Best in-ear headphones to buy in 2014

16 Apr 2014

UPDATED 16/04/14: Fancy a new pair of earphones? We review the best in-ear headphones available, from cheap-as-chips offerings to high-end models. Whatever the budget, there's something for everyone.

The headphone market has exploded in recent years, driven first by the iPod and then by the rise of smartphones as the portable music player of choice. But it's no good having the best smartphone for music if you don't have a decent pair of earphones.

MORE: Awards 2013: See our 99 award-winning products for 2013!

In-ear headphones (or cans, buds, earphones, earbuds) 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... 

 

Best in-ear headphones under £50

Soundmagic E10

Tested at £35

Five stars

SoundMagic E10

These multi-Award winners just keep giving, and year after year we're surprised how good they are. Delivering a punchy and agile sound, these budget SoundMagic headphones deliver plenty of detail and weight for a steal of a price.

The E10s look, feel and sound like they’re worth way more than £35 and are a no-brainer to replace the cheap freebie buds with any smartphone. They're an absolute bargain, and now available under £30. 

MORE: Soundmagic E10 review

Also consider: RHA MA-350

 

Best in-ear headphones under £70

Beyerdynamic DTX 101 iE

Tested at £64

Five stars

Beyerdynamic DTX 101 iE

 

The Beyerdynamic DTX 101 iE earphones are a smart but otherwise fairly unspectacular-looking pair of in-ears (you can choose a red finish if you want something a little more eye-catching).

More importantly, your money buys you a beautifully balanced performance with sparkly, controlled treble and solid bass that adds power when needed.

The three supplied pairs of tips makes it easy to find a comfortable, noise-isolating fit, meaning our only issue is the occasional cable noise, though this can be cured by running the wires over your ears before putting them in your ears. Another solid pair of in-ear headphones at a good price.

MORE: Beyerdynamic DTX 101 iE review

Also consider: Sennheiser MM70s

 

Best in-ear headphones under £100

Beyerdynamic MMX 101 iE

Tested at £95

Five stars

Beyerdynamic MMX 101 iE

Another multi-Award winner that just refuses to be beaten. It would be easy to dismiss the Beyerdynamic MMX 101 iE in-ear headphones as a mic-enabled version of the less-expensive DTX 101 iEs.

These are, though, superior-sounding earphones that add weight and greater dynamics to the already impressive delivery. There’s a smidge more detail and drive to these earphones, too. It's unusual, because we'd usually expect headphones with mic units to sound a little worse.

While the lack of volume controls on the mic/remote unit might be annoying, the one-button system works with non-Apple smartphones – so more users can also enjoy the brilliant sound.

Also consider: Grado iGi 

 

Best in-ear headphones under £150

Sony XBA-2iP

Tested at £130 Compare Prices

Five stars

The Sony XBA-2iP in-ear headphones come from the company’s Prestige range of headphones, and are also available without the in-line mic and remote (the XBA-2) 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.

Also consider: Klipsch Image X7i

Also consider: Etymotic Research hf3

 

Best in-ear headphones under £200

Shure SE425

Tested at £200

Five stars

 

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 never thought 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 a bit annoying to put in, but the results are worth it. 

The SE425s have detachable enclosures – which means if the cable breaks, you can replace it for less money than buying a new set of earphones – and there's also the option of custom buds and adding a separate mic and remote unit. However you have them, you'll be happy with the sound quality.

MORE: Shure SE425 review

Also consider: Sony XBA-3iP

Also consider: Klipsch Image X10i

 

Best in-ear headphones under £300

Sennheiser iE80

Tested at £270 Compare Prices

Five stars

 

These headphones have a premium price, but they're presented in a manner which suits. Build quality is first rate, with the solid, brushed-metal housings catching the eye, and there's a carry case, too.

The iE80s have excellent separation and clarity, dig out a serious amount of detail, boast punchy drums and natural-sounding vocals. Interestingly, you can adjust the amount of bass by adjusting a small screw on the earphone. We got 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

Also consider: Sony XBA-4iP

 

Best in-ear headphones under £500

Grado GR10

Tested at £355 Compare Prices

Five stars

Grado GR10

Now we get into luxury in-ear territory, where a smartphone alone won’t be enough to get the most out of the headphones. Get an external DAC and headphone amp to get the best out of these – and get seriously impressive results.

Tested at £355, the Grado GR10 in-ears are now the wrong side of £400 but 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.

Delivering bags of insight with breathtaking agility, without ever seeming clinical, is a fine balance that very few rivals can match.

MORE: Grado GR10

 

Best in-ear headphones under £700

Sennheiser IE 800

Tested at £600 Compare Prices

Five stars


Sennheiser IE 800

As you’d expect, Sennheiser is at pains to point out the numerous innovations and attention to detail incorporated into the £600 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, we think you’d be hard-pressed to find better. Except possibly, the ones below...

 

Best in-ear headphones under £1000

AKG K3003i

Tested at £1000 Compare Prices

Five stars

AKG K3003i with control

The priciest pair of in-ear headphones we’ve ever reviewed, they 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: precise and articulate, with weight and authority. The news stays positive further up the frequency range, too. Kate Bush’s vocals on the 24-bit/96kHz version of 50 Words for Snow sound as intimate and communicative as we’ve heard them.

Yes, they're very expensive, but we're amazed at how accomplised they are for a pair of in-ear headphones. A must audition if you want the very best.

 

MORE: Best headphones to buy in 2014 

MORE: Best tech products 2014

 

by Ced Yuen

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Comments

Amen. I do think that if you look at Shure up to the £300 mark you're still getting more for your money, although it comes mainly in the form of build / component quality. The Grados are made like cheap chinese earbuds you'd get on a sightseeing bus. The fact they sound reasonably good, are stupidly expensive and are branded Grado seems to have blinded the reviewers. Ditto for Sennheiser and AKG, but the build quality is better - £80-150 level better that is. 

Good to see the Ety HF3's getting a mention in the 'also consider' along with the Sonys - I'd forgotten about these little gems. I personally think regardless of price these would be my choice. 

I have a pair of Sony's XBA-2iP and for the price I don't think you can get better. I would like to know what a grands worth of earphones sound like, to bad I don't have a grand to spend on earphones. 

Big fan of the Sony XBAs. They are a company who -at that price - give you a lot for your money. Shure's are very good too. Wouldn't mind seeing a Westone in there - W20 maybe? 

How the three £500+ can be taken seriously by anyone, let alone an audio mag is beyond me. A high-end cable is thicker than any of those three for a start, and certainly too big to fit a 3-button remote on. You need to fit 5 or 6 cores to run a relay on a remote instead of the standard two, so the actual cores must be incredibly flimsy. 

And as has been pointed out in the forums - the two Beyers are in fact the same product, but with and without mic. 

 

To me, AKG earphones are superior.

I would also recommend the AKG K375 (year 2013), which for USD 90, are fantastic.

 

Surely not illegal? Totally deaf people can still drive legally.

Bought the Galdo headphones from the biggest online retailer in the world. I only trust reviews from people who actually bought these headphones and this is how I got a great deal and free shipping: http://amzn.to/1dP9YJH - Pretty hard to beat that.

I thought it was illegal to drive with 'phones in both ears? You can't hear police sirens etc. if you do, at least not properly.