With the 2014 What Hi-Fi? Awards out the way, it's time to update our list 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: Apple iPhone 6 review
Best in-ear headphones under £50
Tested at £40 - Compare Prices
Bettering their E10 predeccesor 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 E10S look, feel and sound like they’re worth way more than £40 and are a no-brainer to replace the cheap freebie buds with any smartphone.
MORE: Read our full SoundMagic E10S review
Best in-ear headphones under £70
Tested at £60 - Compare Prices
The Sony MDR-EX650AP seriously impressed us this year, walking away with the Product of the Year title at the Awards. Constructed from brass, the EX650APs deliver an open soundstage with expert placement. Tonal balance is well judged too, and quite simply, the Sony's will tackle anything that's thrown at them.
MORE: Read our full Sony MDR-EX65AP review
Best in-ear headphones under £150
Tested at £130 - Compare Prices
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.
MORE: Read our full Sony XBA-2iP review
Also consider: Klipsch Image X7i
Best in-ear headphones under £200
Tested at £200 - Compare Prices
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. Which is why they won the award in the £150 - £300 category at the 2 014 Awards.
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: Read our full Shure SE425 review
Also consider: Sony XBA-3iP
More after the break
Best in-ear headphones under £300
Tested at £270 - Compare Prices
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: Read our full Sennheiser iE80 review
Also consider: Sony XBA-4iP
Best in-ear headphones under £500
Tested at £355 - Compare Prices
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: Read our full Grado GR10 review
Best in-ear headphones under £700
Tested at £600 - Compare Prices
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, we think you’d be hard-pressed to find better. Except possibly, the ones below...
MORE: Read our full Sennheiser IE 800 review
Best in-ear headphones under £1000
Tested at £1000 - Compare Prices
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: Read our full AKG K3003i review