As we wrapped up 2022, we (Fc-Construct and Precogvision) published our take on the best in-ear monitors (IEMs) going into 2023 in The Audio File’s inaugural IEM buyer’s guide. For this update, we’ve changed some of the categories and added new recommendations. Much of this will look similar but with a couple of shake-ups.
How We Chose
No matter your budget, the IEMs in this buyer's guide represent some of the best that this hobby has to offer to date. With emphasis on some. The personal audio hobby, particularly in the IEM space, is vast. We’ve tried most of the IEMs worth talking about in the past 5 years to create this guide. While we could’ve included a few other IEMs we liked here, we really had to narrow it down to a select few. There are sure to be lesser-known models from talented designers across the globe that we’ve never had the chance to try. And truly, that’s the heart of this hobby - individuals trying out new gear and sharing their thoughts with the wider audio community all in the pursuit of great sound.
Before we start, here’s a summary of our approach from that original buyer’s guide:
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. However, tuning isn’t everything when it comes to sound quality - there is also its technical ability, which can be described as soundstage, imaging, and resolution.
In behavioral economics, there is a concept known as The Paradox of Choice: when presented with many options, it can actually be harder for an individual to make a decision. They may end up stuck in analysis paralysis. Nowhere is this more true today than in the budget IEM space where countless new products pop up every month.
Remember: if you don’t see a popular IEM here it doesn’t mean that we necessarily think it’s bad. Honestly, the market is so competitive that it’s probably rather decent. We’re just trying to keep things nice and easy for this article. Paradox be gone.
Best IEMs under $100
We’ll give you three options you can’t go wrong with and a couple of flavor variants. Don’t worry too much about their technical performance; for the most part, they’re all within the same ballpark.
Truthear Hola - $20
The Truthear Hola is the manifestation of the race-to-the-bottom mentality that has gripped the budget IEM industry. It essentially takes the sound of great IEMs that cost $200 five years ago and brings it down to a tenth of the price. The Hola is a single dynamic driver IEM with a smooth, natural sounding tonality and a sizable bass hump to keep things interesting. While it may be fairly blunted and soft sounding, the Hola is the starting point for a long audio journey.
CCA CRA+ - $30
For the first flavor variant, we have the CCA CRA+. It’s the definition of a good V-shaped IEM with a massive bass boost and hot treble that doesn’t sacrifice vocal performance. It epitomizes the idea of a “boombox on your shoulder”. While the CRA+ is a far cry from the typical audiophile-approved tuning and won’t be the most technically proficient, it’s certainly an IEM to at least try and see if you might prefer something a little spicier in your auditory diet.
Truthear x Crinacle ZERO: RED - $55
The Truthear x Crinacle ZERO: RED is a collaboration product with famed industry figure Crinacle and is the latest entry to redefine the market for what IEMs can do in terms of tuning. Simply put, it’s one of the best-tuned budget IEMs in existence, albeit it can be a bit “boring” sounding with its dead-even neutral plus sub-bass tuning. What sets it apart is its excellent bass quality and a very well-controlled treble response when compared to the rest of the competition. Plus it comes with a fun little Bass+ adapter for more oomph if you’re into that. Just note that the nozzle size is a bit big.
Truthear Hexa - $80
Marking yet another appearance for the brand, the Truthear Hexa is the most expensive recommendation under $100. Though its tuning and timbre isn’t quite on par with the RED, it makes up for it by having one of the best technical performances on display in this price range. It’s not our first pick, but if you’re concerned with the RED’s fit and want a step-up from the Hola, the Hexa is the way to go.
Etymotic ER2XR - $100
For the second flavor variant, we have the Etymotic ER2XR. Truthfully, it’s not all that different in terms of tuning from the other options. But its presentation is utterly unique - an extremely in-your-head sound courtesy of its notorious ultra-deep fit triple-flange tips. If you don’t mind the fit, the ER2XR continues to be one of the best bang-for-your-bucks IEMs on the market. 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, its laser-sharp focus on vocal performance sets it apart from the competition. The only knock against the ER2XR would be its rolled-off treble response and very narrow imaging.
Best IEMs under $250
7Hz Timeless and the Planars
In 2021, the 7Hz Timeless ushered in the planar IEM revolution. 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 rush of me-too products followed suit. You can see Resolve’s review here comparing a number of the most popular models. Because they share a similar ~14.8 mm planar driver, they each have a similar sound to one another. But for us, we’d lean towards the original 7Hz Timeless as our favorite. That said, there’s quite a wide variety of options and prices so it should be easy to find one that fits your tastes and budget. Almost any one you pick will be a solid choice. Just note that the treble of these planars are where they most differ from one another so be sure to exercise a bit of due diligence in case one model might be a little too intense.
