The best in-ear monitors (IEM) can completely revolutionize a band’s live performance, isolating them from the noisy stage for clear monitoring. Some musicians who are already accustomed to IEM also prefer them in the studio over headphones — usually for comfort. A good pair is a wise investment for any performer.
What Are In-Ear Monitors?
IEM are a style of earbud. Whereas consumer earbuds, like Apple AirPods, rest gently inside the inner ear, IEM fit more deeply into the ear canal and form a tight, isolating seal from the outside environment. In-ear monitors cater towards professional musicians and are suitable for any kind of monitoring. The sound quality is typically better than consumer earbuds.
Most touring musicians use IEM to monitor their live performance. Each member of the group can dial in a custom mix, and they can even run click tracks and other set cues straight to their ears. With many groups, IEM have replaced on-stage speaker wedges for more accurate monitoring as well as hearing protection.
You can also use IEM in the studio, and obviously for rehearsal if you’re taking them on tour. Many even sound quite good for regular listening!
What to Look for
The top two specs to check for with off-the-shelf in-ear monitors are isolation and fit. The two also sort of go hand-in-hand, since the best fit for your ears will also yield optimal isolation from loud stages and rehearsal rooms. Most IEM come with multiple sets of foam or silicone tips, so you can try out different fits and find the most comfortable set.
The Best In-Ear Monitors for Any Budget
Best Overall IEM: Simgot EK3
Though not a household name in pro audio, the Simgot EK3s offer quite a bit for their mid-range pricing. Most notably, the outer casing is molded from medical-grade resin into an ergonomic shape that ensures a comfortable fit for nearly everyone. They’re reminiscent of much higher end, custom-molded IEM.
They come with three pairs of silicone tips, sport a 20 to 40 kHz frequency response, and also feature four tuning modes based on intended use.
Best Budget In-Ear Monitors: Shure SE215 Pro
Shure’s SE215 IEM are one of the most well known sets around. Not only are they super affordable, but the sound quality is clear and bassy thanks to a well designed, high-def driver. These come with a fleet of different tips to find just the right fit, and offer a whopping 37 dB of attenuation when fit snuggly. The cable itself is reinforced with kevlar, but it’s also detachable and replaceable should any damage occur.
Flagship monitors in the Audio Technica E series, the E70s are a really nice pair of mid-range IEM. The sound quality is superb — accurate and detailed with an excellent sound stage. That makes them perfect for the stage, but you can also use them as a studio mix reference. Sound is reproduced by three drivers, and they come with multiple tips and a detachable cable.
Best Noise-Cancelling: Bose QuietComfort
Okay, let’s be fair. These are a pair of consumer earbuds, but they’re worth mentioning in case you’ve stumbled here on the hunt for a casual listening device. The intelligent noise-cancelling technology is really impressive, offering various modes and automatic adjustment to your surroundings. Bose QuietComfort buds have garnered many accolades as some of the best-in-class noise-cancelling earbuds.
Most Comfortable In-Ear Monitors: Sennheiser IE 40 Pro
What makes the IE 40 more comfortable than many competitors is its super small driver design. Those with smaller ears will appreciate how it nestles into the ear without causing irritation. This IEM also offers high-quality sound reproduction at loud level without distortion, and comes at a price most anyone can afford.
Giving Bose a run for its money is the Sony WF-1000XM4 noise-cancelling earbud. Alright, again not technically a professional IEM, these are a versatile set of wireless, noise-cancelling earbuds for a variety of purposes. These include some of Sony’s most advanced proprietary technology for excellent sound reproduction and intuitive noise cancellation.
These in-ear monitors are amongst the best for both professional and casual use. High sensitivity and low impedance means any device can drive them adequately for the best sound they can offer, which means you can take from the stage to your mobile device with ease. Etymotic Research also promises between 35 and 42 dB of passive attenuation depending on which ear tips you use.
Shure’s premium SE846 in-ear monitors cater to both performing musicians, mixing engineers, and audiophile listeners. These buds contain four drivers for accurate and full-spectrum reproduction of material. They also come with numerous different tips to find your perfect seal and fit, as well as changeable filters that alter the frequency response for just the sound you’re trying to hear.
Powerful & Affordable: Mackie MP-220
Full frequency response, plenty of power, ergonomic fit, and 40dB of attenuation/isolation: the Mackie MP-220s do it all, and they’re extremely wallet-friendly. These are a nice choice for first-time buyers who want to see what the fuss is all about with IEM; it’s a minimal investment and the sound quality is impressive overall.
The ProPhile 8 monitors by the German company InEar are a higher end set of in-ear monitors for discerning pros. One of the most unique features is the custom-molded universal fit shape. The designers took molds of hundreds of different ears and ear canals and created a conglomerate that’s comfortable for virtually every wearer. Their sound quality is studio reference-grade, so you can be confident that these are extremely accurate.
Westone ES80s are professional in-ear monitors for serious musicians and listeners. Each bud contains eight(!) drivers, including two low-frequency drivers, two midrange drivers, and four high-frequency drivers to deliver exceptionally balanced and rich audio across the entire spectrum. These are also custom-molded via specs you send to Westone after visiting an audiologist who takes a mold of your ear canal. If you want the optimal IEM experience, look no further.
Best High End IEM: Noble Audio Khan
And finally, we have one of the finest pairs of IEM you can buy off-the-shelf. Noble Audio’s award-winning Khan features six drivers for unparalleled sound quality. Audiophiles, mixers, mastering engineers, and live musicians can all appreciate what Khan has to offer in terms of sheer balance, imaging, definition, clarity, and bass fullness.