Best In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) in 2022
It's that time of year again where you, the reader, will ostensibly be searching for what is the best In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) that you can put on your wish list for a given budget - which leads us to our buying guide for the best IEMs in 2022.
We’ve seen the IEM world become extremely competitive in the last few years with many companies vying for your attention and your hard earned dollars. As 2022 comes to an end, we’ve also observed a dramatic shift in the budget category, especially with the rise of collaboration products and new planar IEMs. In this guide, we go through what we feel are some of the best within each price category to make the landscape a bit easier for our readers to navigate through.
A brief primer for the uninitiated: when it comes to headphones and IEMs, tuning is king. Tuning can be best thought of generally as the “sound profile” of an audio product, and every headphone or IEM has a frequency response that describes a measurement of its sound profile. This isn’t the article to delve into specifics but suffice it to say that without a favorable tuning, it becomes hard to recommend a product. IEMs makers have gotten extremely good at tuning IEMs in recent years and below are a sample of some of the best options.
However, tuning isn’t everything when it comes to sound quality - there is also its technical ability. For example, soundstage, imaging, and resolution are common descriptors of performance. While price is not correlated with sound quality (there’s a lot of bad products out there!), for the items listed in this article you can think of them as a general step up in technical ability in each segment. With diminishing returns, of course.
Best IEMs under $50
Budget IEMs is the most competitive landscape with new flavors of the month each month. Frankly, there are too many to cover or even hear at the speed at which new products are released. So to simplify it for our readers: don’t worry too much about technical ability. Everything listed here will largely have the same level of performance in terms of soundstage and resolution. That is to say, adequate but far from the IEM peak. Pick based on the differences in tuning discussed.
7Hz Salnotes Zero - $20
The 7Hz Salnotes Zero is 7Hz’s entry level product, created with guidance from well-known community-turned-industry member Crinacle. Essentially, the Salnotes Zero’s tuning matches Crinacle’s own target preference to the T. And from our experience with the other products he’s had a hand in, we can certainly say Crinacle’s preferences are an excellent starting point that few would find fault with. You’ll get a neutral, midrange focused sound that’s relaxed in the treble but with enough bump in the bass to deliver a sense of fun. Well-built with a detachable 2-pin cable and ergonomic shape, the 7Hz Salnotes Zero has proved to be an extremely popular option and rightfully so. At $20, it’s a very worthy entry-level IEM to see if you’d even want to explore the hobby in the future (hint: there’s definitely a LOT more in store).
CCA CRA/CRA+ - $20 - 30
CCA is a sub-brand of KZ, an old Chinese brand that embodied the definition of “ChiFi”. While KZ hasn’t been too favorably received by more seasoned IEM enthusiasts, they sometimes manage to hit gold and release so-called “hidden gems.
The CCA CRA and CRA+ are some of them. These are basshead IEMs through and through, the CRA more so while the CRA+ has a slightly more balanced signature. If you’re looking for basshead IEMs to blast music with the “boombox on your shoulder” way on a budget, look no further than these two. While our reviewers Fc-Construct and Precogvision agree that the CRA+ is better than the CRA, it is a little more expensive. Either way, both IEMs are a far cry from the typical audiophile-approved tuning. Maybe it won’t be your first pick for a daily driver but it’s certainly an IEM to try at least and see if you might prefer something more colored in your auditory diet.
Truthear x Crinacle Zero - $50
When it comes to tuning and frequency response, there are a number of tuning “targets” - in other words, guidelines to tune headphones/IEMs towards. The most popular one for headphones is the Harman target, developed through significant amounts of research effort to identify the tuning most listeners prefer. For IEMs, there is similarly the Harman target curve. While the in-ear Harman target isn’t as favorably received as the original over-ear one, Crinacle in collaboration with Truthear has released the Truthear x Crinacle Zero that matches the Harman target. In simple terms: a subbass focused IEM with a lower mids scoop and plenty of upper mids energy for enhanced clarity. You can read Precogvision’s review about it here. It’s a fine sounding IEM that does what it says on the box: provide a Harman-tuned alternative in a competitive landscape.
Best IEMs under $250
Moondrop Aria, DUNU Titan S, and Tin HiFi T3 Plus - $80
In 2021, the MoonDrop Aria was the recommendation for IEMs under $100. In 2022, a number of similar IEMs have joined the fray - the DUNU Titan S and the Tin HiFi T3 Plus. These IEMs can be thought of as the baseline standard for a good dynamic driver IEM - they have a pleasant tuning with good timbre and solid technical performance. They have that “musical” quality that works to just pop-in and enjoy for hours on end. Fc-Construct has a review here that compares the three of them. Each is a slight variant of each other that better aligns with the needs of the listener.
