We've reviewed hundreds of pairs of headphones, so here's our rundown of the the best in-ear headphones on the market, from cheap-as-chips models to high-end offerings – there's something for everyone, whatever your budget.
The headphone market has exploded in recent years, driven first by the iPod and latterly by the rise of smartphones as the portable music player of choice. But it's no good having the best smartphone if you don't have a decent pair of headphones.
In-ear headphones are compact and portable, with the advantage of decent noise isolation from outside interference (so long as you get the fit right).
Some earbuds also offer an in-line mic and remote controls for smartphones, though check compatibity and also note that these controls tend to have an adverse effect on sound quality.
Ready to ditch the freebie 'phones and Apple Earpods? Read on...
MORE: Best headphones 2015
See all our in-ear headphone reviews
Tested at £40
Bettering their E10 predecessor in almost every way, the E10S deliver greater refinement and minimise harshness at the top end. Bass is well judged and vocals are exceptionally clear.
The SoundMagic E10S look, feel and sound like they’re worth way more than £40 and are a no-brainer to replace the cheap freebie buds that come with any smartphone.
MORE: SoundMagic E10S review
Tested at £60
The Sony MDR-EX650AP seriously impressed us, walking away with the headphones Product of the Year title at the 2014 Awards.
Constructed from brass, the EX650APs deliver an open soundstage with expert placement. Tonal balance is well judged too - quite simply, these Sonys will sound great whatever music you play.
MORE: Sony MDR-EX65AP review
Tested at £90
We're big fans of Sennheiser's over-ear Momentums, and this in-ear version is just as desirable. The Momentum In-Ears mix a modern look with a classy finish. Two versions are available: the M2 IEi for Apple devices and the IEG, which carries the relevant control/mic combo for Android phones.
Spin a few tracks and the Momentums impress time and again. They fire out a clear, punchy, musical sound, packed full of detail. It's smooth and balanced but cutting and precise when required.
If you're looking for a jump in sound quality above the Sonys then these in-ears definitely deliver. At this price, they're some of the most impressive headphones we've heard in 2015.
Tested at £130
The Sony XBA-2iP in-ears come from the company’s Prestige range of headphones. They are also available without the in-line mic and remote (in XBA-2 guise) for around £20 less.
Sound quality is great, agile, exciting and precise, with a spacious delivery that allows for plenty of detail all the way up the frequency range.
We can’t fault these buds – even call quality is good. Well worth a listen.
MORE: Sony XBA-2iP review
Tested at £200
The Shure SE425 in-ear headphones are superb, incredibly detailed and immersive. The level of finesse on offer is astonishing, even at this price - you’ll hear things you hadn't realised were there even on recordings you know inside out.
The looks might not appeal to everyone – Shure has gone for the pro-style in-ear monitor configuration, where the cable passes up your back and splits behind your head before passing over the top of your ears – and they can be fiddly to put in place, but the results are worth it.
The SE425s have detachable enclosures, so if the cable breaks, you can replace it for less money than buying a new set of earphones. There's also the option of custom buds and adding a separate mic and remote unit. However you have them, though, you'll be happy with the sound quality.
MORE: Shure SE425 review
Tested at £270
These headphones have a premium price, but they're finished in a manner to suit. Build quality is first rate, with the solid, brushed-metal housings catching the eye, and there's a nice carry case, too.
The iE80s have excellent separation and clarity, dig out a serious amount of detail, boast punchy bass and natural-sounding vocals. You can adjust the amount of bass by turning a small screw on the earphone. We get the best balance with a quarter-turn clockwise – see the review for full details.
If you're looking for a cut above entry-level heaphones and are keen to give your MP3 player or phone the right tools to make the most of your digital music, the iE80s will help. They're really impressive earbuds.
MORE: Sennheiser iE80 review
Tested at £355 -
Now we get into luxury in-ear territory, where a smartphone alone won’t be enough to get the most out of the headphones. You'll need to invest in an external DAC or headphone amp to get the best out of these – but if you do, you'll get seriously impressive results.
We first tested them at £355, but the Grado GR10 in-ears are now the wrong side of £400. Still, get them fitted in your ears correctly – vital to getting a proper tonal balance – and you'll enjoy decent bass weight, incredible transparency and one of the most engaging sounds we've heard from a pair of earphones.
They deliver bags of insight with breathtaking agility, without ever seeming clinical - and that's a fine balance that very few rivals can match.
MORE: Grado GR10 review
Tested at £600
As you’d expect, Sennheiser is at pains to point out the numerous innovations and attention to detail incorporated into the Award-winning IE 800s. The extra-wideband (XWB) transducers are the smallest currently available, for example, while the single-piece ceramic enclosures feel super-solid.
Controlled and authoritative with low-end frequencies, crisp and detailed with treble sounds, music is delivered with speed, definition and superb tonal variation.
The Sennheiser IE 800s are superbly made, brilliantly accomplished in-ear headphones. If you can justify the cost, and if your source player can justify it too, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better. Except possibly, the ones below...
MORE: Sennheiser IE 800 review
Tested at £1000
The priciest pair of in-ear headphones we’ve ever reviewed, the AKG K3003is were thankfully also undoubtedly the best when we reviewed them (the Sennheisers above might have something to say about that now).
Use the right source – ideally a laptop with external DAC and headphone amp – and they’ll deliver a sound that’s staggeringly realistic and immersive for a pair of in-ears.
Like the Sennheiser earphones, you can fine-tune the K3003i sound, here by means of interchangeable filters. These take the form of nicely machined caps that screw onto the ear pieces and mechanically filter certain parts of the frequency range.
It's the bass that immediately strikes you. It's precise and articulate, with weight and authority. The news stays positive further up the frequency range, too. Kate Bush’s vocals on the high-res version of 50 Words for Snow sound as intimate and communicative as we’ve heard.
Yes, the AKG K3003is are very expensive, but we're amazed at how accomplished they are for a pair of in-ear headphones. A must audition if you want the very best.
MORE: AKG K3003i review