Stage & Studio: Musician’s In-Ear Monitors Buyer’s Guide

SOUND SIGNATURES

While any sound tuning (signature) can work for stage use and mixing, there are two popular sound signatures that make it easier for musicians and engineers to make music: Stage Sound and Reference Sound. The below categories are loosely defined, and there will be variations between different options with the same listed sound signature.

  • Stage: Presented in a way that emphasizes the midrange frequencies, stage sound gives users an “on stage” feel. Notes are typically on the smoother side and bass is usually ample, yet not overblown, while treble is relaxed. These earphones perform their best at moderate to high volume levels.
  • Mid-Forward: Similar to the stage sound, but with more focus on vocals and less bass presence.
  • Reference: Designed to be neutral and revealing for engineers and mastering. Notes are typically well articulated but are on the sharper and brighter side. Bass is typically neutral, and the presentation is more laid-back, giving a sense of being further from the performance than with “Stage” sound.
  • V-Shaped: Sound with boosted bass and treble that can work for drummers and bass guitarists. Boosted high frequencies can be problematic at louder volumes depending on the mix.

RECOMMENDED IN-EAR MONITORS: MUSICIANS

Recommendation notes:

  • All recommendations use an over-the-ear design, which looks better on stage, keeps the cable out of the way, and stays in place better while moving around
  • Sound scores are based on the rating system from the Custom In-Ear Monitors Review List, with Apple Earpods scoring a 1.5 for comparison
  • The light blue color in the Isolation graphs shows the range of possible isolation, which changes with ear tips
  • For products available only outside the US, price is displayed in the native currency along with an approximate USD conversion
  • Additional costs may be associated with getting custom in-ear monitors and can include the cost of ear impressions, shipping, artwork, and other optional extras

Under $100

MEElectronics M6$20 from Amazon.com, $20 from ebay.com: While any in-ear earphones can be used on stage when budget is tight, the MEElectronics M6 provides an over-the-ear fit with memory wire, stage monitor look, and decent audio performance with enhanced bass at a very low price. This makes it a great starter stage monitor for drummers and bassists, as well as for click track-only use, though the somewhat sharp top-end can be problematic at loud volumes and the slightly recessed midrange limits the usability for vocalists and full-range instruments. While plenty of silicone ear tips are provided in the package, the best isolation is achieved when using foam ear tips such as the compatible Comply T200 eartips. Recommended for drummers and bassists.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Plastic Permanent Dynamic V-Shaped 1 5 10 1.5 5 10

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MEElectronics A151$43 from Amazon.com; $45 from ebay.com: One of the most reasonably-priced balanced armature (BA) monitors on the market, the A151 provides sound that is tight and accurate through the bass and midrange. The top-end is on the darker side, however, making it best suited for bass and baritone male vocals or those that want tight response for drums without enhanced bass. As with the M6, several sets of silicone eartips are included but isolation is best with compatible foam eartips, such as the T100 size from Comply. Recommended for male vocals, bassists, and guitarists.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Plastic Permanent BA Mid-forward 1 5 10 1 2 5 10

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Rock-It Sounds R-30$70 from rockitsounds.com: Another entry-level balanced armature earphone, the R-30 improves on the MEElectronics A151’s listening experience with a clearer sound, more robust bass, and larger soundstage. Its rolled-off treble results in fatigue-free playback but provides a somewhat dull listening experience compared to higher-end sets. The R-30 uses hardware and sound tuning similar to the much more expensive Westone W10 (formerly the Westone 1), though the W10 adds a detachable cable, more muted appearance, and more extensive accessory pack. The T100 foam tips from Comply fit the R-30. Recommended for male vocals, bassists, and guitarists.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Plastic Permanent BA Mid-forward 1 5 10 1 2.5 5 10