Etymotic ER2XR - $100
The Etymotic ER2XR continues to be one of the best bang-for-your-bucks IEMs on the market. But only if you fit them. It follows Etymotic’s modern interpretation of the classic Diffuse Field tuning. And it’s better. The overall sound here is a reference-oriented one with a touch of oomph down-low. Though the bass is lacking in texture, it is quite clean with adequate slam. While some might find the ER2XR’s midrange abundance overly forward, it’s a result of its laser-focus on vocal performance. It has good technicalities too, some of the best under $200. Besides its almost sadistic triple-flange deep insert, the ER2XR’s biggest weaknesses would be its rolled-off treble response and very narrow imaging.
Best IEMs under $500
7Hz Timeless and The Planars - $100 - $240
In 2021, the 7Hz Timeless ushered in the planar IEM revolution. At the time, the Timeless was the world's first competent planar IEM that clocked in at a highly competitive price of $220. With a generally pleasant tonality and excellent technical performance marked by great clarity, it's little wonder that the Timeless made a name for itself in the IEM market. Soon after, a number of me-too products followed from a variety of companies. You can see Resolve’s review here comparing them all. Like the Aria/Titan S/T3 Plus, they all sound quite similar and any one you pick is going to be a solid choice. However, our reviewers Fc-Construct, Precogvision, and Resolve lean towards the original 7Hz Timeless as our favorite. Luckily as you can see there’s quite a wide price range for these planars so you’ll be able to pick for your budget.
Moondrop Blessing 2 Dusk - $330
How could this IEM not make the list? The Blessing 2 Dusk is perhaps Crinacle’s most famous IEM and instantly became the benchmark of comparison for anything below the $500 range. Compared to the original Blessing 2 that the Dusk improves upon, it adds in a juicy sub-bass lift and follows a neutral tonality onwards, minus the treble which could definitely use some more extension and has something of a mid-treble recession. To this day, the Blessing 2 Dusk is still the best performing IEM for its price point. However, the advent of the 7Hz Timeless and the other planars means they’ve taken over the price/performance crown the Blessing 2 Dusk once held.
Best IEMs under $1,000
DUNU SA6 / Ultra - $550
The DUNU SA6 has been affectionately referred to by reviewers as both a "baby 64A U12t" and a "baby qdc Anole VX". But like most things, we’d say it falls somewhere in-between. Tonally, it's definitely more reminiscent of the Anole VX, especially with that dip at around 5-6kHz which kills sibilance and takes the edge off of the lower-treble. Intangibly, though, it seems more reminiscent of the U12t. The SA6 has above-average BA bass and a slightly "wet" characteristic to the way its transients are articulated, thus circumventing some of that maligned BA timbre characteristic. The SA6's biggest weaknesses would be its treble extension and imaging performance; the Ultra mitigates these issues slightly. In any case, this is still an extremely solid set that makes no glaring mistakes and that'll appeal to listeners after a more balanced and easy-going listen.
Symphonium x NightJar Meteor - $600
The Meteor is Symphonium’s interpretation of a more fun, U-shaped tuning. U-shape tuning is always a difficult form of tuning to nail: it requires a controlled boost to the sub-bass regions and excellent treble extension which was something that was considered foreign (and still is) to the vast majority of IEMs on the market. The Meteor nails these requisites for the most part, and if you’re looking for a wholly musical sound, and willing to trade a bit of detail, then this is the ticket at the ~$600 price point. Symphonium has also taken a lot of the criticisms of their flagship, the Helios, and its ergonomics to heart. Listeners with smaller ears can rest assured that the Meteor will likely fit them while not sacrificing in the sound quality department.
Moondrop S8 - $700
On the other hand, the MoonDrop S8 is foremost a technical performer, sporting sharp resolution and pinpoint precise imaging. This IEM's other standout would be its treble response; while not the smoothest, it's definitely some of the most extended treble you'll find at this price point. We’d stay away if you're after a warmer, more "musical" listen, but the fact that Moondrop themselves have put the successor to the S8 on the back burner because "we can't improve upon the S8 right now" (to paraphrase) should speak wonders to this IEM's sonic prowess. Did we mention how pretty those shells look too?
