We’ve tested more than 125 earbuds for this guide, so we can’t list our thoughts on every one here. However, if you are looking for information on a specific model we haven’t mentioned, feel free to contact us.
1More Dual Driver: John was the only one of our panelists who enjoyed the Dual Driver earbuds. Brent couldn’t get a good seal, and Geoff and I both found the high frequencies to be too harsh and the mids to be recessed. However, John mentioned that he thought the earbuds might fall out of his ear, so perhaps fit affected the sound quality for him as well.
1More Triple Driver: This model is boosted in both the bass and the upper-treble frequency regions, so on electronic music, hip-hop, and similarly mixed songs, our panel thought the sound could get a bit overpowering on the bottom and sibilant on the top. Songs with already-forward low bass notes could sound so loud that they’d overpower some of the guitar strums. Similarly, the consonants on vocals seemed a little unnaturally forward.
1More Quad Driver: The mids and highs were nice, but the bloated, muddy bass smeared acoustic-guitar sound, and male vocals were buried.
AKG N20U: If we had to use one word to describe the N20U, it would be “almost.” Brent, Geoff, and I mostly liked the sound, which consisted of a slightly boosted bass, even mids, and mostly pleasant highs. What went wrong? One section of the highs had a jabbing sibilant quality that ruined what could otherwise have been a great-sounding set of headphones. Also, the earbud shape felt unstable in several panelists’ ears.
Beats urBeats3: The fit on these earbuds was solid for us, and the semi-firm wings are a great stability feature. You can tell these headphones are made with quality drivers, but in our tests the tuning had too much of a bump in the highs and lows. The reverby bass made Kanye sound as if he were performing in a swimming pool, and we disliked the in-your-face highs.
Beyerdynamic iDX 160 iE: Beyerdynamic is usually known for a crisp high end. This pair, however, seemed more mid-forward; as a result, guitars overpowered vocals, and the entire sound ended up kind of muddy. The bass, perhaps because there were no highs to contain it, sounded bloated and formless. Overall we were underwhelmed.
Beyerdynamic iDX 200 iE: In comparison with our picks, these earbuds had a two-dimensional quality, lacking dynamic range. Additionally, a bass peak dulled the mids, and the highs were a touch sibilant. Decent, but not quite as balanced as the earbuds we chose.
Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd: This pair isn’t especially isolating, which may explain why the company chose to boost the bass frequencies. In our tests, however, the bloat on the low end was noticeable even on acoustic guitar. Plus, the highs were a touch jagged, which made everything sound less detailed than we prefer.
Brainwavz B150: This pair caused some fit issues for our panel, which in turn affected the way we experienced the sound. Part of the panel couldn’t get the ear tip into their ear canal deeply enough to seal, due to the shape of the plastic housing. For those folks, the bass was lacking. Other panelists found that the high notes didn’t sound as delicate and clear as they’d like.
Brainwavz B200: These earbuds had intensely, painfully, piercingly sibilant high frequencies.
Brainwavz S3: Brent and I both had issues getting a seal with the S3, even using the largest tips—we could get one side to seal well, but the other we had to hold in place. If we let go of the cable, the weight of the metal chassis would pull the earbuds out of our ears. Fit aside, all of our panelists found that the S3 had a thin-sounding vocal range, and the lows were too rounded off. It made stringed instruments (guitar included) lack richness and depth. The S3 wasn’t terrible, but it was flawed enough for us to keep it off our list of top picks.
Brainwavz S5: The S5 had an intense high-end peak, both at 3 kHz and somewhere around 6 kHz, that could be fatiguing to folks who are sensitive to higher frequencies. This pair also emphasizes any flaws in recording, so if you’re listening to something with a tape hiss (as some older, pre-remastered recordings from before 1980 have), you’ll notice it a lot more. These headphones just weren’t quite good enough to beat out our top choices.
Denon AH-C720: So much reverby bass. The highs were quite peaked, and that was the only reason the vocals didn’t get completely lost. We detected an icy sibilance to the highs that caused inhalations of vocalists to have a metallic quality. These earbuds offer enough separation in the mids and lows that you can distinguish guitar from bass, but to us the results sounded as though both instruments were playing in an echo chamber.
Echobox Finder X1: These headphones have several filters that alter the sound, but none of them was a home run for our panel. We found the “balanced” filter to be blurry in the lows, and the bass-forward filter produced way too much bass. The third filter made the highs sound bright and coarse.
