In-ear headphones are often an underlooked segment of the massive earphone market. Those big, powerful over-ear cans might be your pride and joy, but the portability of in-ear headphones makes them an indispensable part of your daily routine if you’ve got a daily commute on the bus or train, or take to an active liftestyle.
As your go-to sonic companion, a quality pair of in-ears can be your best friend through good days and bad. And trading out those muffled stormtrooper Earpods from Apple for something with quality performance — and maybe a bit of individual style — can be a life changing transition. As such, we’ve collected a few of our favorite recent additions to the wide world of in-ears — some cost a mint, and some barely bend your budget, but all will make you a happy camper next time you hit the road.
Audiofly AF180 ($550)
The mere mention of in-ear monitors might conjure up the thoughts of a rock show, which is appropriate given the Audiofly AF180 take center stage on almost all accounts. The high-end headphones swap standard dynamic drivers for a four-pack of tiny balanced armatures, and in doing so, manage to deliver warm mids and a vividly-accurate upper register without sacrificing any bass in the process. Perhaps most importantly, these babies smooth over the snappy bite at the attack common with so many balanced-armature in-ears, while still delivering glorious detail and brilliant dynamic expression. The glossy, wrap-around design is one of the most attractive in its class, too, offering an admirable level of passive noise isolation and comfort to match. The deep spacing and brilliant detail across the soundstage render them as apt for Radiohead as Ray LaMontagne — so long as you can deal with their premium price.
Klipsch R6i ($100)
It can be tough to achieve well-balanced sound within an attractive $100 package, but thankfully for Klipsch, the R6i offer exactly that and then some. The oval-shaped earpieces provide a first-class fit and ample comfort, along with gleaming treble and a healthy amount of low end. The “tangle-resistant” cable can be loud when bumping against your clothing, often resulting in a low thumping sound, but the included clothing clip does provide some relief when used. The bundled carrying case and inline microphone are a nice touch, too, especially given the price.
KEF M100 ($150)
The KEF M100 are the most affordable pair of ear buds the British company has ever released, but they still present well-balanced sound within a stylisyh package, one featuring diamond-cut aluminum casings and a three-button mic piece designed to go hand in hand with iOS devices. The custom 10mm drivers issue firm, rich bass and a clean midrange, with a touch of glimmer up top that benefits from the suspension ring of high-density foam inside. The latter reduces distortion and helps control airflow, which further aid the ear buds’ exceptional reproduction of instrumental textures. Saxophone, electric guitars, and other gritty instruments rarely sound so nice at this price.
Phiaton BT 100 NC ($100)
Bluetooth headphones are quickly becoming a big deal, cutting size without cutting the sound with every new product iteration. Phiaton’s BT 100 NC are a prime example, given the stylish headphones offer Bluetooth 4.0 and AptX support within a lightweight design you can place on your shoulders while on the go. The silicone tips allow for a tight seal and commendable noise cancellation — offering a welcome way to subdue the unwanted whiz and buzz of your morning commute — while the built-in drivers dish out plenty of bass and subtle clarity throughout the frequency spectrum. They’re also surprisingly comfortable and discrete, even though they’re IPX4-rated for sweat and water resistance.
Westone W40 ($500)
Westone products don’t come cheap. However, the company has a penchant for putting out headphones that are as precise as they are durable. The W40 are no exception, showcasing a streamlined, tough-as-nails build and the kind of unassuming matte-black finish you might find on headphones nearly a tenth of the price. Don’t go for the Batman vibe? They the black casings can be accented with red or blue interchangeable plates (show above) to mix things up. The 4-pack of balanced armature drivers provide superior clarity across the entire sound spectrum, capitalizing on their passive noise attenuation and providing accurate, vivid definition. These professional in-ears are also comfortable, though more apt for audiophiles than the casual listener.
Shure SE112 ($50)
At a mere $50, Shure’s SE112 are likely the most bang for your buck of any in-ear on our roundup. The dynamic drivers are capable of an admirable 102 dB SPL with a claimed frequency response of 25 Hz to 17kHz, allowing for an open soundstage that brims with taut bass and finely-focused mids. The robust build and above-average passive noise isolation of the SE112s help mask the melange of sounds peppering the outside world as well, and though the upper register can come off as a tad snappy at times, we adamantly prefer that over the muffled competitors you’ll find at this price. An inline microphone can also be added for an extra 10 spot.
Bose QC20i ($250)
The DSP suite that accompanies the amplified sound engine of the QC20i might render music a little synthetic and over-digitized on occasion, but the resounding hallmarks of Bose’s signature noise-cancelling in-ears will likely outweigh any negatives for most users. Outfitted with dense plastic dimpled with silver accents, the solid headphones absolutely shine when it comes to active noise cancellation (no surprise here), making effective use of Bose’s proprietary ANC technology to drown out the unwanted hum of the outside world into a peaceful murmur. The comfortable headphones also manage to deliver clear sound across genres, with a host of features that compliment the first-class noise cancellation.
Audiofly AF78 ($170)
The Audiofly AF78 prove the hybrid concept in headphones is worth visiting. The quality in-ears combine a balanced armature and a standard dynamic driver into a single earbud, allowing them to attain brilliant detail in both the pristine upper register and the warm, comprehensive low end. The headphones feature spotless instrumental separation, too, drawing out the deep timbres and tone colors from each instrument. The premium build of the AF78 also leave little to be desired, outputting sound at your convenience via a pair of thick plastic capsules adorned with chrome alloy ribbons.
RHA T10i ($200)
These premium in-ears are drafted from mold-injected stainless-steel for sturdy build quality — and some winsome styling, too. They also offer three interchangeable tuning filters designed to slightly alter the soundscape to fit your individual listening preferences. The T10i excel when it comes to reproducing instrumental timbre, with buttery mids, and a nimble upper register, though the hefty sledge of tight bass may prove too much for some listeners. Still, if that’s your style, the T10i add the heft, without clouding the rest, and provide comfortable listening via a multitude of form-fitting silicone ear tips.