7th Acoustics Supernova - $750
The 7th Acoustics Supernova surprised Precogvision, especially given that it’s produced by an obscure boutique brand out of Indonesia. But the Supernova is definitely legit. It has one of the most pleasant tunings that he has heard of an IEM, and this reflects in its frequency response which is completely devoid of any egregious peaks or valleys. In fact, the Supernova is reminiscent of good speakers (which usually measure flat) in the sense that cranking the volume on it is almost effortless. Now, the Supernova definitely isn’t the last word in technicalities, but it’s no slouch in this department either for $750. If you’re after the possible king of tonality, the closest that you’ll find to a tonal panacea, this is an IEM well-worth giving a listen. But you might need to have some patience, as each Supernova is built by hand!
ThieAudio Monarch MKII - $1000
The successor to the much hyped original Monarch, the Monarch MKII deserves a spot on this list and then some. The midrange detail on this IEM is nothing short of excellent. Imaging is also a great step up from the original Monarch with the pinpoint precise distinction that was sorely lacking on the original. Of course, the Monarch MKII is far from perfect. It's got too much upper-midrange, so some listeners might find it overly forward, and lower-treble around 5kHz, thus lending to a hint of metallic-ness in the treble. The bass on this IEM is also pretty weak for a kilobuck contender. But if you're after a forward, high-clarity presentation, then this is a very solid option.
Best IEMs under $1,500
Symphonium Helios - $1,100
The Helios is an IEM for listeners who like their IEM to demand attention. The Helios has a more segmented, clean presentation with a slight upper-midrange emphasis and a class-leading (probably better than class-leading if I'm being perfectly honest!) treble response. Now, it's not the best tonality overall (personally I find it somewhat too disjoint due to a 200Hz recession), but the Helios has almost zero weaknesses in the technical department: sharp leading edges to notes, some actual micro-contrast, and incisive, slightly out-of-head imaging. If you can get around the chonky fit, it is our humble opinion that the Helios is the best sounding kilobuck IEM overall on the market.
Elysian Diva - $1,500
This IEM stole the show for Precogvision at CanJam Singapore 2022; so much so that he purchased a CIEM version on the spot. Nearly six months of waiting later, and several months with it in his ears since, have convinced him that it merits entry on this list. The Diva’s “gimmick” is a bass dial which allows for three distinctive signatures - but unlike many IEMs with this type of gimmick, he actually finds himself going between the modes. The common denominator between every setting is that the Diva sounds exciting, contrast-y, and with a slightly artificial, but desirable coloration to timbre. Indeed, the Diva is a superstar with anything that plays with female vocals; the real question is whether you’re willing to play the waiting game for this excellent IEM.
Best IEMs over $2,000
64 Audio U12t - $2,000
It had to make the list of course. The U12t remains one of our favorite IEMs, and it’s made its mark in the audio community as the perennial flagship benchmark. The U12t really makes so few mistakes thanks to its slightly warm, yet clean tonality with a touch of spice up top in the upper-treble. And it's no technical slouch either, from its superb BA bass, impactful center imaging, and authoritative macro-dynamics. Listeners seeking a more forward sound, particularly in the upper-midrange, might be suited elsewhere, but it’s difficult to go wrong with the U12t. It's the first IEM that we’d recommend to anyone with money to spend and who doesn't know what they want.
Elysian Annihilator - $3,500
Looking for an IEM that'll have you at the edge of your seat every time you hear it? Then the Annihilator should be the first IEM on your list. The Annihilator's standout is its treble response; it's still the one and only true implementation of the Sonion ESTs with almost linear extension and the lightning quick tactility that true electrostatics like the Shure KSE1200 deliver. The general dynamics and transients on the Annihilator are also nothing short of extraordinary. It articulates dynamic swings quickly and with superb macro-contrast, only falling short in the micro-contrast department wherein it has some compression to its individual instrument lines. But no matter - give it up for one of the select few IEMs to blow us away.
Empire Ears Odin - $3,400
Whereas most of Empire Ears' IEMs are distinctive for being V-shaped bass cannons, the Odin eschews this trend, falling more along the lines of neutral with sub-bass boost. Moving onwards, it sports a pronounced emphasis to the pinna compensation and upper-midrange whilst not straying into unwanted thinness, lending to strong center imaging and a present, crystal-clear midrange. The Odin's sure to impress on first listen in this regard, even if some might find it toeing the line. The treble of the Odin is also remarkably controlled if not a little soft in attack (which does benefit coherency at least). The prime weakness of the Odin would lie in its macro-dynamics which veer toward unwanted loudness; however, there can be no doubt that the Odin is an IEM that comfortably rests at the top.