Best IEMs under $500
MoonDrop x Crinacle Blessing 2: Dusk / Moondrop Blessing 3
Even as 2023 marches forward, the Moondrop x Crinacle Blessing 2: Dusk continues to be the benchmark for IEMs below $500. Compared to the original Blessing 2 that the Dusk improves upon, it adds a much needed 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.
This year, MoonDrop finally released the Blessing 3 as a direct successor to the Blessing 2 at the same price. It arguably improves upon the Blessing 2 or Dusk in its technical performance, particularly in having a notably tighter bass response and extended treble response. However, it does so at a slight cost of the Dusk’s superb tonality, with the Blessing 3 taking on a thinner, more strident sound. Crinacle is currently developing his own version of the Blessing 3 however, so stay tuned!
Whichever you pick, both the Dusk and Blessing 3 are unquestionably the best option for its price. While the advent of the 7Hz Timeless and the other planars has taken the price-to-performance crown the Dusk once held, these two IEMs still represent the perfect stopping point before diminishing returns kick into overdrive.
Best IEMs under $1,000
Moondrop Variations - $520
If the Blessing 3 was too anemic for some listeners, and the Blessing 2 Dusk didn’t have enough detail, then the Variations is the sweet spot (at least until we see a Blessing 3 Dusk). It’s possibly the best rendition of Harman style tuning on the market. The bass response on it is almost all sub-bass and the Variations makes use of a horn component to carry the treble frequencies. This results in not only substantially better treble extension than the B2 generation of IEMs, but also a very smooth treble response at that. The Variations should be a go-to option for listeners that want an IEM with conventionally strong technical performance and a mostly balanced tuning.
DUNU SA6 - $550
The DUNU SA6 made quite a splash when it was released. With 6 balanced armatures, it has been affectionately referred to by reviewers as a "baby” version of the 64A U12t and qdc Anole VX, both of which have been considered one of the best IEMs ever at some point. But like most things, we’d say the SA6 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. On a technical level, it’s more reminiscent of the U12t. The SA6 has above-average BA bass and a slightly "wet" characteristic in 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, imaging performance, and resolving ability compared to its peers in this highly competitive landscape. But we still highly recommend the SA6 for a sound that is balanced, easy-going, and entirely enjoyable.
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 make no mistake, 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!
Best IEMS Under $2,000
Fact: You don’t need to spend thousands to have an awesome listening experience. Great audio is readily accessible these days and the first half of this article was meant to help you find just that. With many affordable options then, why would someone want to spend so much on high-end products? Well, audio is a very personal hobby and there is a broad spectrum of individual preferences when it comes to sound. A pitfall of the current IEM market, especially when it comes to more entry-level products, is that they are well-tuned but converge into a similar sound. In contrast, some of the more expensive, boutique IEMs often cater to the aforementioned variety in listener preference. This means that they often sport tunings that might be more polarizing, but they can offer technical qualities (such as resolution, imaging, soundstage, and dynamics) that would otherwise rarely be seen in conventional tunings.
Ultimately, then, the goal of high-end IEMs is to strike the perfect balance between tonality and unique technical qualities. Unfortunately, there are a lot of expensive IEMs out there that fail to do so. In this buyer’s guide, we’ll be sharing the IEMs that we think strike that perfect balance.
64 Audio U4s - $1,100
The latest entry on this exclusive list, the U4s is also 64 Audio’s most affordable universal IEM. But don’t let the price tag fool you. In many respects, the U4s usurps its older brother, the Nio, while maintaining the classic, 64 Audio house sound. The U4s is tuned in U-shaped fashion with a strong emphasis on sub-bass and upper-treble for an exciting yet controlled sound. The addition of a dynamic driver completes what some might affectionately describe as a “baby U12t with a DD”. Of course, no IEM is perfect and some listeners might be predisposed to find issues with the more reserved upper-midrange tuning or find the U4s too bright. But the addition of three APEX modules (swappable modules that control the level of bass) offers the potential for plenty of fine-tuning. Without a doubt, the 64 Audio U4s is our first recommendation for anyone looking for something in the kilobuck range.