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Shure SE215$100 from Amazon.com: The sound of the SE215 is a step up from the entry-level Shure models of the past and the construction is well thought-out, making it a very competitive product at its point. The dynamic driver is articulate with plenty of bass and delivers clarity and detail resolution comparable to entry-level balanced armature monitors. While the SE215 provides a solid presentation, it isn’t as forward, detailed, clear, or precise as Shure’s higher-end offerings, such as the SE535. The SE215 comes with a more extensive accessory pack than the cheaper sets recommended above, including foam eartips.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Plastic Permanent Dynamic Stage 1 5 10 1 3 5 10

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$101 to $500

Westone UM Pro 30 (previously known as Westone UM3X)$400 from Amazon.com: Westone’s new UM Pro 30 adopts the sound tuning of the old UM3X model but utilizes a new, more comfortable housing and MMCX detachable cable. The sound is warm and mid-centric, with very robust bass and an intimate presentation. Treble is present, but not bright, presenting plenty of detail without fatigue. A comparable option for European customers is the EarSonics SM3 v2, which has a thicker sound, more focus on the midrange, making it better for vocals, and a more spacious presentation.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Plastic Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 4.5 5 10

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ProGuard FlexiMontiors – £262.80 (~$362 USD without VAT): The FlexiMontiors are about flexibility more than performance as the drivers can be interchanged with filters that reduce sound pressure levels. This can be ideal when there are stage monitors in use instead of an in-ear monitoring system and can be used to simply reduce the overall SPL when playing live or backstage/in the audience. While the FlexiMonitors can work for any instrument, they are best for vocalists, guitarists, and keyboardists.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Silicone Permanent BA Stage 1 5 10 1 3.5 5 10

Country of origin: United Kingdom

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EarSonics SM3 V2 – 346.15/$475: Mid-forward and mid-centric, the SM3 is a rare experience, providing a true stage feel with exceptional depth and ambiance. The overall sound is thick and somewhat dark, which may take some adjustment, but there is plenty of detail and ample bass. Version 2 adds a detachable cable and improves comfort and housing durability.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Plastic Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 10

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$501 to $1000

ProGuard P2+1£320 on Amazon.co.uk (~$500 USD without VAT via ProGuard website): The P2+1 was designed by musicians, for musicians, and has a true stage sound. While it may not be the best in overall performance for the price, the sound signature makes this an excellent tool with plenty of bass that isn’t overbearing, vocals that are just where you want them, and treble that takes well to louder volumes many musicians use.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 6.5 10

Country of origin: United Kingdom

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1964EARS V6-Stage – $699: Designed for “stage, studio and everyday music listening”, the sound of the 1964EARS V6-Stage falls just warm of neutral with accurate bass, mids that are clear but not thin, and crisp treble. The clarity and resolution of the V6-Stage are hard to fault, and the earphone succeeds in providing outstanding value for money. Excellent for vocals and full-range instruments.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Slight V-Shape 1 5 10 1 5 7.5 10

Country of origin: United States of America

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M-Fidelity SA-43 – NOK 5832 (~ $945 USD): The SA-43 is an interesting option for many reasons, including the presentation and adjustable sound signature. First, the presentation is more like that of a headphone, placing the listener in the audience more so than any other recommendation in this guide. Second, the sound signature can be changed with switches on the face plate, providing more “presence,” accentuating vocals and/or adjusting the bass from relatively neutral to more powerful by turning one of the bass drivers on or off. As an added bonus, the silicone-filled shell isolates very well.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic + silicone Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 8.5 10

Country of origin: Norway

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$1001 to $1500

EarSonics S-EM6$1,099: The S-EM6 is the universal fit version of the EM6 monitors. The sound signature is similar to that of EarSonics’ less expensive SM3 model, but smoother, more spacious, more full-bodied without the thickness, and more airy in the treble. Vocals are very sweet and at the center of the presentation, making it a great choice for vocalists, while the bass capability and overall dynamics will please any listener.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Acrylic Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 8.5 10

