This guide is organized into two main parts, providing several recommendations for the best offerings in each section.
Part I: By Purpose
- Stocking stuffers
- Good comfort/fit for small ears
- Highest noise isolation
- Best durability
- Most suitable for gym/workout use
Part II: By Sound
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Wallet-friendly options that deliver big sound.
Xiaomi is a force to be reckoned with in the budget Hi-Fi space, and the latest evolution of the venerable Piston line delivers outstanding sound quality and much-improved ergonomics. While not a direct upgrade to the warmer, bassier 2nd-gen Piston, the Piston 3 provides a clearer, tighter, more balanced audio experience for those willing to trade off some of that bass. Value for money is still unbelievably good, and like all Xiaomi earphones the Piston 3 features a 3-button Android remote.
Another option: Xiaomi Piston 3 Youth Edition – the Youth Edition shaves a few bucks off the regular Piston 3’s price tag, but also loses the premium materials and build quality. Still, its $10 price makes it a great option for those who care more about sound than appearance and don’t expect budget earbuds to last a lifetime.
Current price: $9 from GearBest.com
Philips SHE3580 / SHE3590 ($8 – $15)
Another option: Popclik String – The String offers performance similar to the SHE3580 but with much fancier, more gift-worthy packaging and a built-in mic/remote for not much more cash.
Comfort/fit for small ears
For some listeners, getting a good fit can be the most challenging aspect of using in-ear earphones. Happily, there are several earphones on the market well-suited for small ears.
One of Fidue’s most wallet-friendly earphones, the A31s offers a well-executed consumer sound signature – bassy, warm, smooth, and very non-fatiguing, albeit lacking somewhat in clarity and treble energy. Its largest asset, however, is its small size, which with the right eartips makes it one of the most comfortable IEMs available at any price. Together with the headset functionality, decent noise isolation, and one of my favorite IEM carrying cases, this makes it an excellent value.
For even better comfort, add a pair of Shure EABKF1 “Olive” foam eartips.
Another option: HiFiMan RE300h – The RE300h uses tiny, low-profile housings designed for a shallow seal which, while more restrictive in very small ears, may be more comfortable than the Fidue A31s for those who don’t like the feel of in-ear monitors. The RE300h also provides sound tuning that is more balanced, albeit still dominated by the bass and lower midrange.
In the real world, noise isolation can easily be as important as absolute sound quality as too much outside noise can very quickly ruin a great on-the-go listening session. These highly-isolating IEMs are ideal for noisy locations such as planes, trains, and subways.
This is a simple one – there’s nothing that isolates like an Etymotic, from the entry-level, volume-limited ETY-Kids to the flagship ER4. Etymotic earphones are also well-built and always provide sound that is as clear, accurate, and neutral as anything else on the market, though for some listeners perhaps lacking in desired bass presence. The balanced-armature HF5 and ER4 models are especially capable, delivering resolution on-par with many custom-fit in-ear monitors. Most Etymotic models also have headset versions available.
Another option: Aurisonics Rockets – The ultra-compact Rockets utilize a sealed design and thick eartips to provide bonkers noise isolation. They lack the extremely deep fit of the Etymotic models, but the smooth sound and superb build quality will make up for the slight sacrifice in noise reduction for many listeners.
Earphones are by their nature fragile things – two small earpieces and a plug connected by four feet of thin cable with tons of potential failure points. These sets tend be overbuilt to the point that premature failure is a smaller concern.
The MA750 monitors from UK-based RHA are most notable for their warm and lush sound, spacious presentation, and good bass presence. However, construction quality is also extremely impressive, with stainless steel housings and thick cabling providing a solid, durable build. Despite the somewhat unusual shape, the earphones should also be comfortable for most listeners thanks to the over-the-ear fit and molded earhooks. The MA750i model adds a mic and 3-button Apple remote.
RHA T20/T20i ($240 – $250)
Aurisonics Rockets ($250)
While nearly all in-ears can be used while working out, my criteria for good purpose-made gym buds are sweat resistance and a very secure fit.
The MEElectronics M6 has been around in one form or another since 2009, and it’s still a great all-purpose sports earphone, kept secure in the ear by a combination of an over-the-ear form factor and flexible memory wire. Once fitted correctly, it provides a comfortable, stable fit and robust sound with good bass punch and crisp treble. It’s not the most refined-sounding set, but it’s definitely the best purpose-made sports earphone I’ve heard in this price range. A headset version with microphone and remote, the M6P, is also available.
Audio-Technica SonicFuel ATH-CKX5 / CKX5iS ($25 – $40)
For the bass lover
Earphones for fans of heavy bass, offering tremendous impact, depth, and power while maintaining good overall sound quality.
These Kickstarted IEMs from UK-based Pump Audio have the wow factor many listeners crave, with gobs of bass and just enough clarity and treble sparkle to stop them from sounding bloated. It’s not a unique tuning by any means, but the Pump gets the proportions of all the elements right for many listeners. This is what the first-gen Beats Tour in-ear should have been, and what JVC’s enhanced-bass XX series should have evolved into. The construction of the earphones is pretty generic and the packaging of the first generation is cheap-feeling, but the recent release of an updated version with improved accessories has made it a more well-rounded package for gifting and an easy recommendation for fans of big bass.
