When we first discovered in-ear monitors, we were positive we’d never go back to “regular headphones” ever again, even if it meant having to spend those extra dollars to invest in a high-end pair. Nowadays, we’re pretty “desensitized” to clear audio — considering we’ve tried and tested more pairs than we count, especially in the higher-end range (that can cost thousands), there’s something about being able to fully immerse ourselves in the music and listen to the tunes the way they’re meant to be heard — with high-quality internal builds that specialized in sound accuracy and clarity. Especially as we performed on stage with in-ear monitors, the world of difference they made for not only our ability to focus on stage but merely get into our music flow was immeasurable.
What are in-ear monitors?
To put it simply, think of in-ear monitors (at times referred to as IEM) as the studio headphones version of earbuds or in-ear headphones. They’re especially designed for musicians and audio engineers to hear a mix of stage and vocal instrumentation to properly gauge (hence the word, ‘monitor’) the audio they are portraying to their audience. So what makes them so high-end and “much better” than “average in-ear headphones”? While the shape and overall look to these may seem the same, it all lies in the internal build.
Instead of the consumer-friendly in-ear headphones and earbuds debate, to summarize and not get too technical, in-ear monitors have advanced insides, such as wider frequency responses or better drivers. Some IEM contain not just one but numerous drivers — many up to 12 at a time. On top of this, the actual driver is typically “dynamic” or “balanced armature”, which both ultimately contain a more intricate design than single drivers (such as having an actual diaphragm with a voice coil, similar to a microphone). This build combines to process the audio not only faster but more accurately at the same time, hence an ultimately clearer audio resolution.
For professional uses, in-ear monitors are almost always custom fit into the musician or individual’s ear for the “perfect” fit. This “custom” build has been around for years since it aids in not only comfort for the musician but also proper noise reduction of outside noise to help with concentration, focus and of course, their ability to sing or play their instruments. Many brands continue to offer these “custom” fits (for example, we did so at the NAMM convention and had an actual machine hooked up to our ears which used vibrations to form a mold of our canals), but many of these top models are simply universal. If you do want a custom fit, be sure to go straight to the manufacturer’s website to see who offers them (MEE Audio comes to mind), although they’re not exactly cheap.
Finding the best in-ear monitors
When it comes to selecting the best in-ear monitors for you, these things aren’t budget-friendly at all, and understandably so since they aren’t just “normal headphones” you’ll see at your local electronics store. Your budget will direct you into a particular price-point here, but we’ll up front before we list our picks — most of these are in the $500-$1,000 range. We do indeed have a few budget-friendly models here and there, but many IEM worth checking out nowadays that will really make a difference in your performances and/or audio listening will cost a pretty penny (especially wireless systems). It’s worth it in our opinion to save up if you have to after reading this, but if you’d like to go the cheaper route that’s all you.
What is your intended use? Just need a high-end device for in-ear music playing? Or perhaps you’re a musician who takes their performances seriously and need a professional pair of monitors to work correctly? This will again deter you into a particular category of in-ear monitors, and most likely demand a particular budget out of you. For example, a casual audiophile listener isn’t as likely to drop thousands on IEM’s (unless you’d like to, be our guest), while a musician on stage, especially professional, shouldn’t grab a model in the sub-$500 range since we never want to sacrifice our on-stage gear to put a damper on our shows.
Next, do you want wired monitors or a wireless system? Wired are fine for audiophiles, producers and even recorders in a studio. However if you’re a musician and more particularly a performer, keep in mind some of these come as entire systems if you’re in need of the wireless monitor route (which we only recommend instead of something like Bluetooth, especially if you’re on stage). You can’t just sync up a pair of in-ear monitors with a pro mixer or sound board without a little device that fits in your pocket or straps to the side of your pants, which is why a ‘system’ is needed (they’re more expensive as well). We also can’t foresee a musician on stage sticking with a wired model and not being able to roam freely on stage.
We sprinkled a few wireless monitor systems in here in case that’s what you were looking for, otherwise the majority are standard wired in-ear monitors. Read our wireless in-ear monitor systems guide instead. We do also know of many who already have existing wireless systems and merely plug-in their new pair of in-ear monitors as they upgrade. You can mix and match as you please.
The top 10 best in-ear monitors
Sennheiser IE 800 Audiophile
Starting off our list here of the best in-ear monitors, the high-end, German-designed Sennheiser IE 800 offers numerous innovative IEM features, sound quality and reliability. Modern, elegant, and attractive, these headphones are manufactured with some high-quality materials — at a diameter of only 7mm (making this the smallest extra wide-band sound transducer on the market) the Sennheiser IE 800 also impressively boasts a dynamic linear-phase driver, providing a wide bandwidth with minimal harmonic distortion.
