I still remember my first listen on high-quality in-ears. I was 16, and for Christmas I received a pair of Shure E5s (the distant predecessor to the company’s present-day SE425). The alt-rock band Thrice was the center of my universe at the time, so I put my newest gift to use and buried myself in their recent album Vheissu. I had spent the previous year poring over every note of the record, but all of a sudden it had new life. Bits of character that were once lost on dusty, thin-sounding earbuds came to the forefront — the husky breaths of the lead singer on the mic, the reverb splashing from the drummer’s snare, the clarified, floating highs of a Rhodes piano. A decade later, the headphones have aged wonderfully and remain in my regular rotation.
Exceedingly precise, compact speakers called drivers are the starkest point of differentiation between something like those Shure E5s and standard Apple earbuds. The Apple headphones operate with only one driver, while the E5 has two, and today’s top-of-the-line offerings employ anywhere from six to ten (hence the big price tag). Not all headphones have to be so expensive, of course (I use and love this $8 pair from Panasonic), but it’s important to understand that high-end ones are selling a different experience entirely. A Camry and a Benz both get me to the grocery store, a Timex and a Rolex both give me the hours in the day — but each in their own way. If you’re ready to dive into premium aural luxury, here are some of the best.
– Additional contribution by Tucker Bowe
Noble Audio Encore
The Encore is the next generation of Noble Audio’s heralded Kaiser 10U and is a beautiful intersection of art and tech. It’s 10 premium drivers wrapped in smooth aluminum housings, with sharp red accents and a seemingly indestructible kevlar-wrapped cable. The resulting sound is wide open, comprehensive and balanced. With surging, ambient songs like Youth Lagoon‘s “Doll’s Estate,” the headphones give uncompromising clarity and texture. If you are searching for slapping, pumped-up treble, this may not be your headphone — but it’s hard to beat otherwise.
Ultimate Ear 18 Pro
The UE18s are a little different from the rest of this list, in that they are actually custom in-ear monitors. For these, you go to an audiologist, put a weird piece of foam in your mouth and get goo squirted in your ear canal (trust me, it’s as weird as it sounds). The resulting mold is used to create a one-of-a-kind headphone that slides directly and deeply into your ear. Warm, round bass is the UE18s’ signature, and the headphones get to a teeth-rattling level that others never approach. Take a song like Bjork’s “Hyperballad” and the UE18s give a rumble that is simultaneously crystal clear and burly. The in-ears are also built for use onstage, so they can be cranked louder than other competitors without ever approaching distortion. The cables have a reputation for being a bit finicky, but they are simple enough to replace (and with headphones like this, you won’t delay a fix).
Jerry Harvey Audio Roxanne
The JH Audio Roxanne is a feat of engineering, cramming a staggering 12 balanced armature drivers inside a single in-ear. The number of drivers, which are divided equally between bass, mids, and treble, make for a transparent, razor-sharp sound that can be viewed as a direct competitor to Noble’s Kaiser 10U. The Roxanne offers a balanced sound, but gives the listener options with a bass adjustment option embedded in the cable.
Sennheiser IE 80
Though a noticeable step down from the highest-end in-ear monitors, the reliable, aspirational Sennheiser IE80s stand out in their price range. There is no better value for your money. The sleek, brushed-metal housings give a premium look and the headphones earn praise for their punchy treble and bass. The cable is removable, which is handy for longevity, and the bass is adjustable with the small turn of a screw on the headphone.
The decade-plus, problem-free lifespan of my E5s is not an accident; Shure has an unshakeable reputation for longevity and quality. The SE535s are compact but powerful, housing three high-definition drivers in a striking see-through clear headphone for an accurate, unwavering sound. The SE535s lose a little treble clarity compared to higher-end in-ears, but they are still an incredible-sounding option at a fair price. Shure also provides a bevy of tips to get the isolation just right.