them.  The 5X is great for those looking for something extra added to the music to increase engagement. Full review here

 

 

$750 TO $1000

Audio Earz AUD-8X by Dream Earz custom in-ear monitorsAudio Earz aud-8X ($865) – With technical performance that is tops in the price range, the 8X offers an exciting, dynamic, detailed, and spacious presentation. Bass is slightly enhanced and very capable, providing plenty of rumble when needed.  The midrange is forward but still provides a very spacious sound as the 8X gives excellent depth to the presentation, and the treble is present but not too bright, integrating well with the rest of the frequencies.  While the overall technical performance is very good, the presentation can be a bit thick, masking but not reducing detail. Full review here

Logitech Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor custom in-ear monitorsHonorable Mention: Logitech Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor ($999) – The IERM is a neutral reference monitor developed for studio engineers with a relatively flat frequency response, although it is warmer and brighter than true neutral.  The presentation is spacious and balanced between laid-back and forward, as with most reference monitors, but the IERM’s spaciousness and imaging are top notch.  Detail levels are good and the IERM is very revealing, but the revealing nature also makes it the most critical earphone I have heard in the treble region, so beware that it will bring out the worst in poorly-mastered tracks. Full review here

 

$1000 TO $1500

Hidition NT-6 pro custom in-ear monitorsHidition NT-6 pro ($1250) – Clarity is king with the NT-6 pro, and technical ability is top-notch as well.  The NT-6 pro combines the NT-6’s analytical presentation with a more fluid presentation, retains the detail, increases the clarity, and improves imaging for ultra-high performance.  The highest and lowest frequencies are boosted, which is readily apparent with many tracks, adding a fun coloration and much greater sense of dynamics and power.  The only real negative is that the treble boost can make certain tracks sound artificially bright. Full review here

Rooth LS8+ custom in-ear monitors demo unitRooth LS8+ ($1070**) – The LS8+ is the only CIEM recommendation here based off a universal demo, but deservedly so as the demo outperformed the highly rated LS8 in many ways and has a more neutral overall sound signature.  Rooth products have a sound that is more liquid and smooth than analytical while retaining high levels of detail, recreating a very musical experience.  The LS8+ is on the brighter side like most of the Rooth lineup and has a bit of a bass boost to go along with a very neutral midrange.  While technical performance isn’t known in custom format, the universal demo unit performed well enough to be worth recommending. Impressions here

M-Fidelity SA-43 custom in-ear monitorsM-Fidelity SA-43 ($1050) – Offering something few other CIEMs I have heard do, the SA-43 provides an expansive space that is rarely heard in in-ears.  Combine top-notch transparency and coherence, and those that want to keep the larger sound of a headphone should look into the SA-43.  The bass is a bit boosted and the treble laid-back, but the imaging and recreation of the ambiance within tracks is exceptional, providing a new experience with spacious tracks.  Compared with other recommendations in the price range, the SA-43 isn’t as detailed nor does it articulate the detail as much, but the others can’t touch the spacious sound.  While extension on both ends is good and isn’t an issue, it isn’t the most extended.  The slicone filled acrylic shell provides excellent isolation and switches on the faceplate allow for adjustment of the sound signature by turning off one of the bass drivers and changing the crossover frequency.  The SA-43 requires a quality source and doesn’t perform all that well from a phone or low end portable player, but is fine from something like the Fiio X3 or ADL X1. Full review here

$1500 & UP

Spiral Ear SE 5-way Reference custom in-ear monitorsSpiral Ear SE 5-way Reference ($1650) – With a powerful and organic presentation, the SE5 offers a rich and relatively neutral sound that recreates fine nuances within music with exceptional PRaT (or note attack and decay) for a realistic, accurate experience.  The presentation is difficult to pinpoint as it is transparent to source and track, changing greatly depending on how the track was mastered, which is unlike most headphones that impart their own “sound signature” to the music.  The SE5 is not easy to get for people outside of the European Union, and those that like brighter, more analytical presentations may not like the sound, but overall the SE5 excels at recreating the music experience.  Full review here

Hidition NT-6 + Whiplash Hybrid V3 cable ($1750) – While the NT-6 already performs at a high level, the significant improvement with the Whiplash Hybrid V3 cable warrants recommendation.  The refinement and liquidity of the neutral and analytical NT-6 are significantly improved, as are the imaging and instrument separation, resulting in the most dynamic and detailed neutral CIEM I have heard.  Focus is razor sharp and the exceptionally high level of clarity makes it easy to hear the abundant detail, all presented within a large and well proportioned soundstage. Review here

* price is approximate and depends on exchange rate.
** mention this buyer’s guide for the discounted price

For more of my reviews of custom in-ear monitors and how I rate them, see the CIEM comparison table.