The specialized, oval-shaped ear adapters are both sensible and ergonomic, providing some great comfort to the listener. With an attenuated dual-chamber absorber (D2CA) and powerful, distortion-free bass, this small in-ear monitor packs quite the punch in its ceramic housing. While sporting dual protective meshes to combat dirt and debris, the Sennheiser IE 800 Audiophile also comes with a decent quality leather carrying case and cleaning tool, ensuring the safety of these luxurious monitors. At this price-range, these IEM are hard to beat, especially with their reputation around the music gear world being made by one of best brands out there.
Shure PSM 300
Up next on our list of the best in-ear monitors available today we have the Shure PSM 300, a favorite of ours in the wireless monitor system game. Available for beginners and professionals alike, the Shure PSM 300 markets both an entry-level system (for first-time users) in addition to its professional system (designed for professional engineers and producers). Featuring clear 24-bit digital audio through its stereo and mono mode options, the PSM 300 is for those musicians that can spend the extra money to count on clear, wireless sound with minimal distortion. Very easy to setup and use, this system offers an easy frequency scan and sync option to locate and designate a clean wireless channel on all parts of the stage.
The half-rack, single-channel transmitter also comes with a rackmount kit, in addition to the body-pack systems available (both entry-level plastic or advanced rechargeable metal). Boasting an extremely wide stereo separation and a signal-to-noise ratio of up to 90 dB, the Shure PSM 300 is one of the more reliable, high-end in-ear monitors for entry-level musicians up to seasoned professionals, earning itself a clear spot on our list of the best professional in-ear monitors.
As the flagship in-ear monitor for Audio-Technica’s “E-Series”, the Audio-Technica ATH-E70 contains an impressive array of features for its more affordable price-tag, thus landing it on our list of the best in-ear monitors. At a barely detectable 9 grams (without the cable) and featuring extended response throughout the entire frequency range, the ATH-E70 is both minuscule yet powerful, allowing for a more precise balancing of the mix. With a specially designed housing for optimum isolation, these headphones are ideal for music professionals both on stage and in the studio.
Topped with the included silicone eartips (four sizes available) or ‘Comply T500 foam eartips’ and featuring flexible, over-ear cable loops, the ATH-E70 provides great comfort and ease, allowing the listener to create their own custom fit. Also included in the box is an L-shaped 3.5mm gold-plated stereo mini-plug connector, a 6.3mm adapter, a fully detachable 1.6m cable (sporting A2DC connectors), and a streamlined carrying case, all making these some of the best in-ear monitors available, all at a price-range surprisingly lower than its competitors without sacrificing quality.
At a price-point towards the middle of the pack, the Audiofly AF180 is still clearly one of the best in-ear monitors available. With lightning-fast speed and widely known clarity (thanks to the four armature drivers crammed within), the AF180 is both dependable and accurate without breaking the bank. Featuring the custom Audioflex SL twisted cable (replaceable if you break it) reinforced with something called CORDURA fiber technology, the AF180 pairs its quad drivers with powerful noise isolation, rewarding the listener with a vibrant, clear sound that’s hard to beat. As one of the top names in audio technology, Audiofly offers one of the best professional in-ear headphones in two colors, “clear” and “stone blue”, allowing slightly more personalization than its competitors that usually merely come in black.
Though cheaper than the Shure PSM 300 above, the AF180 is still jam-packed with all of the audio necessities: frequency range of 15-25 kHz, advanced driver count and technology, and some accessories in the box with 3.5 mm gold-plated adapter, 1.6m long cable, etc., cementing itself as one of the best in-ear monitors around the middle price-point of the professional audio gear world.
HiFiMan RE-600 Songbird
At the lower-end of the price-range and one of the cheapest monitors on our list of the best in-ear monitors, the HiFiMan RE-600 Songbird still shines as an affordable alternative to more expensive high-performance in-ear monitors. By adopting a 4-pin balanced cable design through the use of separate ground cables for left and right channels, the RE-600 Songbird clearly reduces signal cross-talk with ease. With a titanium diaphragm, Neodymium magnet, and a crystal copper and crystal silver comprised cable, along with the utilization of advanced ergonomics, the RE-600 Songbird offers some top-of-the-line materials without sacrificing comfort and price.
Reliable and durable, the RE-600 sports a brand-new, (patent-pending) large 8.5mm driver, allowing for great sound quality and processing speed. Though quite affordable in comparison, the HiFiMan RE-600 Songbird is surprisingly more luxurious looking than others on this list, coming packaged in an extremely attractive presentation box, and is clearly one of the top in-ear monitor picks one can purchase at this price.
