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Ask any musician about the key to great sound and they’ll tell you it begins with a solid pair of in-ear monitors. Also known as “earpieces” or simply, “in-ears,” these flexible earbuds let musicians hear their tracks more cleanly and accurately, isolating the audio while sealing off outside interference and noise.
A must-have for performers, in-ears are making their way to the mainstream too. For their Vegas residency, “Deuces Are Wild,” rockers Aerosmith offer a VIP experience where fans can use a pair of headphones to — literally — plug into Steven Tyler’s audio feed to hear what the rocker is hearing through his IEMs.
These earbuds work great off the stage as well, especially if you’re looking for something to wear say, while working out, or at your desk to block out annoying co-worker chatter. The noise-cancelling properties of these buds mean they’ll seal out outside noise and let you focus on your music.
For Nathaniel Motte, one-half of electro-pop duo, 3OH3!, finding a solid pair of in-ears is essential to both clearly discern what he’s hearing, and to protect his hearing.
“The tight fit of in-ear monitors allows them to essentially act as earplugs, blocking out noise,” Motte explains. “That’s important for a touring musician, who is often exposed to very loud music. A generic headphone will not provide that comprehensive seal to block out noise.”
It’s that tight seal that also allows you to hear what you need to hear more clearly. “Musicians can dial in their ‘mix’ while on-stage, and hear their own vocals, instruments, etc, rather than having to blast themselves with what they want to hear through floor monitors or wedges on-stage,” Motte says. “When properly using in-ears, you’re preserving your hearing, and you’re hearing better.”
While Motte gets his in-ear monitors custom-made (read: custom-molded to his ear shape), you can find a decent pair of in-ears without having to see a specialist. We’ve found some solid pairs you can buy online, that will work whether you’re performing on stage or just want an upgrade for your current set of cups.
You’ll want to look for a pair that supports the listening experience you want. A fan of big beats and bass? Consider the IEMs from Shure, which makes one of the most finely-tuned pairs on our list. Prefer something warmer and gentler? We’ve got a couple options for that as well.
You’ll also want to look for earbuds that can seal off outside noise — the key to sound isolation and getting the purest, most accurate sound. All of our picks come with adjustable tips, that let you find the right size for your ears. Once you put them in, the earbuds shouldn’t be wiggling, even if you’re running around on stage — or just going for a light jog outside.
“On-stage, we’re mostly concerned with isolation and clarity, and in-ear monitors certainly provide that,” Motte says, though he adds there is another benefit to scooping up a pair of these buds: “I also use my custom in-ears for travel,” he says. “When I fly, I’m always wearing the in-ears – they act to keep the world out, and as a sort of isolation and safely blanket against loud travelers.”
1. Shure SE215-CL Sound Isolating Earphones
Shure is one of the most respected names in the audio industry, known for its technically-precise microphones and recording equipment, which are used in everything from home podcasts to full concert set-ups. The same attention to detail goes into Shure’s in-ear monitors, which the company says uses the same personal monitor technology that’s road-tested by pro musicians on their roster.
These lightweight, comfortable earbuds deliver crisp, detailed sound with solid bass and dynamics across all ranges. One of the most finely-tuned units on our list, the buds are sensitive enough to pick up even little nuances from your music, making it great for when you need to hear a full mix or pick up certain audio cues.
Shure says its sound isolation sleeves block up to 37 dB of ambient noise, while the earbud nozzles are angled just slightly, to direct music more clearly into your ears.
This set includes three different-sized black foam sleeves that slide over the nozzles to allow you to customize your fit. They’re flexible enough to be twisted and “locked” into place, and soft enough to not bother you if you’re wearing them over a long period of time. The detachable cable system, meantime, lets you swap out the included cables for a Bluetooth one if you want to go wireless.
PROS: Users say this is one of the most reliable pairs of in-ear monitors on the market, with consistent sound quality even over time.
CONS: Though this set comes with a “Fit Kit” of three different sleeves, some users say they still had trouble finding a secure fit. Shure recommends tucking the cable behind your ears, so it may also take some getting used to, especially if you wear glasses.
2. KZ AS10 Earbuds
There’s a lot to like about these in-ears from Chinese brand, KINBOOFI, who are proving that the burgeoning “Chi-Fi” market is quickly catching up to its European and North American counterparts.
With five balanced armatures, these in-ear monitors are able to reproduce the entire spectrum of frequencies with excellent detail and clarity. Users report little to no distortion, and say pitch is surprisingly pure – great for differentiating a female voice from a male voice, say, and for tuning your instruments.
The bass is loud and consistent — no lag here — but at times it feels “flat.” If you’re working on a project that requires richer, rounder bass, you’ll want to consider other options on our list. Still, for its price-point, this pair can’t be beat.
Note: these earbuds come with silicone tips, and while they offer a decent fit, you’ll want to purchase a set of flexible and expandable foam tips to really seal off the sound.
PROS: Punchy, plucky sound with good contrasts and loud, full audio.
CONS: The barrel on these buds is larger than other models on this list so if you have small ears, this might be an issue.
3. Easy KZ ZST Dynamic Earphones
Well-made and designed for comfort, these KZ in-ear monitors operate on a “hybrid” structure, with both a direct driver and a balanced armature firing off sound. What that means: faster audio input and more detailed sound, offering a more intimate — rather than bombastic — listening experience.
Users say these earbuds are surprisingly effective, with no distortion and precise, consistent levels across highs, mids and lows. If you want something warmer and richer, you’ll want to pick up a different set of horns, but for regular music listening and recording, these ZST in-ears will serve you just fine.
Manufacturers Yinyoo says their “memory wire technology” helps these earphones stay in place, adjusting to fit the different curvatures of different ear shapes. The silicone tips provide a locked-in fit while the durable resin material of the IEMs keeps things lightweight.
PROS: Easy to set up and start using right out of the box; the color-block design is a fun upgrade from basic buds.
CONS: No carrying case included; sound is not as detailed as other options on our list.