InnerFidelity's "Wall of Fame" In-Ear Monitors

In-Ear Monitors
These headphones have a small, soft tip that is inserted into the ear canal. When well designed, in-ear monitor sound quality can rival world class full-size open headphones, but will usually not have as strong a sense of space and imaging. This category is huge, however, and there are a lot of in-ear monitors that have too much bass, excessively bright treble, and/or very poor comfort and fit.

In general, in-ear monitors deliver the best isolation from outside noise of any headphone type including noise-canceling headphones. They are ideal for travelers, commuters, and people who wish to listen in very loud places. If the bass seems weak with this type of headphone, you probably haven't achieved a good seal. Persistence trying the various tips and experimenting with the fit will usually be rewarded.

Some people will find IEMs uncomfortable in their ears. Again, patiently trying the various tips will usually deliver a tolerable, if not comfortable fit. Using squishy stock and aftermarket foam sponge tips (Comply) often helps with comfort, but may reduce high frequency response slightly (sometimes a good thing with this type of headphone).

In-ear monitors custom made to fit the shape of your particular ears are now broadly available. Though quite a bit more expensive, the comfort of custom fit earphones is significantly better than the generic tip models; and in the best of this bread, sound quality can be spectacular.

There are two types of drivers used in in-ear monitors: dynamic and balanced armature. Both can yield good results, but generally dynamic IEMs: use a single driver; are less expensive; can be very easy to drive for portable players; but are usually limited in sound quality. Balanced armature IEMs: may have multiple drivers with cross-overs in the earpieces; may be custom made for the shape of your ears; are typically more expensive; can be difficult for portable players to drive; and can have unbelievably good sound quality.

Noble Audio Kaiser 10 ($1599)
                                    Noble Audio's stunning Kaiser 10 most definitely deserves a spot on our Wall of Fame. It has a brilliant yet nonchalant character which keeps me coming back for more. Factor in the remarkable build quality and customization options, and we end up with a CIEM worthy of replacing not one but two of my former favorites. Of all my in-ear monitors—scratch that, of all my headphones in general—the Kaiser 10 is the one I find myself reaching for most often these days; for portable use but also for dedicated listening at home. I'd say that speaks very highly of what Noble Audio has achieved with this flagship design.

Users can design their own look with choices like carbon fiber, wood, and brushed aluminum faceplates. The list of customization is extensive and I'm really oversimplifying here—check out the Noble website for some further ideas. Most of these range from $50 to $100 but a few cost more, such as the $300 wood inlay option (understandable when considering the craftsmanship involved). Noble distinguishes their flagship K10 by throwing in most any option you want without extra charge—the exception being that expensive wood inlay.

See full InnerFidelity review here.

Jerry Harvey Audio JH13Pro FreqPhase ($1099)
                                    When I heard the generic fit version of the new FreqPhased JH13Pro at RMAF last year, the hair on the back on my neck stood on end. I'd simply never heard anything so transparent in a headphone. I'm a big fan of time-aligned speakers, and have noticed in the past that multi-BA (balanced armature) driver IEMs seem to have problems with time alignment. It came as no surprise to me that Jerry had recently figured out the problem (he's kind of brilliant when it comes to these kinds of things) and reincarnated the JH13Pro now with the FreqPhase moniker. It's a revolution in CIEM design and it's effect is astonishingly obvious. I'll let the words of the reviewers speak for the experience.

The JH13Pro is outstanding due to its spectacular imaging and coherent sound. It has a somewhat emphasized bass and treble response for a fun, slightly "V" shaped response. A clear consensus among the writers that this is the best-in-class ToTL CIEM, though because of it's not perfectly neutral signature, matters of taste and application may warrant an alternate choice.

See full InnerFidelity review here.

Unique Melody Miracle ($950)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_UMMiracleWith marvelous clarity like JH13, but without the emphasized bass response, the Unique Melody Miracle is great for acoustic music of all types. Jazz and Classical listeners will find these excellent. The JH13 will provide better coherence and imaging, but at times may be slightly too bassy for some purists.

I enjoyed the sound of the Unique Melody Miracle quite a bit. I felt the tonal balance overall was quite neutral with just a bit of additional mid-treble sparkle and a slight lack of bass. The Miracle sounded polite and airy, and would be a good choice for classical and acoustic music listeners.

See full InnerFidelity review here.

1964 Ears V3 ($499)
Currently priced at $499 as a result of a recent price adjustment they still represent an excellent audio investment, in my opinion. They have just the right amount of slightly emphasized bass that just begs to be driven hard and I found myself having to exercise a bit of restraint with the volume knob on my Headamp Pico Slim. The icing on the cake is that the top end is the best of the bunch as well. Clear with no etch or harshness. Overall if I'm taking a trip for work or sitting down to some critical listening and want to block out the world I reach for the V3s every time.

