If you have an idea of the type of sound you prefer, all that’s left is to decide on a budget and pick out your ideal earphone. However, the earphone market is huge and encompasses everything from dollar-store buds to $2000 custom-fit monitors. Differences between them abound, but neither price nor brand name guarantee that you’re getting the very best performance for your needs.
We’ve tested over 300 earphones from all around the world in order to find the best values for every preference and budget. For this guide we confined our selections to sets currently available in the US, whether through a US-based or global retailers. Besides sound quality, we considered factors such as construction quality, comfort, and convenience, holding pricier models to a higher standard.
In addition to considering your preferred sound signature and desired functionality – whether it is high noise isolation or an inline microphone for headset use – consider the audio source you plan to use. While most dedicated mp3 players sound pretty good, other sources such as smartphones and computers may not pair well with sensitive earphones. It may be safer to select an earphone with lower sensitivity and higher impedance – these sets will be less prone to revealing noise and more forgiving of the high output impedance of subpar sources. If you have to choose between upgrading your source and headphones, going for the headphones will maximize your sound quality per dollar, but keep in mind that higher-end sets will need a decent source to shine.
This guide covers 4 basic sound signature types: basshead, warm and smooth, V-shaped, and balanced. These groupings were created to give a basic understanding of the different types of sound signatures available but all earphones, even those in same group, will differ in audio performance. The goal is to be able to better understand your preferences through contrast so you can find the best sound for you.
Lastly, keep in mind the importance of a good fit with your earphones. Most in-ears were designed to maintain a tight seal with the ear canal and their sound quality will suffer tremendously with a poor fit. Check out our earphone fit guide for info on how to wear your in-ear headphones.
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These earphones are for fans of heavy bass and typically place bass impact, depth, and power above all else. Because heavily enhanced mid-bass often results in bloated, boomy sound, we focused on finding earphones that provide deep, rumbling sub-bass. Outside of the lower frequencies they can be balanced or emphasize treble for a v-shaped sound.
JVC HA-FX101 ($14) – JVC’s enhanced-bass “Xtreme Xplosives” earphones are a bargain find for the bass-obsessed, combining plentiful bass with prominent, somewhat harsh treble. The overall sound is competent, if slightly unrefined compared to pricier sets, but two things are certain – the low end is sure to please bass fans and the sound is excellent for the price. It comes in several colors and a version with a built-in microphone and remote, the FR201, is also available. Read full review
Nuforce NE-600X ($14) – Drawing on the tuning of the company’s higher-end models, the NE-600X from California-based Nuforce delivers a bass-heavy sound without sacrificing overall performance. Coupled with the recent price drop, this makes it one of the best values around not only for fans of big bass, but all casual listeners in need of an inexpensive earphone. Read full review
NarMoo S1 ($33) – The S1 is a dual dynamic driver earphone with separate 10- and 6mm dynamic drivers in each earpiece. The 10mm acts as a subwoofer, delivering powerful bass. The overall sound signature is smooth and full-bodied, avoiding the recessed midrange and rolled-off treble so many entry-level bass-heavy earphones suffer from and delivering better clarity compared to the RHA MA350, my previous recommendation in this segment. The housings are on the large side, but very solidly built and comfortable except in small ears. Read full review
Retired: RHA MA350, PADACS Aksent PD114
Velodyne vPulse ($80) – The first ever earphone from the subwoofer experts at Velodyne, the vPulse is a full-featured headset with solid sound quality. It delivers a subwoofer-like emphasis on deep bass, smooth treble, and better clarity compared to entry-level basshead earphones. Tangle-free flat cables and comfortable angled-nozzle housings further set this mid-range headset apart from the competition. The vPulse also features an inline microphone and 3-button remote. Read full review
HiSoundAudio Wooduo 2 ($80) – Though HiSoundAudio is better-known for their high-end mp3 players and amplifiers, the company has actually been manufacturing earphones just as long. The Wooduo 2 is HiSound’s idea of a proper basshead earphone, one that produces the lowest frequencies without any drop-off or distortion. In addition to some of the most powerful subbass on the market, the Wooduo 2 offers surprisingly good clarity and prominent, well-extended treble. Complete with a unique – if a bit gaudy – aesthetic, the Wooduo 2 is an all-around competent basshead delight. Read full review
Retired: Future Sonics Atrio MG7
Warm and smooth
These earphones are characterized by moderately enhanced bass and level, sometimes laid-back treble. Emphasis on the mid-bass region typically gives them a characteristically rich, full-bodied sound.
