The best headphone

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Hidition NT-6 and NT-6 pro custom in-ear monitors

Custom In-Ear Monitors

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.

Audeze LCD-3

Audeze LCD-3

 

USAGE

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.

 

SITUATION

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.

 

AESTHETICS

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.

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About Author

Having a life-long love of high-quality audio and gadgets, average_joe got back in touch with his audiophile side after a hiatus caused by life. His focus became headphones and related gear as the size and price fit his life better than home audio. He believes the entire audio chain is important, and likes to continue to think past the headphone and on into the head, as he believes understanding the details of how we hear will lead to a better audio experience.

7 Comments

  1. Jan Motte on

    Hi Joe,
    Bumped into your article on best headphones looking for suitable a CIEM for a recently purchased Astelle& Kern AK 70. Thanks for the article, it was one of the most interesting I’ve found on the subject. Although already dated more than 3 years back, very relevant.
    I wondered if you could make a recommendation for headphones or CIEM for that AK70. Usage is mainly for travelling, so during flights and in airports. I currently use the on-ear Bose QC3 for the noise cancelling but sound quality as well as sound isolation seem to be better with certain CIEMs. High isolation is of major importance.
    The kind of music I listen to is very divers but consists mainly of EDM (Tiesto, DVLM, David Guetta, Martin Garix and the likes). From time to time I also play hard rock (AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Metallica), pop (Blondie, Bauhaus, Human League, ABBA, Dire Straits) and classical music (Wagner as well as Vivaldi).
    In case I need to give my preferred sound signature it would be Spacious, 3D, Coherent presentation, Warm, Liquid, Analytical. These are based on the descriptions in your article so not sure if this makes sense or if I’m just talking bollocks here. I don’t care about aesthetics and budget is not a real issue either.
    So for my diverse taste, what would you recommend?
    kind regards
    J

    • average_joe on

      Hi Jan,

      Glad to hear you found the article useful and sorry for the late reply. Based on your music preference, source, and simultaneously hitting all of your sound signature preferences I would recommend the following CIEMs:
      – Rooth LS8: Compared with the QC3, these may seem overly analytical at the beginning, but Rooth products have a liquidity to them that is special while still being very analytical, and the LS8 adds some nice warmth.
      – Earsonics EM32: Earsonics products are warm and rich, and the EM32 is one of the best Earsonics products I have heard, with a balance and performance that hits what you describe in your sound signature preference.
      – Fit Ear PS-5: The PS-5 is on the warmer side of the spectrum, but is extremely spacious and still retains detail that is typically absent given the warmth.
      – Hidition Viento-R: Sharing the most similarities to the Rooth product, the Hidition is more on the clinical side, but provides an analytical presentation that is in a category all its own while retaining warmth and avoiding fatigue.
      – Lear LCM BD4.2: Very capable, warm, spacious, liquid, and analytical, with the weakest point being the coherence compared with the other top CIEMs in this list.
      – Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate: Extremely capable and transparent, sounding warm when the track is warm, spacious when the track is spacious, etc., not adding much of it’s own color, which will present your music the way it was mastered.
      – Advanced AcousticWerkes AAW W500 AHMorph: Similar to the Lear, but more mid-centric and less spacious with better coherence. Both offer adjustable bass, which allows you to change the warmth, and it is a matter of preference.

      There are also lower cost options, and all can be found reviewed in at least one of these two places:
      Custom In-Ear Monitors Reviews List
      Fit for a Bat! – Flagship IEMs Shootout

      It is also worth mentioning that CIEMs have the potential to be problematic on an airplane during takeoff, at least for me. As the owner of many CIEMs, the I have varying levels of issues with listening while the plain is in ascent, and have to break the seal to relieve pressure. As I mentioned, this varies depending on the CIEM, as some may require 1 adjustment while others require multiple adjustments.

      Please let me know if you have any other questions.

      Cheers,
      Joe

      • Jan Motte on

        Many thanks Joe,
        This is realy very valuable feedback. I owe you :-). For now my pref goes to the Spiral ear SE 5 Way ultimate but that is also the mos expensive one :-(.
        The other option which looks interesting is the Earsonics EM32 just below the 1000€ mark. And since they are French, they are a little bit closer for me than the Polish option.
        I was surprised not see any Jerry Harvey. How would you rate those?
        Thanks also for the remark on CIEM and takeoff. That makes perfect sence seen changes in airpressure will occur in the cabine.
        Thanks again Joe.
        Kind regards
        Jan

  2. average_joe on

    Hi Zenga, thanks for reading. First, let me say that a small portion of the population has occlusion occur when wearing earphones, especially customized earphones. If you don’t think it will be a problem for you, that is great, but I wanted you to be aware.

    There are several excellent choices that are dependent upon your budget. If you want the widest soundstage possible, the Lear BD4.2 will give you that, but the vocals will be a bit laid-back, which I don’t think you will like. The AAW AHMorph W500 is just about as good, but with more of a focus on the vocals. But, my ultimate recommendation is the SE5 Ultimate, as it offers the best of both worlds. If you tracks are spacious, the SE5U will present them that way, and if they are intimate, it will accurately recreate that space as well. Also, the soft silicone is good for keeping the seal during movement.

    Please let me know if you have any other questions.

    Cheers,

    Joe

  3. average_joe on

    Thank you for reading and very happy to help. Please don’t hesitate to let us know if you have any questions.

    • Zenga Butler on

      Hello Joe (? )
      I am a person who is a walker and who is an audiophile .I mainly listen to Hi res Classical /opera music as well as adalogue Vinyl .I am thinking about buying a pair of CIEM to also perhaps be used to listen to my computer files as well as my Hi rez portable player (FIFO5X). I love a big soundstage and am a person who also loves the voice ….male and female .
      I suppose i am looking for something that is not fatiguing with the best possible widest soundstage .
      What do you recommend please ?
      Zenga

  4. 6sigma on

    This >>> “Having a life-long love of high-quality audio and gadgets, average_joe got back in touch with his audiophile side after a hiatus caused by life. His focus became headphones and related gear as the size and price fit his life better than home audio. He believes the entire audio chain is important, and likes to continue to think past the headphone and on into the head, as he believes understanding the details of how we hear will lead to a better audio experience.”

    Outstanding. While I’ve long loved 2-channel home audio, some device with a good pair of neutral-sounding (flat) headphones is my future. Thanks for your work here.

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