In-Ear monitors (IEMs), in-ear headphones or earphones are small headphones that are inserted into the ear canal. IEMs offer the best isolation from outside noise even when compared to noise-canceling headphones. Because of this, they are ideal for travelers and people who wish to enjoy their music in loud places. When properly designed, the sound quality of in-ear monitors can rival even the best of full-sized headphones. With the number of IEMs in the market, choosing a pair you’ll love can be a daunting task. Depending on your budget, we’re going to present the best in-ear monitors available. For lower budgets, check out our guide on best IEMs for less than $100.
In-ear monitors, IEMs, Canal phones, closed-earphones, are a type of in-ear headphones created to give a user an immersive listening experience while keeping out most of the ambient noise out.
Astell & Kern AK100 II with Shure SE846
In the headphone market, IEMs are considered the professional version of the earbuds.
In-ear monitors come with several advantages that make them a preferred choice by audiophiles, music lovers, recording engineers, or even musicians on stage.
First, it is noise isolation. Singers/musicians on stage often use IEMs because they allowed them and to hear themselves and fellow singers/musicians when performing. For live performers, In-ear monitors also deliver mixes into the performer’s ears. This, coupled with better isolation, makes it possible for a performer to hear themselves better, unlike performing with stage wedges.
For audiophile and music lovers, In-ear monitors are a preferred choice because they deliver better sound quality than conventional earbuds, have better noise isolation and are much more comfortable to wear for more extended periods without hurting.
Learn more about IEMs. Read our article on In-ear monitors vs. earbuds.
In-ear monitors are more or less like our regular headphones. They are designed with the same concept in mind but for a different purpose.
FiiO FH5 IEM | Sound Gear Lab
There are two basic designs/styles when it comes to choosing an in-ear monitor. There are the ones that go into the ear and let the cable hang straight down, known as straight design and there are the ones that wrap over the back of the ear, known as over-ear design.
Choosing between a straight or over-ear design is a matter of taste and personal preference.
While straight IEM models are cheaper, there are very few models that deliver quality sound. Straight IEMs are also easier to put in your ear and also work well.
Over-ear IEMs are popular and remain a preferred model for audio enthusiasts and live performers. Like straight IEMs, over-ear IEMs have wires, but instead of the cables hanging loose they are designed to go over or behind the ear. By the wires going over-ear, the IEM is secure, and this also conceals the cables, so they are harder to spot.
With high-end IEMs or CIEMs, the straight design is rarely used. Though over-ear IEMs are a little expensive, they are worth it.
Like headphones, IEMs are also available in wired and wireless designs.
Wired In-ear models are the popular option. Their design allows a user to connect to any playback device and use the IEM without a hitch. Wired IEMs are also cheaper and also come with better sound quality. However, unlike wireless IEMs, you will have a deal with the wires, which can be a hassle to control at times.
Wireless IEMs are convenient as you do not have to deal with wires. Wireless IEMs are better suited for musicians or live performers who move a lot, and a wired IEM would not suffice. Though they come with their convenience, wireless IEMs will cost extra, and you will more likely need to consider other features like; the battery life, connectivity, and sound quality.
Our advice would be to go wireless when it matters. For musicians and live performers, wireless IEMs are a convenience. However, for audio enthusiasts, if it will not make a difference, you better spend that extra money on getting better IEMs.
read more about wired and wireless headphones on our headphone buying guide.
If you have ever lost a pair of headphones because the cable was destroyed, then you will appreciate being able to swap old and defective wires for new ones. That is one benefit of IEMs that come with removable cables.
Another benefit with removable cables is being able to add more functionality and features to your IEMs. So, if you need a longer or a shorter cable, want to add an inline remote with mic, or make your earbuds wireless by adding a Bluetooth cable, there are a variety of removable wires to go with a set of IEM.
There are different removable cables that you can select in the market, depending on the type of connectors your IEM will have. The types of pin connectors in the market include 2-pin connectors, MMCX connectors, A2DC connectors, etc. It is worth noting that most of the modern removable cables are using MMCX connectors.
In-ear monitors come with different types of drivers that create the spectrum of sound. The drivers found in IEMs are the same as those found in speakers and headphones, but they are smaller. The type of driver that comes with an IEM helps in determining the quality of sound that will be produced.
The different types of headphone drivers that come in IEMs are; dynamic drivers, balanced armature drivers, planar magnetic drivers, and electrostatic drivers. All these drivers have their advantages and disadvantages. The drivers present in IEMs will also influence the price of the IEM. Electrostatic IEMs are the most expensive, followed by planar-magnetic IEMs. Dynamic and balanced armature IEMs are more popular, and most are budget-friendly.
To learn more about headphone drivers – their advantages and disadvantages, read this post on the different headphone drivers.
Like studio monitors, having more drivers in an IEM generally means you will be getting better audio quality. This is because each driver present in the earpiece will handle a narrower frequency response, e.g., bass, treble, or midrange, and this will result in more efficiency and clarity.
While an IEM with one driver is not bad for starters, having or upgrading to an IEM with more drivers is better. Without getting technical about it, the more drivers you have, the better the efficiency. Even if the drivers cover the same frequency response range, each additional driver added shares the workload hence combined, and they function optimally. This results in clearer highs, more articulate mids, and a deeper low-end which is suitable especially for drummers and bass players.
Shure SE215 In-Ear Monitor
The earbud part of an in-ear monitor that goes into the ear comes into direct contact with the ear canal. To increase comfort, improve audio quality, and offer better noise isolation, they are fitted with either foam or silicone ear tips.
Foam ear tips tend to be denser and offer a higher degree of noise isolation than silicone ear tips. However, foam ear tips place a lot of pressure on the canal, which makes them uncomfortable over time. To improve the comfort of foam ear tips, you can try foams made out memory foam. Foam ear tips also do not handle sweat very well, which leads to faster destruction when exposed to sweat. In the market, compared to silicone ear tips, foam tips are more expensive.
Silicone ear tips are the most common type and come at relatively lower prices. Silicone ear tips use suction to stay in place, and this makes them suitable for active performers. Though they are not great in noise isolation like foam tips, silicone tips are lighter, and its hypoallergenic properties make it a great choice for many people.
Our ears come in different shapes, so IEM manufacturers include a variety of ear tips you can choose from. You can test the different sizes and materials to find, which fits better to deliver optimum results.
The fit of an in-ear monitor plays an essential role in use, comfort, and sound isolation. There are two types of IEMs you can choose for yourself – universal fit or custom fit (CIEMs).
Audeze iSINE 10
Universal fit as the name suggests are IEMs that fit most of the user’s ears. Universal fit IEMs are cheaper but might not offer effective noise isolation.
Custom in-ear monitors or CIEMs for short are made according to an individual’s ear shape. They are more expensive but are better at noise isolation and comfort. Check out our complied list of CIEM makers.
The choice between Universal or Custom IEMs comes down to what you need and the price you are willing to pay. Learn more about CIEMs and Universal IEMs.