It seems like there are a million high-end IEMs out there, with a million more released every day. Without having listened to dozens of different models, it can be hard to even know where to start. Lucky for you, we have listened to dozens – maybe even hundreds – of IEMs, including some of the best in the world, and we’re here today to offer our advice on the best of the best.
Starting at around the $1000 range and going up from there, we’ll have three categories for you:
Bang for Your Buck is IEMs around or just below the $1000 range that may be good enough to be genuinely endgame for a lot of listeners.
Mid-Tier Flagship is IEMs under $2000 that offer a step up from the $1000 range in performance, and in some cases are among the very best at what they do, but don’t quite match up in performance with the top of the pile.
Absolute Pinnacle Audio is where we hit the point of zero compromise in build, technical performance and design, and the only thing really separating one IEM from another is the difference in sound and your own preference in how the music is presented.
Bang for Your Buck
Typically when you say “bang for your buck” you mean, “this is inexpensive, but still very good.” In this case we mean, “This is expensive, but for the quality level, it could be even more expensive!” And we have three IEMs for you that all hit around $1000 and meet this criteria. Campfire Andromeda, Thieaudio Monarch MKII, and Kinera Imperial Nanna.
Campfire Andromeda is simply one of the best tuned IEMs ever. It’s revealing and detailed, yet still sweet and musical. You get the speed and resolution of balanced armature drivers, but with a bass that could almost be dynamic. While there are a number of very well tuned IEMs in this range, what makes Andromeda stand out is the imaging and vocal presentation. In the thousand dollar range, Andromeda is simply unmatched for its combination of vocal delivery and overall tuning. Rock, pop, funk, hip-hop, metal – Andromeda delivers across genres with an immersive stereo image and a very personal vocal presentation.
Theiaudio Monarch MKII has become one of the most loved headphones in this price range since its release, largely due to its impeccable execution of a Harman tuning that still manages to keep the price under $1000. You get full mids, “just right” bass, and good treble extension along with it. In terms of pure tuning, there are IEMs for twice the price that try for a similar sound without nailing it, but Monarch MKII hits the mark.
Kinera Imperial Nanna/Nanna 2.0 is one of those IEMs that could slide under the radar if you’re not paying attention. It’s a tribrid that delivers a lot of the same goods as Andromeda in terms of imaging and soundstage, but while it can’t match every technical aspect of Andromeda, it has a has excellent timbre and a relaxed, yet well-extended treble delivery that gives it a very strong appeal. It also has a surprisingly high impedance for an IEM at 60 ohms, which means it takes a bit more power than your average IEM, but with sufficient power it provides exceptional performance.
This next round are IEMs that demand a very high price tag – upwards to $2000 – and deliver some of the best performance in the world, but come just short of the very best IEMs that hit in the $3000-$4000 range. In this range you’ll also find IEMs that are endgame for a certain type of sound, even if they’re not the absolute top of a brand’s lineup.
For a smooth, relaxed, natural sound, it’s hard to beat the Noble Jade. Jade provides the quintessential hybrid IEM sound with a thick, rich dynamic bass, strong detail in the midrange, good presence in the treble with a smooth top end, and an all around natural presentation. Jade certainly has good technical performance, but where it stands out the most is in delivering a warm, natural sound that gives it excellent versatility with a wide range of music.
If, at the end of the day, you love detail, but bass is king of your heart, any old flagship IEM isn’t going to work for you. 64 Audio Nio isn’t just an IEM with a monstrous bass, it’s an IEM designed with a detailed, articulate bass, that’s also absolutely monstrous. Nio is a 9 driver hybrid that uses 8 balanced armature drivers judiciously to provide detail, separation, and a spacious stereo image, and 1 dynamic driver to try to shake your brain out of your ears. It’s one of the best combinations of audiophile detail and basshead rumble ever put into an IEM shell.
On the flip side, what if you don’t want any more than the usual amount of bass, but instead you need the maximum resolution, detail, soundstage, and imaging that you can get without hitting $2000? Thieaudio V16 Divinity gives you a 16 driver IEM with absolutely top tier precision and performance. Much like its little brother, Monarch MKII, Divinity’s raw technical capabilities and detail retrieval rival IEMs that cost hundreds of dollars more, making it not only a flagship level IEM, but one that makes $1499 seem like a bargain.
Absolute Pinnacle Audio
Now we’ve reached the IEMs that are the very best – like no one ever was. IEMs at this level provide unearthly levels of performance, which provide insight into the musical performances unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
For a balanced, neutral, detailed sound, with spectacular imaging, 64 Audio U12t is the GOAT. While the design is quite complex with 12 balanced armature drivers per side, there’s a certain simplicity to what makes the sound so good. The tuning is highly neutral in the mids and highs, with a boost in the bass that gives you an added level of dynamics and musicality. Along with the detail and dynamics you get the immense soundstage and holographic imaging that make U12t an incredible IEM experience.
Noble Sultan provides a slightly more relaxed, fun sounding take on a flagship IEM, with a strong presence through the midbass and a bit of extra sizzle at the top that adds a heightened level of excitement to the music. Sultan is a tribrid, mixing dynamic, balanced armature, and electrostatic drivers for a sonic delivery that’s both fun and technically excellent. For rock, pop, and electronic music listeners who want a balanced sound with just the right amount of punch in the bass and loads of top end details, Sultan may very well be the endgame.
Empire Ears Odin is a similar take on the flagship IEM to Sultan, but where Sultan has some slight warm, relaxed tendencies, Odin is up front and energetic all the way. Its 4 EST drivers, 2 dynamic, and 5 BA give you a tight bass and a vivid treble delivery, with less of a warm character than Sultan. The imaging is also quite possibly the best in the world, with precise, holographic delivery. If you’re searching for the ultimate in a fast, highly resolving, technical sounding IEM, with Odin you just might find what you’re looking for.
Vision Ears Phönix is perhaps the most surprising flagship IEMs that I’ve heard. While some are technical almost to a fault, while others balance reference detail and engagement while remaining largely neutral, the 18 BA driver Phönix is warm and lush enveloping you in a massive tapestry that weaves together every detail with a perfect blend of separation and cohesion in the sound. If Odin is the IEM for listening on the edge of your set, Phönix is the one for leaning back and relaxing while the music washes over you.
The Bottom Line
With hundreds of IEMs to choose from, it can be tough to narrow down exactly which one will be best for you. While our list isn’t exhaustive, and there are dozens of great IEMs – like the Vision Ears EXT or Astell&Kern x Campfire Audio Pathfinder – that didn’t make our list today, it’s hard to go wrong with this selection of IEMs. Endgame is different for everyone too. The powerful, yet articulate bass on the 64 Audio Nio might be endgame for some, while others won’t be satisfied with anything less than the lush detail of Phönix. If we’re all looking for our own endgame, we just need to remember that the rules of the game aren’t found on a spec sheet or graph, they’re found in our own ears.