Best In-Ear Headphones Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best in-ear headphones you can buy in 2019.
Looking for a new pair of in-ear headphones to partner with your smartphone or tablet? This is the page for you.
Those bundled buds will only last so long and this list proves you don't have to spend a fortune to get a serious jump in sound quality. Of course, if your budget allows you can spend more, which is something to consider if, say, you use a premium portable music player full of hi-res music.
Compared to over-ear designs that can look and feel big and bulky, in-ears offer a more discreet listening experience, while their snug fit tends to deliver decent levels of isolation from the outside world.
There's something for everyone on this list including budget and premium earphones, plus wireless and noise-cancelling options too. Rest assured, all the in-ear headphones mentioned below deliver impressive audio for the money.
Best in-ear headphones
Given we first reviewed the Shure SE425s back in 2013, it's fair to say they've stood the test of time. Fun, absorbing, classy, polished and captivating are just a few adjectives that you can use to describe their sound. The level of finesse and refinement on offer is astonishing even at this price.
You can hear things you never thought were there even on recordings you know inside out. Sure, their looks might not appeal to everyone and they can be a bit fiddly to get in place first time round due to their over-ear design, but these are all about the amazing audio.
Read the full review: Shure SE425
The SoundMagic E11C headphones are the latest addition to a range that represents one of the more surprising success stories of recent years. Founded in 2005, a relative flash in the pan compared to many audio companies, SoundMagic rose from obscurity to multiple-Award winners, most notably with its budget in-ear headphone range.
The E10 set the marker for sub-£50 excellence for a number of years, and following an E10C in-line mic and remote control upgrade, the E11C equivalent is new for 2018. And we’re happy to report, they’re still pretty magic.
Read the full review: SoundMagic E11C
The Beyerdynamic Soul Byrds (no, that’s not a slip of the keyboard) are a talented pair of sub-£100 in-ear headphones. If you want an affordable upgrade for a pair of ageing Apple EarPods, these headphones deserve to be on your hitlist. They’re so good, we’ll even forgive the spelling.
Read the full review: Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd
Willing to stretch a bit beyond the Beyerdynamic Byrons? The Klipsch R6i II headphones are your next logical step. These Award-winning in-ears look and feel as if they should be more expensive. They're also a snug fit and extremely comfortable. And then there's the sound quality.
Timing and organisation are excellent great sense of refinement. Lows are accurate and balanced, while highs sound sharp and precise. Put simply, these amazing in-ears deliver on all fronts.
Read the full review: Klipsch R6i II
First thing's first. If you've got one eye on the AKG N40s, you need to use them with a suitable source. We're talking a premium(ish) portable music player or a smartphone and accompanying portable DAC/headphone amplifier. Otherwise, there's a good chance you won't be able drive them properly and the sound quality will suffer.
If you're satisfied your source is up to it, prepare to be impressed. They're smart looking and comfortable in-ears, with fitted over-ear hooks keeping the buds securely in place. They come with different filters so you can tweak the sound at either the top or bottom ends. It's nice to have the option, but even without using them, their spacious and immersive delivery sets them apart from the competition.
Read the full review: AKG N40
There are wireless in-ear headphones and then there are truly wireless in-ear headphones. If you want to cut the cord completely, then the Sony WF-1000X earbuds are our current favourites. They're a lightweight design and compact with it.
It's quite the achievement, given the Sonys squeeze in batteries, playback controls, a Bluetooth receiver and active noise-cancelling. Battery life is three hours, although the supplied carry case doubles as a charger, giving you an extra six hours.
Their tonal balance is beautifully judged and timing is superb, with a good sense of rhythm and dynamics. Given the WF-1000Xs started out with a £200/$198 price tag, the fact they're now available for under £150 makes them a bit of a bargain.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000X
As you can see from the picture of the Sony WI-1000X, these are wireless in-ear headphones joined by a collar to keep them together. They're not truly wireless like the WF-1000X (above), but the collar does have a couple of benefits: better stability and built-in battery life. Sony claims the WI-1000X will keep going for 10 hours of use with noise-cancellation and 17 hours without.
You can even tailor the noise-cancelling to suit your surroundings with the built-in 'Atmospheric Pressure Optimizer'. They build on the WF-1000X's sound by adding more of everything. Greater subtlety, attention to detail, more obvious dynamic thrust. If you want in-ear portability with on-ear battery life and power, the WI-1000X could be the answer.
Read the full review: Sony WI-1000X
Just when you thought in-ear headphones couldn't get more premium, we arrive at the mighty Shure SE846 earphones, yours for a cool £950 . And it goes without saying, you'll need a serious DAC/headphone amp to make the most of their sonic talents - we'd suggest something along the lines of the Chord Hugo 2 or Naim DAC-V1.
Like the AKG N40s, the Shures provide a filter so you can adjust their tonal balance. The effect is subtle, but it's worth experimenting. The SE846s provide a good seal, with the smooth, curved enclosures sitting nicely against the ear. The fact is you'd have to spend thousands of pounds on speakers before you find as much detail. They deliver every last nuance and dynamic shift while leading edges are beautifully drawn. Yes they're expensive, but the Shures are good enough to justify the cost.
Read the full review: Shure SE846
The E11D (the ‘D’ stands for ‘digital’) are SoundMagic’s first pair of USB-C headphones. The 3.5mm connector has been replaced by a USB-C one, designed to plug straight into the increasing number of Android smartphones (such as the Google Pixel 3 XL, Samsung Galaxy S9 and OnePlus 6T), and Apple’s latest iPad Pros, using the connection.
They also feature a dedicated DAC, which handles files up to 24-bit/96kHz, and an amplifier needed to make things work.
Swapping between Google, OnePlus, Huawei and Samsung smartphones, we are pleased to be met with a sound similar in character to the wired, five-star SoundMagic E11Cs. They’re clear, tonally sound and as communicative as you could reasonably expect for the money. While the E11Cs convey sound with more body and solidity, the E11Ds serve as a natural upgrade to a pair of smartphone bundled USB-C headphones.
Read the full review: SoundMagic E11D
Theses are some of the best-sounding, most reliable running and gym headphones you'll find for under £150. There is a soft cable between the two buds, each of which uses an in-ear hook to keep them in place.
We like the design here, complete with lightweight remote, and these running headphones are also sweat-resistant and IPX4 splashproof, too. The battery life is a modest six hours but we'd imagine that'll do most people for a few runs or circuits.
Read the full review: Bose SoundSport Wireless
These aren’t just water-resistant, but washable to IPX7 standards, so you can give them a thorough clean under the tap after use. Be careful soaking the only-splashproof 1-button remote, though – you’ll need that working for hands-free playback and call functions.
Cheap headphones often suffer from thinness and brightness. Not here. The JVCs have decent weight – a touch more than the Audio Technica ATH-CKP2000 earphones – and are beautifully balanced.
Looking for affordable in-ears for those training sessions in the rain? Here’s a pair with your name on it.
Read the full review: JVC HA-ETR40