Etymotic ER2XR: The “XR” in the name stands for “extended response.” Etymotic is known for sound profiles that generally lack bass intensity, but the ER2XR is designed to deliver more bass. Although these earbuds do have more bass than previous models, it was still noticeably lower in the mix during our tests. We found ourselves wanting to turn the volume up to better hear a bass guitar and the lower notes of a piano. But when we did, the vocals and snare hits became so loud as to be uncomfortable.
Etymotic ER3SE: The highs and mids were lovely, but songs where the bass should have been present were missing oomph. Even after we messed with an equalizer and tried to turn up the bass, the result sounded as though someone had forgotten to plug in the subwoofer.
Final E3000: Our panel quite liked these earbuds but found that the bass was just a little too heavy and blurry, and it tended to cover the recessed mids.
Final F3100: This pair had a noisy cable and nonexistent lows that emphasized consonants and recording flaws.
Flare Audio Flares Jet: The high frequencies had too much of a noticeable peak to sound natural, and the bass boost was a bit too broad, so low notes could blur male vocals. Additionally, the cable transferred a noticeable amount of noise.
Grado iGi: The iGi comes with a variety of unusually shaped tips, yet Brent and I couldn’t get a seal with any of them. Our panel agreed that the high frequencies were not only too intense but also too harsh and sibilant. On this pair, “s” sounds especially pierced. Although the mids and lows were lovely, the enormous spike in the consonant range was far too fatiguing for us to be able to listen to this set for long periods.
Klipsch R6i: These earbuds have a tip shape that is specific to the Klipsch brand. It never fit Brent, and none of the rest of us on the panel were happy with the fit, so we didn’t think we could evaluate the sound properly.
Klipsch X6i: The lows sounded a little dull and blurry, and the highs were kind of shushing to our panel’s ears. The biggest issue was that none of our panelists felt like they had a secure seal.
Marshall Mode EQ: The Mode EQ has a little switch on the side of the remote that toggles between what Marshall describes as a “warm sound” and a “brighter sound.” Although our panel didn’t dislike the Mode EQ, we didn’t like either option more than the sound of the standard Mode earbuds. We thought the low frequencies were a bit overstated on the “warm” setting and the highs a bit jagged on the “bright” setting. Overall, we found the standard Mode to be our favorite of the Marshall in-ear models.
Massdrop x NuForce EDC: The lows on these earbuds sounded pretty good, but we heard a spike in the highs that made high notes sizzly, sibilant, and piercing when we turned the volume up.
Massdrop x NuForce EDC3: Our panel found the bass to be thudding and one-note, and the highs uneven in a way that sounded unnatural. Snaps on a snare drum’s edge sounded like “thap!” rather than “clack.”
Master & Dynamic ME05: The highs on the ME05 had an icy edge, and panelists agreed that this pair had a bit too much bass for our tastes. We didn’t dislike it by any means, but we liked other headphones better.
MEE Audio M6 Pro 2nd Generation: We liked the sweat resistance of this pair but found the highs and lows pushed forward in a way that sounded unnatural. Although that effect may be helpful for someone on stage who needs vocals and the beat to be the most clear when they’re performing, we didn’t love it for passive music enjoyment.
MEE Audio Pinnacle P1: Oh dear. These earbuds were a sizzly, piercing mess. The high highs were so peaked. Have you ever moved the definition slider on a photo-editing program all the way up, to the point where it looks like there’s a dark outline on everything? That’s how unnatural this pair sounded.
MEE Audio Pinnacle P2: No one on our panel was able to get a comfortable fit with these earbuds, despite their being designed to be worn with the cable either threaded over the ear or hanging down. In our tests, “s” sounds were overemphasized, and the bass was mildly muffled.
Meze Audio Rai Solo: This pair feels well made, it’s comfortable to wear, and we love that it comes with a lot of tips. However, in our tests the lower highs were a little forward, so the overall sound in the upper frequency range wasn’t as clear and sparkling as we’d like to hear. Additionally, something in the low mids seemed muffled, which lent the sound a veiled quality and a lack of depth compared with the results from other earbuds we like in this price range.
Monoprice HR-3: These earbuds sounded inauthentic, with icy highs and booming bass.
Monoprice MP80: This pair has filters that adjust the sound, but we didn’t care for any of them. The “balanced” filter applied a piercing and tinny quality to the highs while leaving the bass unfocused and seeming to have no pitch. The “voice forward” filter made vocals sound as if they were in a tin can. As for the bass-boost filter, the bass on songs that already had a lot of bass became so loud and reverby that the only other thing we could hear aside from the bass was consonants.
