Wired in-ear monitors: From $80 to $1,500, we compare six models | Digital Trends

2022-06-18 19:08:19 By : Ms. Celia Chen

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Do you need a set of $1,500 earbuds? Probably (OK, almost certainly) not, unless you’re a professional musician. But do you want a set of $1,500 earbuds? That’s the real question, and it’s something I decided to try to answer after two companies reached out to me to see if I’d like to review their latest planar magnetic in-ear monitors (IEMs).

The two products in question are the $1,500 Campfire Audio Supermoon and the $1,299 Audeze Euclid. Both are wired earbuds aimed at the most demanding music listeners. Both use planar magnetic drivers, an ultra-low-distortion technology that has traditionally been used in high-end, open-back headphones, but is now making its way into more varied (and sometimes more affordable) products. Both are handmade, in small batches, which kind of makes them sound like artisanal beers.

Instead of reviewing each of these products individually, I decided to put them in context. That meant comparing them not only against each other, but also against IEMs that cost less — in some cases, significantly less. Below, you’ll find my impressions of each set of IEMs — not only how they sound, but how they feel in my ears, how they look, how they’re designed, and what they come with in terms of travel cases and accessories like eartips, where relevant. At the end, I’ll wrap up with my thoughts on whether you should actually consider making such a substantial investment.

But first, let’s set the table.

With the entire personal audio industry seemingly focused on wireless headphones and wireless earbuds because of their undeniable convenience, you might be wondering why anyone would go back to using wired earbuds? Smartphones are dropping headphone jacks faster than ever and improvements in Bluetooth technology are making wireless buds more reliable, better-sounding, and able to last longer on a single charge. And most IEMs can’t be used for phone calls or voice assistants.

The answer, very simply, is sound quality. As good as wireless audio devices have become, they’re still considered by many to be poor substitutes for well-designed and well-built wired products, whether we’re talking headphones or IEMs. And with the rise of hi-res, lossless digital audio among streaming music services, these wired products remain (for now) the only way to hear every ounce of detail that these tracks can offer. For those in search of the very best sound, it’s still a wired world.

For the purposes of this comparison, we’ll be looking at the:

Those of you who know the IEM space will be quick to point out that the 1More Triple Drivers are a bit of an odd inclusion. Their wires don’t detach from the earbuds, the wires aren’t meant to loop around your ears like the other models on the list, and they — shocker! — include an inline microphone and remote button module on the right-side cable.

That last feature is probably enough to make purists scoff, but I’ve included them because in every other respect, they absolutely meet the definition of an IEM: They fit inside your ear canal with the help of a series of different eartips, and they don’t add any extra processing or amplification to the sound the way wireless earbuds do. Moreover, they’re incredibly affordable and widely regarded as an excellent value for their price and sound quality.

To keep things simple and consistent from one set of IEMs to the next, I used the $699 Astell&Kern SR25 portable media player as the source. While not the most expensive or tricked-out player you can find, it has great specs. With dual DACs that can perform bit-to-bit playback of hi-res audio files up to 32bit/384kHz, it has both balanced and unbalanced outputs (more on that later), and more than enough amplification to power each of these IEMs.

Even more importantly for my purposes, the SR25 can stream hi-res, lossless FLAC files from Amazon Music and master-quality MQA files from Tidal, the two streaming services I used for testing. I also auditioned several FLAC and DSD files that were sitting in the SR25’s on-board storage, just to eliminate any chance that streaming might have caused problems.

Using this setup, I sampled some of my favorite go-to tracks, including You and Your Friend by Dire Straits (Mark Knopfler’s guitar work gets better every time I listen) , Warming Up My Instruments and Time by Hans Zimmer (this man has turned low-frequencies into an art form), Bubbles by Yosi Horikawa (a killer track for appreciating soundstages), and Bad Guy by Billie Eilish (it layers whispering vocals on top of booming bass), plus a variety of jazz, rock, and classical standards.

And now, without further ado, my impressions …

So you want the very best and you’re not afraid to pay for it? Well, pony up your cash because, yes indeed, the Campfire Audio Supermoon sound better than any other IEM on this list. But here’s the thing: The sound quality is not proportional to the price. In other words: At $1,500, you’d be well within your rights to expect that the Supermoons would sound 300% better than the UE 5 Pro, 750% better than the Campfire Audio Satsuma, and a whopping 930% better than the Final Audio A4000.

I hate to be the bearer of disappointing ratios, but this math simply doesn’t work out when it comes to sound. What you get for your money is an undeniably smooth and precise sound signature. These planar magnetic drivers glide effortlessly through all frequencies, with clear and musical highs, detailed and nuanced midtones, and bass that is punchy and resonant, but a little reserved when compared to buds with dynamic drivers. In short, they’re great.

