No question comes up more often in the headphone hobby than, “what is the best headphone?” where headphone can be replaced with in-ear monitor (IEM) or custom in-ear monitor (CIEM). Typical answers range from personal favorites to products that have been talked of highly in the past to saying there is no “best.” I am amazed by the number of definitive “best” responses from people that have heard only one or two high-end headphones, or others that have only read about various models but still claim to know the answer. Many headphone purchases are made based off the opinions of others instead of an audition. This is typically less risky with headphones and IEMs than with CIEMs, which generally can’t be returned* and lose a larger percentage of their resale value.
Disregarding the question for discussion purposes, three main factors should be considered before making a recommendation: preferred sound signature, usage, and situation. Also, recommendations should include more than one option whenever possible, so the individual can make the final determination.
PREFERRED SOUND SIGNATURE
The sound signature of audio gear consists of the frequency response, PRaT (Pace, Rhythm, and Timing or attack, decay, and sustainment), and soundstage space/presentation. Do you want bass heavy, accurate, or bright? An immediate sound where you can hear all the details easily, or a richer, more relaxing presentation? Do you want to be on stage with the singer, front row, or in the back of a venue? See below for some terms used to describe the sound signature.
In the audio chain headphones have the most sound signature variation, but other equipment can play a significant role in the final sound achieved by the system. The more experience you have with headphones, the easier it will be to define your sound signature, but an easier way is to just figure out which headphones you like, which you dislike, and why. If you don’t have much experience, you can gain some quickly by trying a few reasonably-priced sets with different sound signatures, such as those recommended in our Earphone Buyers Guide.
Knowing when and where you will be using your IEM/CIEM will help narrow down your decision. What level of noise isolation do you want/need? Are you going to use this for work or pleasure? Determining these factors may even influence the desired sound signature. For example, if you plan on using a CIEM for on stage performance, an up-close presentation that puts you on the stage will usually work well. Or if you ride public transportation, you may want high isolation and enhanced bass to compensate for the existing noise. If you use your headphones/earphones at a desk and hearing others isn’t a bad thing, an open design could work well.
Genre also can come into play as certain technical qualities are more important for specific genres. An example of this is dance music, which typically benefits from excellent deep bass, faster attack, and a spacious sound, but natural tonality isn’t too important compared with acoustic rock. Another example is heavy metal music, as unfortunately a large portion of metal, especially older metal, is poorly mastered, so a forgiving sound signature is important.
Another usage factor is your activity level. Your requirements when you are sitting at a desk, walking, or using your earphones during a workout can all determine how suitable an IEM/CIEM is for you. For example, high amounts of cable noise (AKA microphonics) could make a great sounding headphone unusable during a run, or even a walk. Also, while working out with a balanced armature headphones may seem fine, if you sweat a lot, you are asking for trouble.
This is where you have to be honest with yourself about your decision. Some people spend more than they should on a pair of headphones, and if that is the case, you had better make the right choice, especially if you choose a CIEM. For others, an earphone may not be a very big expenditure, so getting something that is close to what is desired, or even taking a chance on something you aren’t sure will work is more acceptable. Also, it may be worth saving for something a bit more expensive to make sure you get what best suits you if you plan on sticking with your selection for a long time.
Making purchases based off location can be beneficial for support and warranty but may also yield a significantly lower number of possible models and you may end up with less than ideal results. Some people are constrained for various reasons, but being open to international shipping, if necessary, can help to get the best result from a product standpoint.
A factor not previously mentioned is looks. Many people buy based off looks, especially if the headphone will be used in public. Beats are popular not because of their sound quality (or lack thereof), but because the b on the side of the headphone is indicative of status. Let’s face it, some headphones and IEMs simply look better than others, but if you do limit your options based on aesthetics it may be necessary to give up some sound quality and value for money.
While looks have generally improved and some headphones and earphones do allow for customization, CIEMs still reign supreme when it comes to customized looks.
Not all CIEMs have the option for artwork, and if they do there is usually an additional price, but the appearance can be stunning. Still, many people consider sound to be the most important aspect of their “best” headphones, especially after they hear the difference a higher sound quality can make to the overall experience. You may have to make a decision between looks and sound, so think long term.
SOUND SIGNATURE DESCRIPTIONS
The descriptions below are meant to form a basis for describing sound signature characteristics, and two headphones described by the same characteristics will still have different sounds. For example, two bass-enhanced headphones will provide a different perception of the bass depending on how it is boosted and the rest of the frequency response. A heavy bass sound with treble roll-off will sound different than a heavy bass sound combined with enhanced treble. Deep bass enhancement will accentuate different instruments than mid-bass enhancement.
– Bass-enhanced: having a boost in the lower registers
– Bright: overall emphasis on the upper registers
– Warm: having an additional mid-bass boost
– Cold: notes with a fast attack and decay combined with low levels of mid-bass
– Rich: notes with a moderate to slower attack and/or decay combined with enhanced mid-bass
– Thick: notes with a slower decay resulting in more body and weight to notes that typically reduces clarity but adds to ease of listening
– Liquid: notes with an excellent balance between attack and decay, resulting in a smooth yet still refined and musical sound
– Spacious: a presentation that is capable of recreating music as if it is being played in a larger room
– Intimate: a presentation that restricts the overall size of the presentation
– Mid-forward: the midrange is pulled closer than the rest of the frequency spectrum, placing vocals closer to the listener
– Analytical: notes that have a short decay that accentuates the details and enables nuances to be heard easily
– Organic: notes that have proper PRaT with exceptional decay capability enabling recreation of accurate reverb and harmonics
– Coherent, frequency: how well the parts of the frequency spectrum are integrated
– Coherent, presentation: the placement, detail levels, and focus of each part of the presentation from front-to-back, side-to-side, and top-to-bottom
– Dynamics: note leading edge attack speed capability to recreate very dynamic sounds as well as the ability to recreate fine nuances in music at the appropriate volume level relative to the major elements
– 3D: presentation of the sound stage that is has proper proportions of height, depth, and width
Once you have a grasp of what you are looking for, we will be happy to help steer you in the right direction so you can find the “best” headphone for you, possibly saving you time and money in the long run. Remember, you will be the one living with a particular headphone, so if you don’t like the sound signature, it isn’t the best headphone for you and after the initial honeymoon phase, you may realize you don’t care much for it.
FINAL MESSAGE: QUICK ANECDOTE
I was once asked for a custom in-ear monitor recommendation. After some back and forth I got a line on the asker’s preferences and made a recommendation. So did many other people, however, and due to others making a strong recommendation for a particular product – an earphone that was popular and well-liked, but one I didn’t think fit what the person was looking for – the decision was made. Unfortunately, when this person received their CIEM they hated it. Upon asking those that recommended the particular model for advice, this person was told they would get used to it. They never did, however, and ended up trying to sell it at a huge loss. They stopped participating in audio forms and from our last communication seemed to be distraught due to the financial loss (which was all the resources this person had for the hobby). Moral of the story: get what you will enjoy and not what others prefer. If you don’t yet know what that is, buy cheaper stuff and figure out what you like, then ask for “upgrades” to stick to a similar signature.
* Most custom in-ear monitors companies do not allow product returns and will only reshell for the original owner, but will work with their customers to ensure they are happy. This could mean different things to different companies, such as switching to a different model or creating a new shell from scratch. Several companies reshell CIEMs made for other people and there are companies reshell their own product for the 2nd owners, improving resale value and confidence for the subsequent buyer.