Everyone loves big, over-the-ears headphones, but there are many times and many places where it's just not practical to use full-sized headphones, such as when riding your bike, traveling, or merely going about daily tasks. If portability and weight are important, then earphones or "in-ear monitors" may be a better option. And just like with full-sized on-ear or over-ear headphones a number of considerations will factor into determining the best earphone for you, including isolation, fit, overall sound signature, and price.
A Wide Range of Options
Earphones come in a wide range of prices, designs, and fit choices. I have auditioned in-ear monitors that have a single driver, no removable cable, only a few tip options, and a sticker price under $10. Conversely, I've reviewed in-ear monitors with more than twelve drivers, removable cables, and a custom fit that will run you well over $2,000.
Believe it or not, depending on the situation, sometimes I would opt for the cheap ones.
What's Inside an Earphone?
The vast majority of in-ear monitors use one of two driver technologies: dynamic drivers, which are like miniature conventional speaker drivers and balanced armature drivers. Balanced armatures are made up of a metallic reed inside a magnetic yoke that keeps the reed between its two poles and uses a magnetic field to move the reed and create sound. Balanced drivers are in sealed enclosures with a tube or horn that amplifies and contours the sound from the BA driver itself.
While there are some balanced armature and dynamic driver in-ear monitors that use a single, wide-range transducer, many in-ear monitors use more than one driver. Some even combine balanced armature drivers with dynamic drivers in a hybrid system.
This is a good place to mention that most in-ear monitor manufacturers do not make their own drivers, but instead source them from companies like Knowles, the largest OEM manufacturer of balanced armature drivers. There are also several main sources for dynamic drivers. Westone is one of the few manufacturers who make most of their drivers in-house.
What makes an in-ear in-expensive or extremely expensive depends on a manufacturer's choice of design, materials, construction, and accessories included. Some in-ear designs require extremely time-intensive and labor intensive construction methodologies, as well as highly skilled people to design, build, and check for quality. Others are made by the thousands with little human involvement and loose quality controls. Guess which will always cost more?
How Do They Fit?
The most important feature of any earphone, regardless of price, design, or manufacturer, is how they fit you. If an earphone does not feel comfortable, it doesn't matter what it may sound like since you probably won't keep it in year ears for very long.
In-ear monitors come in several main fit types. The first is usually called an "earbud." This design sits in the bottom cavity of your ear, your auricle, where it rests with the cabling hanging straight down. The wired earphones that used to be supplied with iPhones were an earbud design. They are usually comfortable, but allow a great deal of outside sound to get in. Also, since they do not make a sealed fit, which is referred to as an occluded fit, their bass is either not so good, or conversely hyped up to compensate for the lack of a seal.
The second type of in-ear design is what is called a "universal" fit, which uses variously-sized tips and different tip materials to make a good seal in your ear canal. Tips can be made of foam or silicone and can vary in size from big foam pillows that you squish and they expand to fill all the spaces to tiny silicone tips designed to sit deep in your ear canal. Etymotic earphones are known for their deep-insertion fit.
Finally, there are custom in-ear headphones. These require a trip to an audiologist to have impressions of your ears made. This process usually costs between $50 and $100, depending on your location, and generally isn't included in the cost of the in-ear monitors themselves. Impressions can be made using a gel that is injected and then firms up in your ears, or by a laser mapping method. The impressions are then sent to a custom in-ear manufacturer, who uses them to create what should be a perfect fit. Sometimes a second fitting with some slight alterations is needed to obtain that perfect fit; it depends on how deeply the in-ears extend into your ear canals. Some custom in ears have very little extension into the canal, while others can go in almost as far as the deep-insertion Etymotics.
The final word on fit is that unless you achieve a good fit you will never know what an earphone is supposed to sound like, since the "target" curve for all earphones is based upon a solid seal. Without a good fit, the optimum performance of an earphone will be lost.
All headphones, regardless of type, need a way to connect to a music source. While wireless earphones can connect via Bluetooth, wired in-ears require a cable to make the connection. Many less-expensive earphones use a permanently attached cable, which reduces their cost, but makes it so if the cable is damaged the earphones will no longer function. But even some inexpensive earphones have removable cables, which results in greater potential longevity since the cable, if broken, can be easily replaced.
Nowadays, with Bluetooth streaming replacing hard-wired cable connections on many new smart devices, having a removable cable allows for the possibility of replacing the standard wired cable with a Bluetooth-enabled one. Westone has Bluetooth cables that work with any of their W-series earphones for $99 to $149.
How Do In-Ears Sound?
Generalizing about how earphones sound in general is a fool's errand. The tonal balance or sonic signature of in-ears varies from "bass monsters" with multiple low-bass drivers to neutral or natural sounding monitors whose goal is to be as even, flat, and balanced as possible. And there is everything in-between. Some earphones emphasize the midrange, and for some people this adds some definition and clarity that they prefer. For many pop music fans, having a pronounced but well-defined bass is vitally important, but some earphones that claim great big, bodacious bass can have too much poorly defined bass energy. A few in-ears I've used had so much bass that they had a built-in vent to reduce the pressure build-up inside your ear canals!
A Word About Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors
If you're looking to make the step up to custom in-ears for the truly one-of-a-kind fit and individual cosmetics that such offerings make possible, your best bet is to purchase directly from a manufacturer. Ordering directly insures a more well-connected purchasing experience. Empire Ears, Earsonics, Westone, Ultimate Ears, Jerry Harvey, Campfire Audio, 64 Audio, and others offer excellent customer support and can deliver a fit that will surpass even the most comfortable universal-fit in-ear monitor.