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ACS T1 Live! – $1199: ACS has been in the musician’s monitor business for a long time. The T1 Live! is their flagship product, and sounds like it. Relatively neutral, but with a sound signature designed for stage use, the T1 provides plenty of bass, excellent vocals, and relaxed but present treble. The silicone shells isolate well and are comfortable, plus they retain their seal even during movement and while singing. The detachable cable is proprietary and not easily user-replaceable. The Live! series also has built-in wide-band microphones for use with an ambient wireless pack for live feedback.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Silicone Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 8.5 10

Country of origin: United Kingdom; Available locally in multiple countries

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Cost no object

Fit-Ear PS-5 – $1650: The highest performing in-ear with a true stage monitor sound I have heard, the PS-5 makes music magical with high levels of detail, plenty of well-articulated bass, and extended but relaxed treble that never annoys but delivers the details you want to hear. Expensive, but worth it for the performing musician that wants the best on-stage in-ear.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 9.5 10

Country of origin: United States of America

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Spiral Ear SE 5-way Reference1069 (~ $1500): With exceptional performance that changes dramatically depending on the mix, the SE5 has a stage sound that could also be considered a warm reference. The silicone shell provides high isolation levels, a great fit, and extended comfort. Spiral Ear will only ship within the European Union and the SE-5 model won’t fit all ears due to the 5 sound tubes that must be routed through the canal portion, making it an elusive CIEM for many. The SE5 is great for both musicians and engineers.  The more expensive SE 5-way Ultimate ups the ante, with the same isolation but a sound quality rating that provides another instance of “these go to 11.”

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Silicone Detachable BA Stage/Reference 1 5 10 1 5 10

Country of origin: Poland

Logitech Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitors – $1999: The tuning of the PRM relies on you listening to a universal version with a tuning box prior to placing your order and adjusting the sound to your liking. The PRM shares many characteristics with Ultimate Ears’ In-Ear Reference Monitor, but can be tuned differently if you so desire. The issue with the PRM can be figuring out what sound you really want and will be happy with in the long term, as some people will have an easier time with only one or two choices vs. the wide range of tunings available for the PRM. I personally had to spend quite a bit of time figuring out my tuning.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Adjustable/Stage 1 5 10 1 5 9 10

Country of origin: United States of America

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RECOMMENDED IN-EAR MONITORS: MASTERING & ENGINEERS

Up to $500

Etymotic Research HF5$129 from Amazon.com: The HF5 is similar to the more expensive ER4S model and shares that same flat, accurate Etymotic sound, but is not quite as refined and doesn’t undergo the precise driver matching the higher-end model subjected to. The HF5 provides an excellent price/performance ratio for those that can do with a bit less accuracy and refinement vs. the ER4S.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Plastic Permanent BA Reference 1 5 10 1 3 5 10

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Etymotic ER4S$299 from Amazon.com: The ER4S is regarded as one of the most accurate in-ear monitors available, with a reference sound signature and high isolation courtesy of the deep in-ear fit. The single balanced armature does run out of steam in the lower end, reducing the effectiveness for drummers and bassists, and the brighter sound makes them better-suited for mastering than stage use.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Universal Plastic Detachable BA Reference 1 5 10 1 4 5 10

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Alclair Reference – $399: The Reference, as the name implies, has a reference sound with a warmer than typical tone while still providing plenty of detail. The presentation is ideal for mastering. The weakness, when compared with more expensive reference sound signatures, is the lower level of coherence across the soundstage. Still, for the price, the Reference doesn’t have an equal.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Reference 1 5 10 1 5 6.5 10

Country of origin: United States of America

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$501 to $1000

Logitech Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors – $999: While not designed specifically after any particular studio monitors, it is said the IERM sounds like the Yamaha NS10, but with a flatter bottom end that reaches further past 100 Hz. The sound is detailed and balanced, lacking coloration with a good coherence across the frequency spectrum and excellent imaging. Due to its revealing treble, any issues in that region will be highlighted and can be avoided. While the bass doesn’t have as much oomph as the Lear LCM-5 or Hidition NT-6, it still performs at a high level and is a true professional’s tool.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Reference 1 5 10 1 5 7 10

