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 350 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 through either US-based or global retailers. In addition to sound quality, we considered factors such as construction quality, comfort, and convenience, holding pricier models to a higher standard.
We grouped this guide into 4 basic sound signature types: basshead, warm and smooth, V-shaped, and balanced, plus one miscellaneous group. Keep in mind, however, that even earphones within the same grouping can differ significantly in overall performance. The goal here is not to find the one sound profile that’s universally praised, but to be able to better understand your own sound signature preferences so you can find the best sound for you.
In addition to considering your preferred sound tuning and any other desired functionality such as high noise isolation or an inline microphone for headset use, keep in mind the audio source you plan to use. For instance, some smartphones and computers may not pair well with sensitive or difficult-to-drive earphones. If you have to choose between upgrading your source and headphones, going for the headphones will maximize your sound quality gain per dollar, but keep in mind that higher-end sets will need a decent source to shine.
Lastly, don’t forget the importance of a good fit with your earphones. Most in-ears were designed to maintain a tight seal with the ear canal at all times, and their sound quality will suffer tremendously with a poor fit. Check out our earphone fit guide for info on wearing your in-ear headphones correctly.
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Last major overhaul: 04/22/2016: 6 outdated recommendations removed, 9 new ones added[divider]
Earphones for fans of heavy bass who value 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 and maintain decent clarity. In addition to the boosted bass, some of these sets emphasize treble for a v-shaped sound.
JVC HA-FX101 ($20) – 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
Popclik String ($10 – $25) – For a brand focused on the Latin America headphone market where decent, inexpensive headphones are not too common, Popclik IEMs aim surprisingly high in both performance and design. Even the entry-level String model comes in rather expensive-looking packaging and offers strong performance, nice ergonomics, and integrated headset functionality. Elevated bass and treble provide a lively, energetic sound, and as an overall package there is way more here than I typically expect to see at this price.
NarMoo S1 ($32 – $35) – The S1 is a dual dynamic driver earphone with separate 10- and 6mm dynamic drivers in each earpiece, with the 10mm acting as a subwoofer to deliver powerful bass. The overall sound signature is smooth and full-bodied, avoiding the heavily recessed midrange and rolled-off treble many entry-level bass-heavy earphones suffer from. The earpieces are on the large side, but solidly built and comfortable except in small ears. Read full review
HiSoundAudio Wooduo 2 ($60 – $100) – 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
Beats Tour 2.0 ($100 – $150) – 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, either, and while the Tour 2.0 isn’t tops in sound quality per dollar, less pricy competitors also have trouble matching its comfort and features. Read full review on InnerFidelity.com
Warm and smooth
These earphones are characterized by moderately enhanced bass and level or laid-back treble. Emphasis specifically on the mid-bass region often results in rich, full-bodied sound.
Dunu Trident ($25 – $35) – 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 other options in this category 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 ($25 – $80) – 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
Retired: Xiaomi Piston 2
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, strong mids, and relaxed treble. The dynamic microdriver also delivers impressive clarity and detail. It may not be a sonic upgrade to the less expensive Sony MH1C, but with durability and other considerations factored in, the SE215 still comes out on top. An optional mic+remote cable is also available. Read full review
RHA MA750 / MA750i ($120) – Scottish audio manufacturer RHA scores yet another hit with the MA750, which combines 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 lower treble for a somewhat v-shaped sound, but otherwise is just as competent. Construction quality is extremely impressive, too, 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 ($90 – $150) – 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, providing a lively sonic experience reminiscent of the “Rock” equalizer setting. Due to the way the human loudness contour works, at lower volumes a mild v-shape can actually present a fairly balanced listening experience.
Philips SHE3580 / SHE3590 ($9 – $15) – These bargain-bin miracles may look like 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 ($35 – $45) – Though not quite as clear and resolving as the Philips SHE3580 or Piston 3, 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
JVC HA-FXT90 ($75 – $100) – 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
Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear ($85 – $100) – The Momentum In-Ear follows in the footsteps of the on- and over-ear Momentum headphones with its stylsh design, comfortable, lightweight construction, and impressive audio performance. Its sound is v-shaped and slightly warm thanks to a generous amount of bass enhancement. The midrange is mildly recessed while the top end carries a high level of energy for a textbook V-shaped sound signature. The Momentum in-ear is available in both iOS and Android versions with full-featured 3-button remotes. Read full review
1MORE Triple-Driver In-Ear Headphones ($100) – The flagship in-ear headphones from 1MORE are an excellent value, starting with a hybrid triple-driver setup that’s virtually unheard of in this price range. The punchy, mildly v-shaped sound signature is a compromise between “audiophile” and “consumer”, which is not a bad thing in itself and makes the 1MORE an easy recommendation for many listeners. In addition, the inline remote is universally compatible with both Android and iOS devices.