The one downside to going this route is that, generally speaking, you can't try before you buy, except at events like CANJAM, where manufacturers often bring universal versions of their custom in-ears so you can try them out, since custom IEMs made for one person won't fit another. Our ears, after all, are as unique as our fingerprints. That's one of the reasons we're only giving universal-fit recommendations in this guide. But if you're ready to make such an investment, custom IEMs can deliver a personalized audio experience like no other.
A Warning About Earphones and Hearing Loss
There is such a thing as "too loud" when it comes to headphones. It's entirely possible to damage your hearing if you listen to earphones at too high a level for too long. Ideally, you should take a break from headphone listening every 30 to 45 minutes to give your ears a rest and make sure the volume level hasn't drifted from "satisfying" to "deafening."
This is another reason that getting a good fit with a pair of earphones is essential. If the sounds of the outside world are leaking in, chances are good that you'll turn up the volume of your music to compensate. Here's the critical factoid: if you listen for over 45 minutes at one sitting at over 85 dB average levels, you can develop hearing loss.
For Shoppers on a Tight Budget: KZ ZST hybrid in-ears
For under $20, these KZ in-ears are better than what you usually see in this price range. Far better. First off, they have more than one driver. They're a hybrid design with a balanced armature for high and mid frequencies and a dynamic driver to add low end punch. Couple that with the removable, replaceable cable, which is not usually found on earphones priced this low--and your choice between a colorful translucent shell or one than mimics a carbon fiber--and you have a very attractive earphone option that anyone can afford. They're so inexpensive, you might want to buy two pairs...
A Beautifully Built Step-Up Solution: 1MORE Triple Driver In-Ear Earphones
1More is a Chinese-based company that burst onto the earphone scene with a series of excellent in-ear monitors. The first thing you will notice about the 1MORE triple-driver IEM is its packaging. Not only is it slick, but also bordering on sumptuous with its stylish graphics, multiple tip options, and a black leather storage case inside that is approximately the size of a pack of cigarettes. The 99dB efficient, 32-ohm E1001 has three drivers in each enclosure in a patented structural layout. The treble and midrange drivers are balanced armature designs while the lower-midrange and bass driver is a dynamic type.
Although the E1001's cable is not removable or replaceable, it was engineered to be strong. Its interior of enameled copper is wrapped around a Kevlar fiber to maximize tensile strength, while the cable's surface has a layer of TPE as well as a final braided layer of nylon to reduce tangling. In terms of fit, the 1More is ideal for someone who would prefer an IEM that does not protrude deeply into their ear canal, but instead rests on your auricle like an earbud.
A Great Pick for the Active Audiophile: Shure SE215
Now priced at roughly half their original MSRP, the Shure SE215 is a workhorse design that has proven its longevity. With a single full-range dynamic driver the SE215 displays a warm, comfortable tonal balance that is perhaps somewhat on the dark side of the sonic spectrum, which makes it ideal partner for thinner-sounding playback devices. The SE215 has rugged but removable cable, so there are options for adding a wireless cable later when Shure gets around to making a standard Bluetooth dongle. I used my pair in the gym for over a year continuously without any issues from moisture or failed connections. Also, with the right tip the Shures can be almost as comfortable as a custom in-ear.
The Etymotic ER4SR and ER4XR both use the exact same driver technology, which employs a single full-range balanced armature driver. The difference between them is that the XR is voiced for more bass and deeper bass extension, which you may prefer depending on your musical tastes.
It's worth mentioning, though, that the Etymotic ER4 series is an in-ear that prospective users either love or hate--not because of the sound, but due to their fit. The flanged ear tips are designed to be inserted deep, deep into your ear canals to provide maximum isolation from external noise, and if you are not comfortable with that, you will probably not enjoy your time with the ER4. But if you're looking for precise soundstage and imaging, and a relatively neutral and natural sound, the ER4 could be your perfect listening companion.
If You're Looking for All the Performance of Custom IEMS Without a Trip to the Audiologist: Earsonics S-EM9 universal fit
Earsonics, based in France, has been producing in-ear monitors since 2004. The S-EM9 has nine balanced armature drivers (four mids, four high-frequency drivers, and one for bass) in a very compact enclosure. Unlike the vast majority of the balanced armature in-ear monitors, the S-EM9, like all Earsonic in-ears, uses drivers made entirely in-house. Along with their proprietary drivers, Earsonics employs a three-way crossover system. But unlike most multi-driver IEMs, the S-EM9's capsule dimensions aren't that much larger than less well-endowed IEMs. Also unlike most multi-driver IEMs, the S-EM9 capsule is much lighter. While acrylic may have different, and in some designs less desirable sonic properties compared to other more exotic materials, its light weight means that you will hardly feel the S-EM9s once they are installed comfortably in your ears.
The Earsonics ES9 have the most extended and controlled mid and low bass of any universal in-ear I've heard. Not only is the bass tight, powerful, and nuanced, but the S-EM9s produced a large, evenly proportioned and three-dimensional soundstage with excellent imaging. Their overall tonal balance is quite neutral, especially considering their exceptional bass extension. All in all, the S-EM9 gives you most of the sonic and technological advantages of a custom IEM, without the need for custom ear impressions, since the included foam and silicon tips included in the package (four of each) are designed to fit a wide range of ears.
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