Monoprice Monolith M300: We were not fans of these earphones. The highs sounded weirdly dull, and the lows came across as blurry and muddy, as if everything were under a wet blanket. The fit was uncomfortable and tended to shift a lot in the ear canal, both of which also affected the sound quality.
Monoprice Quintet Wired In Ear Monitor: We really liked that this pair has a detachable and replaceable cable with a single-button remote and mic for under $100. But our panel was divided on the sound quality. With high frequencies, Lauren thought the narrow high-end spike was enough to add sufficient detail, but John felt as though these didn’t deliver the crispness he wanted to hear. We all agreed that the bass was too forward in the mix: While it didn’t blur male vocals, it did make them sound like they were recessed. If you’re a bass fan, you might like these, but audio purists probably will want to pass.
NAD Viso HP20: These earbuds are decent. They’re not strictly neutral—in our tests, the lows could sound as if they had a touch of extra reverb, which added some spaciousness. Unfortunately, the earbuds’ bullet-shaped chassis forced two of our panelists to push the tips quite far into their ear canals to get a proper seal, and these earbuds also lacked the overall detail of our top picks.
Optoma NuForce HEM Dynamic: These earbuds sounded veiled, with blurry bass and muffled highs.
Optoma NuForce HEM2: This set reproduced mids and lows well but had a spike on the highs that affected “s” sounds on consonants. This effect can be fatiguing for folks who are sensitive to high frequencies.
Phiaton MS 100 BA: Affordable and sporting a single-button remote, the MS 100 BA would have been a pick if it weren’t for the sibilant highs. Everyone on the panel noticed them and found them fatiguing. It produces a slight dip in the male vocal range too, so if you turn up the volume on a man singing, “s” sounds really pierce. A near-miss.
Pioneer SE-CH5T: This pair sounded best with Comply foam tips, but even then, bloated lows muffled electric guitar and the lower half of the piano range, and the highs had a somewhat sibilant quality. When we used the silicone tips, the flaws were magnified, with an even boomier bass and lispy syllables on consonants.
Polk Audio Nue Era: We found the frequency response on these earbuds to be uneven. If you listen to music that’s sonically dense (think Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound), you can hear dips and valleys that weren’t in the recordings.
RBH EP2: A former pick. The slight bass bump and dynamic sound still make it a quality pair of headphones. But progress happens, and when we compared the EP2 against our winners, we found that it lacked the flat, even sound and extra detail in the highs that we could hear from the best in the category.
RHA T20i: Although the T20i has several filters, our panel wasn’t impressed with any of them. All of them bestowed a quality to the highs that made vocals sound lispy, and recessed mids made guitars sound as if they were farther away than the rest of the music.
Shure Aonic 4: We had high hopes for this set of in-ear monitors, but found that the sound quality lacked the sparking highs and depth of field we’ve come to expect from similarly priced competitors. The lows felt dull, formless, and missing a sense of space. We also weren’t fans of the upper-mid-frequency spike that sounded to be in the range between 3 kHz and 5 kHz range, and a high-frequency bump around 10 kHz that added too much snap to snares and too much sibilance to vocals. The Aonic 4 isn’t a bad pair of headphones, but at the original asking price of $300, we expected more.
V-Moda Forza Metallo: This set wasn’t a favorite for our panel. Dull, lifeless bass and coarse-sounding highs made music sound unbalanced and overly hyped.
V-Moda Zn: The cable has a heavy decorative widget that tugs on the earbuds when you walk, so they feel as though they might fall out of your ears. In our tests, although female vocals and strings sounded clear and detailed, we heard a high peak on “t” and “s” sounds that was piercing. Additionally the bass had a reverby quality that caused basslines to lose clarity.
Yamaha EPH-M100: Unrefined lows produced a lack of depth and dimension on the M100. Voices sounded thin and unsupported, and the upper mids were harsh.
Yamaha EPH-M200: Ideally, your headphones should be even-sounding across all frequency ranges, a flat line from bass to treble. In contrast, the M200 created a craggy mountain range of peaks and valleys. The mid frequencies were recessed, and the lows and highs had a few spikes that made bass instruments sound blobby. Voices sounded simultaneously muffled in the vocal range yet sizzling on the consonants.