Country of origin: United States of America

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Lear LCM-5 – with cable, HKD 7776 (~ $1000): Clear, concise, and neutral defines the LCM-5, which has two levels of tuning. The standard tuning is a warmer, smoother version of the JBL LSR6328P near-field active studio monitors and is pleasant to listen while getting the job done. Without the cable, the sound is a bit smoother than the Logitech In-Ear Reference and not quite as laid-back, but adding the optional adapter cable changes the sound to become more analytical and improves the detail level. Using the adapter does come with a caveat, as the power required to drive the LCM-5 becomes much higher, dynamics are decreased, and the presentation is pushed forward. Still, the LCM-5 gives you the option, and is a good choice for those that want an instrument for work that can also double as a pleasing personal listening headphone.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Reference 1 5 10 1 5 7.5 10

Country of origin: Hong Kong

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$1001 and up

Hidition NT-6 – $1200: The NT-6 is a very detailed, clear, and well-articulated reference monitor with the most revealing sound I’ve heard. The sound is neutral and less warm than the other reference monitors, but technical capability and resolution are tops, enabling more detail and fine nuances to come forth from within tracks.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Reference 1 5 10 1 5 9.5 10

Country of origin: Korea

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ADDITIONAL IN-EARS OF INTEREST

This category is for in-ears that haven’t made it thought full testing as either the review is in process or there was only time for an audition. While we feel strongly about these products, a bit more caution should be taken in comparison with the recommended products.

Logitech Ultimate Ears UE4 – $399: Sometimes termed the “baby In-Ear Reference Monitors” in reference to the Ultimate Ears IERM model discussed above, the UE4 is neutral with very good midrange clarity and a much more affordable price, representing a great tradeoff between accuracy and capability vs. price. Sound score is based off listening to the universal demo version of the UE4. Excellent for mastering and engineers.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Reference 1 5 10 1 5 10

Country of origin: United States

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Perfect Seal PS6 – $635: New brand, but not a newcomer to CIEMs, the PS6 has a stage sound that is mid-forward, dynamic, and punchy, with excellent imaging, good soundstage size, and clarity that is better than typical for the price point. The upper midrange has a boost, which is what provides the up-close feel while preserving the overall space. Bass is quite enhanced, so be prepared for plenty of low-end impact, which is perfect for bass instruments. Vocals are unaffected by the bass performance. With Westone-like soft canals, the PS6 is comfortable for extended periods. While not fully reviewed yet, the combination of the PS6 performance so far combined with high price/performance levels of other models makes this a CIEM you should consider. Great for drummers, bassists, and vocalists.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 7.5 10

Country of origin: United States

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Minerva Mi-Performer Pro – £375 (~$640 USD): Silicone shelled custom in-ear monitors typically incorporate a price premium, and this one is no exception. The excellent isolation and good sound quality make the Mi-Performer Pro a good choice for those who don’t want to spend any more, but want the isolation and comfort of silicone. The sound signature is tuned for stage use with a bit more emphasis on the midrange, which makes the Performer Pro excellent for vocalists, guitarists, and keyboardists. More information can be found here.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Silicone Permanent BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 6.5 10

Country of origin: United Kingdom

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Lime Ears LE3B/LE3SW555 (~ $750): This triple-driver has visceral bass, a spacious midrange, and relaxed treble that make it great for stage use with the ability to convey power that is rare at this price point, and otherwise only achieved by hybrid BA+dynamic designs which don’t have the isolation of the LE3B. The LE3SW model adds a switch and another set of internal components, delivering a near-reference sound tuning in addition to the LE3B sound signature at the flip of a switch. This allows the same CIEM to be used for both stage and mastering/studio work. Full review coming soon.