With hard-to-match accessibility and allowing for the freedom from sometimes cumbersome floor wedges, Audio-Technica once again finds themselves on our list of the 10 best in-ear monitor wireless systems, this time for their highly rated M2. Exhibiting something called a ‘Personal Mix Control‘ that allows each musician both volume and mix control of two separate signals on stage, the Audio-Technica M2 stands towards the front of the pack in terms of price. However, though expensive, the Audio-Technica M2 offers a lot of versatility one won’t find in just a regular pair of IEM, including: two XLR 1/4” combo input connectors, three receiver modes, colorful LED indicators, adjustable squelch, 3 sizes of rubber eartips and ear-conforming foam tips, a choice of 100 selectable frequencies, and up to 10 simultaneous systems per frequency band.
As one of the top professional in-ear headphones, the Audio-Technica M2 is a high-powered wireless monitor system, offering proprietary dynamic drivers that allow for full frequency response and superb isolation without signal degradation.
Having just reviewed the MP-240, we’re very familiar with this pair of IEM and think they’re a great addition to this guide due to the overall quality they bring paired up with affordability in case you needed another budget-friendly model to take a look at. All new for this year, this is their flagship model of their MP-series of monitors. The main standouts here include detachable MMCX connectors that also swivel to help with versatility in fit of the monitors (as well as great for future replacement to parts if needed), a high-quality braided cable, numerous replacement tips and hard shell case included in the box, and of course, beautiful sound quality. The drivers in this are particularly advanced, coming with two — one dynamic and one balanced armature.
These combine together to bring a great sound to all three frequencies available to us — punchy lows, present mids and of course, bright highs to top it all off. They’re on the “lower-end” of the price-point in this (at least compared to the others listed), so if you needed a balance of higher-than-average sound quality yet some ease on the wallet, the Mackie MP-240 are a great pair of IEM to keep in mind during your search of the best in-ear monitors.
As one of the most recognizable and popular audio companies around, it’s no surprise that Shure once again lands on our list of the 10 best in-ear monitors, this time for their limited edition SE535LTD. As one of the powerhouses in audio technology, the Shure SE535LTD boasts a specialized, dedicated tweeter (along with dual woofers) to provide powerful, ambient sound steeped in bass. With triple high-definition MicroDrivers and multiple sizes of ‘Sound Isolating sleeves’ (providing up to 37 dB of isolation), in addition to the wide assortment of accessories available for customization, the SE535LTD doesn’t fall short in terms of sheer mechanics.
At a price-point towards the middle of the pack on our list of the top professional in-ear headphones, these Shure IEM are extremely compatible with most music-enabled phones due to the included two detachable remotes and mic cables. Available in the custom, limited edition “red” colorway, these monitors are both stylish and practical.
Sennheiser ew 300 IEM G3
Towards the top end (in terms of price) of our list of the 10 best in-ear monitors comes the ew 300 IEM G3. Though a jumbled mouthful to say, the Sennheiser’s are anything but obscure. As one of the most trusted wireless monitor systems available and widely used by industry professionals, Sennheiser lands on this list of the top professional in-ear monitors for their powerful ew 300 IEM G3’s through many years of testing. Always the innovators, Senny has adapted the headphone cable of the G3’s into an additional, secondary antenna, resulting in near-flawless reception whether on stage or in studio. In addition to this adaptive-diversity receiver, the IEM G3 also offers pass-through outputs, easily allowing input signal splitting to numerous other devices.
Similarly, with Sennheiser’s “Wireless Systems Manager” software, the entire set can be both controlled and monitored 100% remotely, allowing an ease of use not available in all in-ear monitors. Though at a high price point, the Sennheiser ew IEM G3 in-ear monitors definitely deserve to be on most top 10 in-ear monitor lists, in particular the wireless category for pros who are serious about their performances.
Audio Technica ATH-IM02 SonicPro
At a price-point lower than many of the headphones on this list and coming from one of the most popular audio manufacturing companies around, the Audio Technica ATH-IM02 SonicPro in-ear monitors focused their design around the things that truly matter to musicians: sound, fit, and functionality. Sporting multiple sizes of custom, form-fitting silicone earpieces for maximum comfort, these monitors were designed to fit within the ear and stay there, molding to the ear canal perfectly. Similarly, packaged within is special detachable cables with formable wires, allowing for improved fit and convenience.
In terms of sound, the ATH-IM02 boast dual balanced armature drivers and a specialized conductor pipe (known as the “Acoustic Horn”), easily allowing for an optimal listening experience without sacrificing power. As one of the most trusted professional in-ear headphone manufacturers, Audio Technica delivers a pure, unencumbered listening experience with their ATH-IM02 SonicPro in-ear monitors, capping off our list with a budget-friendly yet powerful finish.