From a soundstage perspective, I’d describe them as full, but not huge and expansive. They definitely let your music out from between your ears, but the various instruments and vocals never stray too far from center.

But here’s what you do get for all of that extra cash: A sleek, stainless steel-accented, custom-built set of earbuds molded precisely to the contours of your ears. How do they do that? Get ready to spend even more. I had to get my ears 3D-scanned at an audiologist’s office at a cost of $50 Canadian (about $39 U.S.). I then sent those 3D files to Campfire Audio, which used them to shape the molds. However, 3D scanning is still somewhat specialized, which means that you might only have access to an audiologist that does physical molds, which tend to cost more.

There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s worth it. Quite apart from the Supermoon’s superb sound, they’re comfortable to a degree I’ve never felt before. It’s a weird thing: The portion that goes in your ear is a glossy, ultra-smooth chunk of plastic. As such, it’s hard — there’s no silicone or rubber and it doesn’t deform at all, no matter how much you push on it. Sliding that into your ear doesn’t seem like something you really want to do.

And then it’s in your ear, and it just … fits. You don’t move it around because there’s no need to do so. And it doesn’t move around — even though it feels like it wants to — because until you pull it out, it has nowhere to go. Campfire Audio claims this level of fit effectively eliminates the fatigue of wearing earbuds, and I can’t agree more.

Audeze is an audio brand that has become almost synonymous with planar magnetic technology. Its LCD line of open-back planar headphones has been universally praised, and it has been integrating planar drivers into IEMs since it became the first company to do so in 2017.

The Audeze Euclid are the company’s latest manifestation of planar tech in IEM form, and this time it’s using a closed-back approach, same as the Campfire Audio Supermoon. They sound amazing. Like the Supermoon, they’re a delight to listen to, with impressive levels of detail across the frequency spectrum. In fact, I found the Euclid and Supermoon to be very similar to each other. Campfire Audio has been able to eke out a bit more energy in the upper registers — most notable when listening to trumpet jazz or electric guitar solos — but the Euclids balance this with a warmer overall sound signature.

Perhaps because of their larger planar drivers (18mm versus the Supermoon’s 14mm), it takes a bit more power to drive the Euclids. I found that I needed to increase the SR25’s volume level by about 10% to achieve the same loudness.

As you may have guessed from the Supermoon description, the biggest difference between these IEMs isn’t sound quality — it’s comfort and fit. The build quality on the Euclid is stellar. The milled aluminum bodies are nearly indestructible, and I will always be a sucker for carbon fiber, which Audeze uses for the end caps.

It was easy to get a good fit with the included foam and silicone sleeves — they offer plenty of customization. But those tips mean you’re always dealing with that sense of “occlusion,” that your ears are blocked — because they are. I’m much less bothered by that feeling than most folks, but even I had to admit, the custom-molded Supermoons were a better choice.

So is that the end of the story? They sound almost the same, but the Supermoon win because they have a custom fit? Hold on to your hat; we’re not done. Included in the Audeze Euclid’s $1,299 price is a special Bluetooth cable that effectively turns these planar magnetic IEMs into a set of full-fledged wireless earbuds, complete with a microphone for calls and volume buttons. With eight hours of battery life and AAC/aptX/aptX HD codec compatibility, it provides Euclid owners with the best of both wired and wireless worlds.

Ultimate Ears (UE) has been a trusted brand for musicians and anyone else who finds themselves onstage and needing a reliable way to hear themselves and/or their instruments in loud, live environments. As such, the UE range of IEMs are all custom-fit. You won’t find a single silicone eartip on any model, from the entry-level two-driver UE 5 Pro ($499), which I used for this comparison, all the way to the eight-driver UE Live ($2,199).

To achieve the custom fit, you can send in 3D ear scans like with the Supermoon, or use 3D molds, or, if neither is available to you, UE will send you a custom fit kit. The system uses blank earplugs that are then molded to your ears with a bit of heat. Once those molds have been created, you send them back to UE and they become the basis for your IEMs.

But the customization options go further. Each UE IEM can be ordered with your choice of faceplate. The generic options are colors and textures like red, blue, white, wood, and carbon fiber, but UE has also started to expand into partnerships with bands — you can see the 311 alien-themed plates in the photos above. Best of all, these plates are swappable, so you’ll never get bored with the look of your buds. That’s a lot of customization for the price.

UE’s standard cable is its 50-inch IPX SuperBax Stage Cable, a remarkably thin and light cable that is both sweatproof and almost undetectable when worn. And by that I mean, you hardly feel it, and it’s hard to see from a distance.

The big caveat with the UE 5 Pro is their sound. While crystal clear, you get the sense that, first and foremost, these IEMs are tools for audio monitoring, not critical listening. The emphasis seems to be on the highs and lows, both of which are well rendered, but the midtones sound a bit hollow to my ears. The soundstage is narrow, so you don’t get that expansive sense of immersion that other IEMs can offer. I also found that some of higher-frequency sounds, like cymbals, verged on distortion.