Fit Shell Cable Drivers Sound Sig Isolation Sound Quality
Custom Acrylic Detachable BA Stage 1 5 10 1 5 7.5 10

Country of origin: Poland

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Additional products can be found in the Custom In-Ear Monitors Review List and In-Ear Monitor Review List

We want to hear your questions and comments! Let us know if you have specific requests for products you don’t see in the guide, or want a recommendation for an in-ear with a price point, feature set, or from a region that isn’t listed.

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ABOUT AUTHOR

average_joe

average_joe

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.

RELATED POSTS

February 3, 2019

8

60 Responses

  1. Hi Roger,

    Both UE and JH’s are good in their respective ways and have a very different sound signature compared with the Shure E5. You can’t go wrong with any of those choices, and if you are just going to use a monitor on stage, the 7pro should suffice; however the JH13, UE18 (both reviewed on THL), and JH16 will be a big step up for listening to music.

    If you do choose to go with the more expensive products, you will have a superior instrument that is more accurate. Based on what I know of the products (and not hearing the new models), the JH13 is most likely the most neutral of the options, which should serve you best.

    Hope that helps.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  2. AJ, I’ve determined to make the leap from wedges to CIEM. I’ve used Shure e5 in the past and was not that happy. I don’t want to just buy something I wont be happy with so I’m looking at the high end of the spectrum. I’m thinking of the UE 7pro or the UE18pro, alternatively I’ve read a bit about the Jerry Harvey’s – the 13v2 or 16v2.

    I play electric guitar but don’t sing. Do you have any thoughts about the UE’s or JH’s?

    Thanks!

  3. Hi Mark,

    MA750 would be pretty poor for stage for a guitarist/vocalist, it’s a v-shaped sound and the bass can be a little intrusive. The SE215 is not as good from a sound quality standpoint for general listening, but at least the overall sound signature is more balanced with a more prominent midrange.

    I’d recommend the Se215 or spring for the Audio Technica IM02.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  4. I’m a guitar player and back up vocalist. The band is just getting into in-ear monitoring, and so each band member is in the process of acquiring their respective IEM earphones.

    I’ve seen some tremendous reviews of the RHA MA750, including a nice write up of these earphones on this site. But In this particular “MUSICIANS-CENTRIC” section, I’ve seen no mention of these headphones. Are the MA750s not geared towards on-stage musicians?

    I’m leaning towards either Shure SE215s, or the MA750s, but I’d love to have any additional perspective shared with me.

    Thank you! I really appreciate the resource represented by this site! OUTSTANDING!

  5. Hi Jennifer, there are CIEMs with ambient ports or active ambient that allows you to hear the outside. An ambient port offers some attenuation, while active ambient allows you to adjust the attenuation of outside sounds to your liking.

    Can you use a mixer to mix their vocals in with your and play them back through an in-ear, as that is my recommended solution? That way you can easily adjust the levels of your and their vocals and get the full sound isolation.

    Another option is to use something like the ProGuard Custom Fleximonitors with a filter that will reduce the ambient noise. There are filters that have different response curves, and you could get one that attenuates sound, except in the vocal range, which may work for you.

    Cheers,
    Joe

  6. I am a co lead vocalist who wants to be able to hear the other vocalist and harmonize but I suffer about 50% hearing loss. I am looking for an in ear monitor to block out the loudness but still be able to hear the other vocalist to harmonize. Is there and in ear monitor made that will allow this? Thank you

  7. Most musician’s monitors have some over-the-ear component to help keep the earphones in place. You can find some that are fairly unobtrusive – I think Westone is one of the best examples. Something like the W20 or UM PRO 30 would fit the bill nicely.

    VSonic doesn’t have any fixed loop on their GR07 monitors but they’re a little less of a traditional monitor than the Westones.

  8. Replacing custom-fit Shure E-5. Need something comparable without that huge loop going over the ears!!

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