For information on getting proper ear impressions contact 1964 Ears.

InnerFidelity review here.

Shure SE 535 ($499)
WoF_photo_Shure_SE535Cry once when shelling out the big bucks for these headphones, and then forever after experience only tears of joy. I love the Shure SE535, and think every penny is well spent on these great sounding in-ear monitors.

Yummy and warm sounding, the 3-way balanced armature driver SE535 has great bass extension and brilliantly integrated bass and mids, with a slightly polite, but very articulate and clear treble. The ergonomics and comfort of these IEMs is excellent, and they come with a nice selection of tips. Once in the ear, the cables go up and over the back of the ear, and a cable keeper can be slid up the cable to snug them at the back of the head, which provides and extraordinarily secure fit on the head. Custom fit tip can be made, and are available from Sensaphonics here.

InnerFidelity review here.

Etymotic ER4PT ($299)
WoF_photo_Etymotic_ER4PEtymotic Research Labs had been making hearing aid, and hearing research and diagnostic devices for quite a while before producing it's first consumer audio product. Headphone audio enthusiasts were quick to adopt and provide feedback, and in fairly rapid succession Etymotic released the ER4B; ER4S; and ER4P, all single balanced armature driver earphones with slightly differing frequency response curves. The outward design of these cans may apear a bit dated, but the performance remains very good. Though slightly weak in the bass, the performance otherwise remains quite good, with the treble response among the best available.

One outstanding feature of the ER4PT is that they seal much more deeply in the ear canal than most other in-ear monitors. Once inserted fully (about half way into the depth of the ear canal at what is call the "boney section"), these earphones isolate better than any other. I highly recommend the ER4PT for people needing the highest level of isolation from outside noise. Problems with comfort are common with these cans, but time spent with careful tip selection, and trial and error fitting will be rewarded with an easily tolerable fit and extraordinary isolation.

Philips Fidelio S1 ($99)
WoF_photo_Shure_SE215This shallow fit, dynamic IEM provides less isolation than many IEMs, which can be ideal when wanting to remain somewhat aware of your surroundings. This is a great portable IEM/headset for walking around town.

Slightly warm sounding with a tight punchy bass, clear mids, and articulate treble that provides good imaging for an IEM, these little gems perform far above what their price tag would lead you to believe.

InnerFidelity review here.

HiFiMAN RE-400 ($99)
WoF_photo_HiFiMAN_RE400HiFiMan’s 3rd-generation dynamic in-ear monitors offer spectacular sound and comfort along with improved fit and finish.

The RE-400 is a smaller, better-isolating alternative to the Philips Fidelio S1 with a smoother, more easy-going sound. Offering less bass and softer treble compared to the Philips, it toes the line between accuracy and musicality in a way that is rare at any price point, especially the very reasonable $99 being asked by HiFiMan.

InnerFidelity review here.

RHA MA-750 ($119)
The MA750 from Scotland-based RHA brings the bass with a deep, hard-hitting low end and warm tonal character. A bit of treble sparkle counteracts what would otherwise likely be a somewhat dull-sounding earphone, resulting in a fun, if not exactly neutral, sound.

Though it is slightly more expensive than the Shure SE215 model it replaces, the MA750 is even more certain to please both bassheads and casual listeners. Good noise isolation and a heavy-duty construction, as well as a wide selection of eartips and nice carrying case, round out the MA750 as a great value. An iPhone-friendly MA750i version is also available.

InnerFidelity review here.

Philips TX2 ($39.95)
Slightly more refined and neutral that it's TX1 sibling, the Philips TX2 is a terrific value for price. The Philips TX2 raise the bar for audio performance on a tight budget. While they aren't better than the sub-$50 reference, the VSonic VSD1S, the Philips offer similar performance at an even lower price and boast built-in headset functionality to boot. There are a few caveats—the 13.5mm drivers mean that these earphones may not comfortable in small ears, and the noise isolation is average at best. However, for the price, the sonic performance alone is enough to recommend the TX in-ears.

The TX2 comes in both black and white livery, have a flat cable, and a three-button remote.

InnerFidelity review here.

Xiaomi Piston 2 ($25)
The second-generation Piston from Chinese electronics giant Xiaomi is the perfect budget headset for the smartphone crowd, delivering versatile, warm, full-bodied sound with plentiful bass. It may not have the ergonomic design or noise isolation of higher-end in-ear monitors, but it is well-designed as far as basic earphones go and also includes a 3-button Android remote.

