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!
Custom 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 Silver ($250) – 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($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. Full review.
$300 TO $500
Perfect Seal Fusion 11($499) – While a full review hasn’t yet been done, the Fusion 11 is a hybrid that stands up to $1K plus CIEMs and deserves recognition. Typically, when I switch from a CIEM in the $1K+ price range to this price range, the quality difference stands out like a sore thumb, but with the Fusion 11, the tone and PRaT (Pace Rhythm and Timing) keep up and the only adjustments I need are for the lower capability. The Fusion 11 is V-shaped, but with the bass tuning ports, the bass can actually be quite neutral if desired. Also, the Fusion 11 is the world’s first hybrid in silicone, although it is also available in acrylic if desired. Highly recommended! [divider]Alclair 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
No recommendations at this time.
$750 TO $1000
Audio 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 [divider]Honorable 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 ($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 [divider]Lear LCM BD4.2 ($1300) – This 6-driver hybrid is the first custom hybrid I have seen that uses dual dynamic drivers, but that isn’t why it is listed here. The performance is excellent for those that want a spacious presentation along with detail, smoothness, and quality that shares some qualities with the Spiral Ear SE 5-way Reference (see below). This replaces the M-Fidelity SA-43, exceeding the previously recommended SA-43 in sound stage size, detail, clarity, and more. This gem is exceptional for those that want to imagine they are in a spacious concert hall; however the internal imaging isn’t quite to the level of more mid-forward offerings, which is a tradeoff. If you want to approach headphone sound, the 4.2 is going to get you as close as it currently gets. [divider]Hidition Viento-R ($1100) – The Viento-R performs somewhat in-line with the NT-6 and NT-6 Pro, but offers a smoother note that reduces the analytical edge for a sound that is much easier to listen to for extended periods of time. Sure, the Viento-R is still considered bright, but it has a bit more warmth and isn’t quite to the brightness of the other offerings. Performance also isn’t quite to the same level, but it is quite close and in general is exceptional. Center imaging is a true strength even though the open design gives the Viento-R an airiness and good sense of space. The Viento-R also has adjustable tuning to increase the bass level and midrange, and while the changes are small, they do give a slightly different feel that is easy to appreciate. Overall, the Viento-R combines the good of the other Hidition products with a more natural presentation.
$1500 & UP
Spiral Ear SE 5-way Ultimate ($1777) – The Ultimate builds on and bests the previously recommended SE 5-way Reference, with more refinement, better space, and a more realistic overall sound. It is like stepping up from 1080P to 4K; the difference is very apparent. The presentation is still powerful and organic with a rich and relatively neutral sound that recreates fine nuances within music with exceptional top-of-the-line 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. Spiral Ear now makes it easier to get their products internationally, so your excuse just flew out the window, along with a good chunk of change! For reference, here is the full review of the Reference. Imagine that, but better!
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
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.