The latest revision of the Beats Tour in-ears has impressed me with its smoother, more refined sound, improved fit, and more understated design compared to its predecessor. The bass is not as overwhelming as you may expect and the overall balance is quite good for an enhanced-bass earphone. While you can get comparable audio quality for less, for instance with the Pump Audio Earphones, competitors have trouble matching the Tours’ feature set, which includes a 3-button Apple remote and some additional fittings for a more secure fit. Plus, the Beats brand still adds value to a gift item.
Sony XBA-Z5 ($500 – $700)
For warm and smooth sound
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.
Yamaha’s previous-gen flaghsip in-ear 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 class.
EarSonics Velvet ($600 – $900)
A good earphone for vocals is characterized by strong midrange and upper midrange presence, bass that is not bloated but also not anemic, and an airy and spacious presentation.
Ostry KC06 ($50 – $70)
The KC06 has slightly enhanced bass with some sub-bass roll-off, forward and very clear mids, sparkly treble, and a soundstage that’s wide and airy for an in-ear earphone. Next to higher-end sets, the KC06 lacks some bass depth and imaging ability, but for the price it is a superb performer. The shallow-fit form factor with off-center strain reliefs is also comfortable in the ear, though it provides only moderate noise isolation. One caveat is the high sensitivity, which means hiss can be audible and low volumes can be hard to dial in with sources not designed for sensitive IEMs.
Dunu Titan 1 ($ 114)
For v-shaped sound
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.
Though based in Florida, Popclik was until recently focused largely on the Latin America market, which does not enjoy the variety of IEM options we have in the US. That may seem like a great excuse for mediocrity, but the performance and design of the Popclik IEMs are anything but. Even the entry-level String model comes in rather expensive-looking packaging and offers strong performance, nice ergonomics, and integrated headset functionality. It follows a consumer-friendly “v-shaped” sound signature, with elevated bass and treble providing lively, energetic sound. As an overall package, it is more than I typically expect to see at this price.
The AD01 is the first earphone from Singapore-based headphone shop Lend Me UR ears’ new house brand, Alpha & Delta. It is a dual dynamic driver design with an interesting sound tuning – a mild v-shape with a bass bias that delivers good impact and a warmer tone. As a result, it falls somewhere between V-shaped and warm-and-smooth on my sound-o-meter. This is a pretty versatile signature that makes the AD01 a strong alternative – and potential upgrade – to many of my favorite sub-$100 earphones. Additional perks include replaceable cables and a nice accessory kit.
DUNU DN-2000 ($259 – $315)
The DUNU DN-2000 and the less expensie DN-1000 are both triple-driver “hybrid” earphones with V-shaped sound tuning and similar aesthetics and construction. The sound of the pricier DN-2000 is a slightly more balanced and refined affair with a bit less bass, a more spacious and airy soundstage, less recessed mids contributing to better vocal clarity, and treble that is a touch smoother. All in all, I consistently preferred the DN-2000, but the differences are subtle enough that some users– hip-hop and EDM listeners, for example – may not see much benefit from the pricier DN-2000 or even find the bassier, slightly more v-shaped DN-1000 preferable. Either one is a great buy as far as I am concerned.
For balanced sound
Emphasizing no particular area of the frequency spectrum, these earphones typically provide the most clear and accurate audio performance.
HiFiMan RE-400 ($59 – $79)
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 balanced, slightly mid-focused sound with a hint of warmth. With its comfortable form factor and good noise isolation, the RE-400 is difficult to fault on any front other than average long-term durability. Then again, in many cases one can buy two RE-400s for the price of another set with comparable performance.
Another option: Brainwavz R3 – The R3 makes for an excellent alternative to the RE-400 with a similarly smooth, balanced, slightly warm sound and good dynamics. The R3 has a hair more emphasis on the bottom end and better build quality but trades off a larger, bulkier, less comfortable form factor and slightly less overall resolution and refinement compared to the RE-400.
VSonic GR07 Classic ($99)
VSonic’s dynamic-driver flagship has been popular on the portable Hi-Fi scene for 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. The latest “Classic” version is available in 3 colors and priced at $99, a killer value for an earphone with such superb performance.
It is unfortunate that the current generation of balanced armature Audio-Technica earphones is not commonly available in the US, because the sound of the dual-driver ATH-IM02 can go toe to toe with pricier monitors such as the Westone W20 and Ultimate Ears UE900. Fortunately, Japanese imports abound, so the ATH-IM02 can still appear on holiday shopping lists for music lovers everywhere.
The IM02 has a “stage monitor” look and feel with sturdy construction, a secure and comfortable around-the-ear fit, and neutral – if just a hair smoothed-out – sound. The cables are detachable and user-replaceable, and while the sound is not for fans of enhanced bass, critical listeners will appreciate the clarity and accuracy the IM02 delivers without being overly treble-heavy and harsh.
Etymotic Research ER4 ($239)
The ER4P-T version features low and high impedance modes while the ER4S is fixed at a higher impedance.
For flexible sound tuning
FLC Technology FLC8 ($320 – $350)
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