Xiaomi Piston 2 ($25) – The second-generation Piston earphones from Chinese electronics giant Xiaomi make the perfect budget headset for the smartphone crowd, combining a 3-button Android remote and warm, full-bodied sound with plentiful bass. While higher-end earphones can point out where the audio quality of the Piston 2 falls slightly short, in the age of internet radio this really may be all the performance many users need. With so few full-featured Android headsets on the market, the Xiaomi Piston 2 is a must-have for any Android user. Read full review
Dunu Trident ($25) – This unique-looking earphone showcases great attention to detail – its packaging, build quality, and design are all worthy of a higher price tag. While the Sony MH1C, SteelSeries Flux, and even Xiaomi Piston 2 all sound clearer and more refined, the Trident impresses with a warm and smooth signature that’s easy to enjoy and difficult to dislike. With a conventional cable, the Trident is also easier to live with every day than the MH1C and its packaging makes it a superior gift. Read full review
Sony MH1C ($31) – Sony’s diminutive smartphone headset can commonly be found well below its retail price, but even at the full $80 MSRP the MH1C is a good deal solely for its superb audio quality. The earphone provides a warm, enhanced-bass sound with surprisingly good clarity and treble presence. The small size and soft eartips ensure long-term comfort, with the only downsides being the asymmetric flat cable and remote designed for Sony Xperia phones (it still has limited Apple and Android functionality) Read full review
SteelSeries Flux In-Ear ($50) - The first-ever in-ear model from gaming peripheral manufacturer SteelSeries took me completely by surprise with audio quality that easily puts it among the very best earphones in its class. It’s a great all-rounder with a warm tonal character, punchy and extended bass, good treble energy, and excellent clarity. The small, comfortable form factor, good noise isolation, and an inline microphone and single-button remote make these one of the best values in portable audio. Read full review
Fidue A63 ($60) – Fidue is one of the newest manufacturers on this list, but the team behind their IEMs is anything but inexperienced. The A63 is the company’s very first mid-range earphone, but it ticks pretty much all the boxes for sound quality. Solid bass impact and strong midrange presence are complemented by an uncongested soundstage and treble that is neither harsh nor sibilant. I like the construction, as well. The only downside is that the sharp edges of the housings necessitate some fiddling to find a truly comfortable fit, especially for those with small outer ears – a small concession, but it takes away slightly from what is otherwise an outstanding product. Read full review
Shure SE215 ($99) – Shure has been a serious presence in the professional in-ear monitor market for more than a decade, and it certainly shows in the refinement of their entry-level model. The SE215 is ergonomic, highly-isolating, and boasts a detachable, user-replaceable cable. The sound of the SE215 is smooth, with enhanced bass and relaxed treble. The dynamic microdriver also delivers impressive clarity and detail. It may not be a sonic upgrade to the Sony MH1C, but with durability and other considerations factored in, the SE215 delivers almost too much performance for the price. An optional mic+remote cable for the SE215 is available. Read full review
RHA MA750 / MA750i ($120) - Scottish audio manufacturer RHA scores another hit with the flagship MA750 monitors, which combine a warm and lush sound, spacious presentation, and good bass presence. The MA750 is less bassy compared to the pricier Yamaha EPH-100 and has more presence in the lower treble for a somewhat v-shaped sound, but otherwise is just as competent. Construction quality is extremely impressive, with stainless steel housings and thick cabling. The earphones should be comfortable for most listeners thanks to the over-the-ear fit and molded earhooks, and isolate surprisingly well. The MA750i model adds a mic and 3-button Apple remote. Read full review
Yamaha EPH-100 ($143) – Yamaha’s flagship earphone provides big sound in a small package, based around a dynamic microdriver wrapped in a compact, comfortable, and well-built aluminum shell. Noise isolation is outstanding and the sound quality is great as well, with strong bass, lush mids, and smooth – albeit slightly docile – treble. Add a dynamic presentation and impressive stereo imaging, and the EPH-100 is easily one of the best-performing earphones in its price class. Read full review
Enhanced bass and treble make for an exciting, v-shaped sound with these earphones, providing a lively sonic experience typically reminiscent of the “Rock” setting on many equalizers. Due to the way the human loudness contour works, at lower volumes a mild v-shape can actually present a fairly balanced experience.