Symphonium Helios - $1,100
The Helios is an IEM for listeners who like their IEM to demand attention. The Helios has a classic neutral-bright signature. Its presentation is clean with a slight upper-midrange emphasis and a (better than) class-leading treble response.That said, it does have a bit of disjointed feel in the mid-bass/lower-mids transition due to a 200 Hz recession. Beyond that, the Helios has almost zero weaknesses in the technical department: sharp leading edges to notes, notable micro-contrast, and incisive, slightly out-of-head imaging. The only thing that holds us back from unequivocally recommending the Helios is its fit - it’s just a little too large for some ears. But if you can get around that, it is our humble opinion that the Helios is the best sounding reference IEM for the price.
Sennheiser IE900 - $1,300
Sennheiser is a legendary name in audio. But unlike their pedigree in headphones, they’ve struggled to find relevance in the modern IEM landscape. Enter the IE900. Sennheiser’s return to the high-end market was marked with arguably the best single dynamic driver IEM out there. The raw quality of its bass, its dynamics and power, easily competes at the highest level. To contrast all of this bass energy, the IE900 has a significant amount of mid-treble elevation. Yet Sennheiser, through meticulous research and design, has managed to do what many companies can only dream of: a bright, lively treble that doesn’t compromise on control. Overall, the IE900 has a vivid U-shaped that’s made for immersion. Unfortunately, the IE900 is not perfect. Namely, its upper midrange structure has an awkward recession that compromises vocal performance. Furthermore, the IE900 doesn’t quite hold up to the U4s or Helios when it comes to resolution or imaging.
While the IE900 isn’t our first choice, it’s definitely one of the best “flavor” IEMs to have in your collection, particularly if you’re open to EQing the midrange. Between the authors of this article, Precogvision has owned one. Fc-Construct is sorely tempted.
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 with many other IEMs, he actually finds himself using the different modes. The common denominator between every setting is that the Diva sounds exciting, contrasty, and with a slightly-artificial-but-desirable coloration to timbre. Indeed, the Diva is a superstar for anything 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. The 64 Audio 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 for these reasons that the U12t is the first IEM that we’d recommend to anyone with money to spend and isn’t exactly sure of what they want.
Empire Ears Odin - $3,400
Whereas most of Empire Ears' IEMs are distinctive for being V-shaped bass cannons, the Empire Ears 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.
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 one of the few true implementations 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.
Price is No Object
Subtonic Storm - $5,200
What do you have to do to be the best IEM in the world? While we don’t have a true answer for you, we do have a bit of insight: Do something no one has ever done. And do it well. That is the Subtonic Storm. Though we’ve both only briefly heard it, it’s enough to warrant a spot at the top of this list.
Fc-Construct describes it as a cross between the Focal Utopia and the 64 Audio U12t. Precogvision sees it as the acclaimed Genelec speakers in IEM form. Either way, the Storm is an IEM that compels us to listen to it again and again. The explosiveness and physicality of its dynamics is unlike anything currently in the market. It ups the ante on practically every technical parameter that the U12t excelled in. Despite a studio-reference tuning that’s downright normal for its astronomical asking price, the sheer gusto of its presentation transforms familiar songs into a whole new listening experience. To put it another way, though diminishing returns creep ever closer in IEMs, the Storm is a perfect representation of why exotic ultra-high end IEMs still exist.
If you read this far, you probably fall into one of three camps:
- You’re looking to plan your next upgrade and are scoping out what the high-end holds.
- You just want to see what the pinnacle of audio looks like.
- You own a top-tier IEM yourself and want to know if it made the list.
Well, to group #3, if your favorite, mega-expensive IEM didn’t make this list, then don’t feel too bad. We can’t emphasize enough that audio is a very personal hobby and what we primarily index for is a tasteful balance between tonality and technicalities. As with anything, it’s always a compromise between qualities. While great IEMs help mitigate just how much needs to be sacrificed, we don’t live in a perfect world. Everyone will have their own preferences in how much one trait is traded-off in favor of another. That is fundamentally the raison d'etre of this hobby - an individual’s pursuit of perfect sound. Your perfect sound. Not someone else’s.
And keep in mind, neither of us (Fc-Construct nor Precogvision) has heard everything out there. But from what we’ve heard, this is our IEM buyers guide for the first half of 2023. For more resources check out our reviews here at The Audio Files, over at The Headphone Show on YouTube, and join our Discord server where we have a great community of audio enthusiasts happy to talk about all things audio.