For one of the best listening experiences, you should really think about diving into the world of high-quality hi-fi in-ear headphones. Professional musicians and audio engineers have been using these kinds of in-ear monitors (IEMs) for decades, because of their superior noise isolation and sound quality.
Audiophiles have also gotten into the mix now that IEM manufacturers have perfected the art of miniaturizing high-end drivers; consumers can now purchase custom IEMs with as many as 12 drivers at a significant price. The vast majority of universal or custom IEMs feature separate drivers for the treble, midrange and bass frequencies, too – and they’re still small enough to fit in your ears. For those with deeper pockets, planar magnetic and electrostatic driver technology are now a reality in the IEM category.
If you’re ready to dive into premium aural luxury, we’ve rounded up our favorite hi-fi in-ear headphones. Don’t want to spend several hundred dollars or even a grand? Now you don’t have to.
1More Triple-Driver IEM
1More has developed a global following for its high-performance and affordable line-up of IEMs; the entry-level Triple-Driver ($80) offers a rare combination of reference-level sound quality, build quality and one of the best smartphone in-line microphone solutions. Featuring two balanced armatures and a separate dynamic driver, the Triple-Driver IEMs offer a very neutral sounding and spacious presentation that makes them very easy to listen to for hours; on a treadmill, commuter train, or at your desk working. The sandblasted and lightweight aluminum alloy earpieces fit comfortably in your ear canal. If you are concerned about the headphone cable snagging on an item of clothing or piece of furniture, 1More has you covered with a very robust cable made from enabled copper wrapped around Kevlar fibers. These are one of the best-sounding budget IEMs we’ve heard – and they’re built to last, too.
If you love the Sennheiser sound – smooth detailed highs, tight articulate sounding bass, and a very clean sounding midrange – the IE80S ($350) should be considered a bargain at their asking price. Featuring compact drivers with neodymium magnets, an adjustable tuning control on each earphone that allows you to modify the bass response, and attenuation of external ambient noise (up to 26dB), the IE80S are ideal for road warriors who need something robust and tunable. The IE80S are smartphone-friendly do not require an external DAC/headphone amplifier to impress out of the box.
The AKG N40 ($399) offer a number of features that make them unique in the affordable high-performance IEM category; a detachable cable, three sets of replaceable sound filters which allow you to modulate the treble, midrange and bass depending on the type of music you prefer; and innovative over-ear hooks that are not only comfortable but external vibration absorbers (useful for runners or commuters on trains) that minimize the impact of vibration on the IEM itself. The plastic earpieces are not quite as robust as those built from aluminum alloy, but the lightweight design makes them very comfortable for extended listening sessions. The N40 is one of the most transparent-sounding IEMs on the market – but to hear them at their best, we recommend using something like the AudioQuest Cobalt USB DAC/headphone amplifier.
Audeze helped usher in the era of planar magnetic audiophile headphones with their award-winning LCD-series; the brand new LCD-i3 replace the iSINE20 IEMs ($449) with a number of performance enhancements which have trickled down from the flagship LCD-i4 ($2,495). Audeze has redesigned the ear hooks which now curve inward along the back of the ear making them more compatible with different shapes and sizes. The LCD-i3 offer Audeze’s trademark resolution and layers of detail for those who need to hear everything on their favorite recordings. Connectivity options have also been expanded to include cables for smartphones with 3.5mm headphone jacks, iPhone connectivity via Audeze’s Cipher Lightning cable which includes a DAC/headphone amplifier, and a wireless around-neck Cipher Bluetooth module for Android which supports aptX and aptX HD codecs.
Shure KSE 1200
Electrostatic transducers are all about transparency; that see-through level of sound quality that really makes it sound like the actual musicians are in the room with you. Where the technology loses some of its magic is in the bass – electrostatic panels need to be physically large in order to reproduce the lower octaves. Electrostatic headphones and loudspeakers also require a power source, in addition to a power amplifier. Shure has done something very unique with the KSE 1200 ($1,999); they have created a full-range electrostatic IEM that is powered by a portable power source/headphone amplifier that can fit inside your jacket. If you crave layers of detail, transparency, and the level of speed that only an electrostatic driver can reproduce, the KSE 1200 will be your sonic nirvana – but only if you drive them with sources of equal quality – you’ll be let down if you plug them into your iPhone, for example. Quality in. Quality out.