Philips SHE3580 / SHE3590 ($10) – These bargain-bin miracles may look like the average dollar-store in-ears but their sound tells a completely different story. With excellent presence across the frequency spectrum, enhanced bass, and crisp, clean treble, the sound of the Philips is worth much more than what you pay. Small and comfortable, they come in several color combinations and are the perfect small gift for music fans of all ages.
Soundmagic E10 ($32) – Though not quite as clear and resolving as the Philips SHE3580, the E10 is a great all-around alternative with less bass emphasis, smoother treble, and a wider and airier sound. A headset version with mic and 3-button remote, the E10M, is also available. Read full review
VSonic VSD1 / VSD1S ($40) – VSonic’s final new release of 2013, the VSD1 earphones offer an accurate, yet energetic sound with good bass impact, fantastic clarity, and a spacious soundstage, achieving a large portion of the performance of VSonic’s highly-regarded GR07 Bass Edition model at 1/4 the price. They even incorporate an articulating nozzle feature never before seen on an earphone in this price range. I prefer the VSD1S to its sister earphone, the VSD1, for its smoother treble. Read full review at InnerFidelity
MOE-SS01 ($65) – The MOE-SS01 is a dual dynamic driver earphone closely related to JVC’s pricier FXT90 model. It impresses with very extended bass that is free of bloat, as well as superb clarity, and boasts a cooler tonal character than the other earphones here. I don’t mind the unusual aesthetic of the dual drivers, either, and love the lightweight, low-noise cable. The fit works as well, so long as you don’t have small outer ears. For fans of clear, bright, punchy earphones, the SS01 is nothing short of an excellent buy. Read full review
Thinksound MS01 ($100) – Thinksound’s formula has always been beautiful in its simplicity – combine one part enhanced bass with one part clarity, add stylish, well-crafted housings made from renewable materials, and package it all with great attention to detail. The MS01 remains true to the formula, delivering a warmer sound compared to the MOE-SS01 with the upmarket look and feel of all Thinksound earphones. Plus, the company’s commitment to being “Green” is sure to score bonus points in some circles. Read full review
JVC HA-FXT90 ($78) – This Japan import is chock-full of technology, combining two dynamic drivers – a carbon-coated tweeter and a carbon nanotube woofer – in a single housing. The sound of the FXT90 is balanced in an aggressive sort of way, with the intimate midrange giving up only a bit of emphasis to the prominent bass and sparkly treble. The performance is strengthened by good timbre and a nicely layered presentation, making these JVCs one of the best deals in portable audio. Read full review
Retired: Astrotec AM-800
Dunu DN-1000 ($200) - The DN-1000 is a hybrid earphone – that is, it combines a dynamic driver acting as a subwoofer with a dual balanced armature handling the mids and highs. It has superb bass – deep and hard-hitting, with almost no bloat – as well as outstanding clarity. Its V-shaped signature makes it especially great for modern music – EDM, pop, and so on – and the excellent construction and good noise isolation, though typical for Dunu, still stand out among other $200 IEMs. Read full review
Emphasizing no particular area of the frequency spectrum, balanced headphones provide the most clear and accurate sound. Typically neutral to slightly bright in tone, balanced sets can also be slightly mid-centric when the bass and treble both roll off at the limits.