While higher-end IEMs can point out where the audio quality of the Piston 2 falls slightly short, in the age of internet radio this really may be all the performance many smartphone users need.

What Xiaomi has created here is not just a must-have for any Android user, but an easy recommendation for all budget-minded music fans.

(Note: due to abundance of counterfeits, exercise caution when purchasing the Piston. There are legitimate sellers on eBay and other marketplaces, but if a deal seems too good to be true it probably is. A genuine Piston won't be priced below $15 and should be $20+ once it gets stateside).

InnerFidelity review here.

In-Ear Phones Retired from this Page

Heir Audio 8.A ($1299)
                                    This CIEM retired from the WoF with the introduction of the Noble Audio Kaiser 10 reviewed by John Grandberg.

The Pride-of-Ownership King! Exquisite good looks can be a real treat, but impeccable finish makes for excellent comfort as well. Warm, juicy sound provides an immersive experience. Emphasized bass is great for movies and loud environments, and relaxed treble makes long listening sessions a pleasure. A really fine traveler's headphone. Bassheads will love this one, too.

"There's a reason the Heir logo wears a crown—these earphones have some serious class. The 8.A I have is the undisputed champion of fit and finish. Overall, it provides a warm but very smooth and cohesive audio experience with great bass. It delivers all of the musical nuances without pushing them on the listener for a rich sound that's fantastically well-suited for easy listening. Fit for a King indeed."
lJokerl

See full InnerFidelity review here.

Westone ES5 ($950)
ToTLMaddness_Photo_WestoneES5This model retired from WoF as it's been discontinued.

This marvelously dynamic CIEM has excellent neutrality, though a slightly relaxed treble response. Its acrylic/vinyl hybrid design makes this the most comfortable of WoF candidates (though individual fitment will certainly play a strong roll on a case-by-case basis). The polite treble and comfort makes these a great candidate for people who expect to regularly use them for long periods of time.

While mastering engineers might prefer the clarity of the JH13Pro, I think most audio professionals would end up prefering the Westone ES5 for its neutrality and fatigue-free punchy sound. Add in the comfort of the hybrid acrylic/nylon design, and you've got a headphone you can wear all day long. I'd also recommend these for rock fans, all that punch without an annoying treble will deliver hours of fatigue-free head-banging.

See full InnerFidelity review here.

Shure SE 215 ($99)
WoF_photo_Shure_SE215The Shure was retired when the RHA MA-750 was deemed a better headphone in this price range.

Bassheads, here's your headphone. I'm not talking about fake, bloated, one-note, or wooly bass, but tight, punchy, and yes, somewhat over-emphasized for you lovers of the low notes.

For the rest of you, I'd still recommend these dynamic driver earphones. If you'd like an IEM that's gentle on the ears, and still does a good job of being articulate and musical, the SE 215 will satisfy.

The ergonomics, comfort, and build quality is very good; as are the accessories and options. Shure builds these cans for pros, and I think getting this level of quality in so many ways for $99 makes it a great buy.

InnerFidelity review here.

Audeo PFE Gold ($179)
WoF_photo_Audeo_PFE(This model retired from the Wall of Fame due to Audeo dropping out of the in-ear headphone business altogether.)

Manufactured by European hearing aid maker Phonak, the PFE Gold effortlessly blends contemporary styling with comfort and marvelously transparent sound. Though a bit bass-shy, the single balanced armature driver PFE Gold is extremely articulate and clear sounding, delivering entry-level audiophile performance ... at a surprisingly low price. They also come with two different types of filter which alter the frequency response of the headphones: gray for a brighter response; black for a warmer response. There are also green filters (not included, but available) for an even warmer bass response.

The ergonomics and comfort of these very light-weight in-ear monitors is simply excellent. They fit in my ears as good or better than any I've tried---not surprising given the years of experience this company has with hearing aids. The cable exits looping up and over the top of the ear, and may be snugged in place either behind the neck or below the chin. The cable includes a one-button mike and remote.

Full InnerFidelity review here.

Spider Realvoice ($79)
WoF_photo_Spider_realvoice(This headphone dropped from the Wall of Fame due to the $20 more expensive, but much better, Philips S1 arriving on the scene.)

Another dynamic driver design, but this time with a warm tilt focusing on the mid-range, the Spider Realvoice is designed to reproduce vocals ... and by golly, the've done it! These sound very nice, indeed.

The styling and ergonomics are a bit odd, but required by the diameter and placement of the driver. They don't isolate terribly well, but would be fine for general commuting. They do have a 3-button remote and mike on the cable. There's really not much that sets them apart from a million other headphones ... other than they sound so darned good.

Full InnerFidelity here.

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