DUNU DN-1000 ($160 – $210) – The DN-1000 is a hybrid earphone – that is, it combines a dynamic driver acting as a subwoofer with a dual balanced armature setup handling the mids and highs. It has superb bass – deep and hard-hitting, with almost no bloat – as well as very good 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 $200 IEMs. Read full review
DUNU DN-2000 ($260 – $315) – On top of their similar aesthetics and construction, the DN-1000 and DN-2000 are both triple-driver “hybrid” earphones with V-shaped sound tuning. Sonically, the pricier DN-2000 is not a direct upgrade over the DN-1000, but rather a slightly more balanced and refined alternative 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 in my listening, 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. Read full review
Emphasizing no particular area of the frequency spectrum, balanced headphones provide the most clear and accurate sound and can range from slightly warm to slightly bright in tone. Balanced sets can also be mildly 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 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 ($35 – $45) – Of the many budget earphones offered by Hong Kong-based Brainwavz, the original M1 still stands out many years after its release 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. 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
HiFiMan RE-400 ($60 – $80) – 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 and good noise isolation, the RE-400 is difficult to fault on any front. Versions with microphone and remote for iOS and Android are also available. Read full review
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 design 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 while 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.
Philips Fidelio S2 ($100 – $135) – Philips’ new flagship earphones are well-built, well-accessorized, and reasonably priced. Offering a flat and level signature with a mild bump across the bass range, the S2 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
Etymotic Research HF5 ($120) – Etymotic Research invented the universal-fit in-ear headphone back in the 80s, and the company still manufactures some of the most accurate-sounding 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 and detailed 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
Audio-Technica ATH-IM02 ($170 – $200) – The Audio-Technica IM02 is priced closer to the single-driver in-ear monitor offerings from Shure and Westone but utilizes a dual-driver setup with performance to match, making it a no-brainer for musicians. It also benefits from a sturdy construction, secure fit, good noise isolation, and detachable, user-replaceable cables, as well as neutral – if just a hair smoothed-out – sound. Audiophiles and other critical listeners will appreciate the clarity and accuracy the IM02 delivers without being overly treble-heavy and harsh. Read full review on InnerFidelity
Retired: Fischer Audio DBA-02 mkII, Aurisonics Rockets[divider]
A catch-all for earphones that don’t strictly fit into the other categories or offer variable sound tuning.
Ostry KC06 ($45 – $65) – The KC06 is a bright, mid-forward earphone that boasts slightly enhanced bass with some sub-bass roll-off, superb clarity, sparkly treble, and a soundstage that’s wide and airy for an in-ear earphone. Next to higher-end sets it lacks some bass extension, soundstage depth, and imaging ability, but for the price it is very hard to fault. The shallow fit is comfortable in the ear, too. 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. Read full review
DUNU Titan 1 ($90 – $110) – The Titan 1 is the next logical step up from the KC06. It is similar to the Ostry unit in many ways – both are shallow-fit, metal earphones; both are worn cable-down and both have only moderate noise isolation; both are comfortable, especially for those who don’t like deep in-ear fit of conventional IEMs. The sound of the Titan 1 maintains the strengths of the Ostry with fewer caveats – the forward upper midrange and wide, airy presentation are retained while clarity, detail resolution, bass depth, and overall balance are all improved. The DUNU unit is also sturdier, and the $120 price tag makes it the IEM to beat for this sort of sound. Read full Review
FLC Technology FLC8 ($320 – $360) – The main draw of the triple-driver FLC8 is the flexible 36-setting sound tuning system. Not all of the possible settings are brilliant and swapping out the ports is an exercise in patience and finesse even with the included tweezers and spare parts, but it’s pretty easy to alter the sound once you get the hang of it. Those who get tired of listening to the same sound signature, have eclectic music tastes, or aren’t yet sure of exactly what sort of sound they want are certain to find extra value here, but it’s not just the tuning system that makes this earphone special – even if limited to the default tuning, the FLC8 is a superb-sounding triple-driver earphone that also happens to be the lightest and most comfortable in its class. Fead full review
That concludes an overview of over 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 major overhaul: 12/08/2016: 5 outdated recommendations removed, 2 new ones added