Etymotic Research ETY-Kids ($39) – Etymotic’s entry-level model promotes hearing safety with a combination of immense noise isolation and volume-limiting impedance. The earphones are also well-built and stay true to the Etymotic brand with sound that is clear, accurate, and neutral, though for some listeners perhaps lacking in desired bass presence. A headset version with microphone and 3-button remote is also available. Volume-limiting design aside, the ETY-Kids are a great option for the budget-minded audiophile. Read full review
Brainwavz M1 ($40) – Of the many entry-level earphones offered by Hong Kong-based Brainwavz, the original M1 still stands out with its smooth and natural sound. There’s no bass boost here – just a balanced signature with a mild focus on the midrange and very smooth and pleasant treble. On top of all that, the small size, comfortable form factor, and complete accessory kit all make the M1 a user-friendly all-rounder perfect for first-time earphone users. Read full review
Retired: VSonic VC02
Philips Fidelio S1 ($90) – Philips’ new flagship earphones are well-built, well-accessorized, and reasonably priced. Offering a flat and level signature with a bump across the bass range, the S1 also features tangle-resistant cabling and a built-in microphone and remote. The semi-open design makes them great in situations where the higher noise isolation of most other high-end earphones is undesirable—and a great choice for those who don’t like the more intrusive fit of most other IEMs. Read full review at InnerFidelity
HiFiMan RE-400 ($99) – The folks at HiFiMan have been perfecting the accurate dynamic-driver earphone for the better part of a decade, and the latest iteration offers a very balanced, slightly mid-focused sound with a hint of warmth, providing a noticeable step up in performance from even the best entry-level models. With its comfortable form factor, good noise isolation, and respectable build quality, the RE-400 is very difficult to fault on any front. Read full review
Retired: MEElectronics A161P
VSonic GR07 Classic ($99) / GR07 Bass Edition ($130) – VSonic’s dynamic-driver flagship has been popular on the portable Hi-Fi scene for four years thanks to its ergonomic housings, adjustable nozzles, and bio-cellulose dynamic drivers that offer excellent consistency across audio sources and produce sound that’s quite neutral, yet not lean or lacking in bass. There are more of both highs and lows compared to the HiFiMan RE-400 and Etymotic HF5, but the GR07 is still pretty darn balanced, and plenty great-sounding. The latest “Classic” version is available in 3 colors and priced at $99 (Note: if you see a blue, maroon, or silver GR07 listed as a GR07 mkII or any other variant at a higher price, you’re overpaying). Those looking for a little more bass will enjoy the equally capable GR07 Bass Edition. Read full review: VSonic GR07 / VSonic GR07 Bass Edition. Read impressions of the GR07 Classic here.
Etymotic Research HF5 ($110) – Etymotic Research invented the universal-fit in-ear earphone back in the 80s, and the company still manufactures some of the most accurate earphones on the market more than two decades later. The HF5 is a top-tier model with a mid-level price tag, offering an impeccably clear, detailed, and accurate sound from a tiny balanced armature driver. It also offers outstanding noise isolation – better than pretty much any other universal-fit earphone on the market – all at a very reasonable price. Two headset versions – the single-button HF2 and 3-button HF3 – are also available. Read full review
Fischer Audio DBA-02 mkII ($196) – Rounding this overview is Russia-based Fischer Audio with the DBA-02 mkII. The mkII revision finally gives this premium-sounding earphone a fitting look and feel—the updated earphones are sturdy, comfortable, and very well-isolating. They also provide a balanced and capable sound courtesy of dual balanced armature transducers, effortlessly resolving the finest musical details with great instrument separation and stereo imaging. The DBA-02 mkII is not the cheapest dual-armature earphone on the market, but it is one of the most well-rounded. Read full review
Well, that’s more than two dozen of the most essential earphones for every taste and budget. For more in-depth reviews of these and other sets check out the sortable review list. This guide will be updated whenever we come across new products worth mentioning.
Check out also our Budget Earphone Buyer’s Guide – the Best Earphones Under $50 and our Custom In-ear Monitor Buyer’s Guide
Questions or comments? Leave them below.
Last updated 10/18/14