Questions or comments? Leave them below.

page 2: ljokerl’s recommendations

5 comments

  1. Thanks a lot for the answer. That’s great to hear you have tried both, hopefully I’ll be able to finally decide which way to go…

    Just to understand the way of thinking (I’m still learning the business ☺): Why complementary characteristics is what one should look for? Say some IEMs sound more analytic, why not pair it with an analytic sounding DAP to maximize this effect? This question might be super-dumb but I’ll risk it ☺.

    Is there any third-party DAP that you would recommend over these two? I don’t mind spending a bit more if there is a real difference in SQ (in other aspects, the X5 and DX90 should suffice).

    Did you actually find the DX90 to be more detailed than the X5? This was something I came by quite often when I did some reading and details are my soft-spot. |joker| said that background hiss and high output impedance are both very undesirable with the JH13. How are the X5 and DX90 in this regard?

  2. Hi, great reviews and very helpful!

    After reading both lists by you and |joker| I have a question regarding which DAP should I pair with JH13. I’ve tried asking |joker|, which was very helpful but I’d still ike to get you take on thing as well (if you don’t mind of course :).

    My DAP budget is up to 400 USD. I’ve done some reading and found that the Fiio X5 and the DX90 are very well though off in this price range. Both have a decent UI and build quality and the X5 is stronger on the battery side. But putting all of this aside – which will pair best with the JH13s?

    Initially, I was thinking about getting JH16s, mainly because I only now read this review and finally got a good grasp of the technical terms that accurately describe what I am actually looking for; the JH16s are not it, being to heavy on the bass side. I’ve read a lot of good reviews about the DX90 but got the impression of it also having a rather dominant mid-bass. Therefore, I felt maybe the Fiio X5 will be an better fit so that the bass won’t become over-powering. Nonetheless, all the rest of what DX90 has to offer, I generally prefer it over the X5 (especially that it is great with details and accuracy). However, now that I’ve got the JH13 on sight, the pairing with DX90 sound more natural, since I don’t mind bass, I just want it balanced with the rest of it. I’d be very happy to hear what do you think of this and which DAP do you recommend. If there is a third\fourth option(s) I should consider – I am in now way fixed on getting either of these two DAPs.

    Thanks a lot!!

    • Hi Ziv, I have experience with both Fiio and iBasso products and find that there tends to be a preferred pairing depending on the CIEM manufacturer. For the JHA products, the Fiio products pair better due to the complimentary characteristics as the JHA products have a bit of a laid-back sound while the Fiio products are more up-front than the iBasso products resulting in a more natural sound. I haven’t heard the pairing with a JH13 though.

      Let me know if you want additional clarification or have any other questions.

      Cheers,

      Joe

      • Oops, I’ve accidentally wrote the reply to your answer as a new message. This is the correction…

        Thanks a lot for the answer. That’s great to hear you have tried both, hopefully I’ll be able to finally decide which way to go…

        Just to understand the way of thinking (I’m still learning the business ☺): Why complementary characteristics is what one should look for? Say some IEMs sound more analytic, why not pair it with an analytic sounding DAP to maximize this effect? This question might be super-dumb but I’ll risk it ☺.

        Is there any third-party DAP that you would recommend over these two? I don’t mind spending a bit more if there is a real difference in SQ (in other aspects, the X5 and DX90 should suffice).

        Did you actually find the DX90 to be more detailed than the X5? This was something I came by quite often when I did some reading and details are my soft-spot. |joker| said that background hiss and high output impedance are both very undesirable with the JH13. How are the X5 and DX90 in this regard?

        • Hi Ziv,

          Good question “why complementary.” Sure, you can combine two products with like characteristics, but that tends to over-emphasize those characteristics, which reduces the natural, realistic sound that makes these high-performance pieces of gear great. For example, if you want really really analytical, sure, you can combine an analytical player with analytical headphones, but there will be tradeoffs. For example, the notes (ADSR characteristics, or attack, decay, sustain, and release) may become very sharp due to say a short release for both components. In the case of a very short release, notes wouldn’t reverberate as they should and reflections and other nuances would not be audible.

          As far as other DAPs, I unfortunately haven’t heard many others as of late, but I know there are some out there. Is the DX90 more detailed? Yes, but to me a natural, realistic presentation is more important. I will give up a bit of detail for a better overall sound vs. saying I can hear extra detail that is presented “wrong” by my interpretation. Hiss isn’t an issue with either player considering the JHA sensitivity. Others may pose issues, such as the EarWerkz Legend-R, which has an ever-so-slight hiss with the DX90.

          Hopefully this answered your questions. Please let me know if you have any other questions.

          Cheers,

          Joe

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