These could all be welcome attributes for the right person — likely an audio pro or musician — but for the average music fan, I think they will feel a bit underwhelming considering their price.

Satsuma is a Japanese word for a variety of mandarin with an especially vibrant orange skin. It’s also a style of 17th-century Japanese pottery. With the Satsuma IEMs, Campfire Audio has paid homage to both meanings, through their bright orange color and 3D-printed geometry. They’re fun, light, and when fitted with the right eartips (of which there are plenty to pick from), very comfy too.

The included unbalanced, 3.5mm cable, which terminates in a set of MMCX connectors, strikes a nice balance between the ruggedness of the Audeze Euclid’s thick ropes and the UE 5 Pro’s ultrathin wires. I also really like the included zippered carry pouch, which is plushly lined with fleece and should offer great protection in a very compact package.

Sound-wise, the Satsuma offer a precise, full-frequency profile that is especially adept at drawing out details in the midtones, something that lesser earbuds (whether wired or wireless) tend to fail at. They will also please those who prefer their tunes with only a splash of bass. Opera, classical, trumpet jazz, and vocal-heavy performances will all benefit from their very flat EQ.

That means some tracks are bound to be a bit thin, especially if they rely on their bass line for emotional or beat-based impact. The usual suspects here are rap, hip-hop, bass-oriented jazz, and pretty much any composition by Hans Zimmer.

They’re the second-most affordable set of IEMs on this list, but I keep coming back to the Final Audio A4000 because whenever I pop them in my ears, they bring a smile to my face.

These unassuming matte-blue wired buds are as close to a custom fit as I’ve ever found. They’re more comfortable than the UE 5 Pro and Audeze Euclid and, depending on the day, I might even prefer them to the Supermoon. There’s just something about their size and shape that really works with my ears. The included selection of five sizes of high-quality silicone eartips definitely helped with getting that fit.

Their unbalanced 3.5mm cable is so basic, that it could easily be mistaken for any old run-of-the-mill wired earbuds, were it not for its 2-pin termination plugs. They lack the formed plastic guides that help them loop over your ears — but that’s intentional. If you want that shape, you can use the included plastic loops to do that. The carry case, which is made of two interlocking circular slabs of rubber, won’t win any beauty contests either. You curl up the cable and the earbuds and then sandwich them between those two circles. It works, but I’d hardly call it sleek or compact.

But any concerns I might have about the material or design choices made by Final Audio instantly evaporate when I start to listen. The soundstage is the first thing you notice. It’s wide and deep, and when reviewers like me use the word “immersive,” this is what we mean. Instead of the sound inhabiting the space between your ears, or perhaps a little outside them, the A4000 plunge you into a pool of sound, which surrounds you on all sides.

Almost any set of decent stereo earbuds can let you experience the joys of 3D formats like Dolby Atmos Music or Sony 360 Reality Audio (360RA) when connected to a compatible source device, but it takes a very specific kind of tuning to achieve something similar from a stereo track, with zero signal processing or special amplification.

Audiophiles might scoff at this; in their pursuit of audio purity, anything that colors the original material in any way is to be avoided. But it’s not just the A4000’s sense of space that satisfies — along with that openness comes a full-throated frequency response that delivers resonant lows, detailed mids, and clear highs. However, there’s a slight hole in the upper-midranges where some detail feels like it’s not fully captured, and vocals have a tendency to feel a bit too airy.

No, they don’t really compare to the Supermoon or Euclid — but only because they’re tuned differently. Those high-end IEMs are like listening to set of reference-grade studio monitors powered by a top-notch amp, while the A4000 is closer to a bookshelf speaker-based home theater system. But I guess I must have bookshelf-speaker taste, because at just $149, dollar-for-dollar, I think the A4000 represent the best value in this comparison.

If you’re looking for set of wired earbuds to replace the ones that might have come with your phone (that is, if your phone actually has a headphone jack), or perhaps for your iPod that somehow manages to keep on trucking all of these years later, the 1More Triple Driver is an excellent choice.

You’ll get way better sound quality, very good passive sound isolation, a gigantic set of eartip types and sizes, and a carry case that would look at home in the glove box of an Aston Martin. They also have a braided, tangle-free cable with an inline mic and remote buttons for calls and music playback control, and these will usually work even if you have to use a USB-C or Lightning-based headphone adapter.

It’s a good thing that they’re so well-built; unlike all of the other IEMs on this list, the earbuds do not have their own connections, so if the cable gets damaged, you’ll have to figure out a repair or buy a new set.

The name refers to the three drivers in each earpiece: Two balanced armature (BA) drivers for the highs and mids and a single dynamic driver for the bass. That combo works well and delivers a very detailed and balanced signature, as well as excellent stereo separation. But they lack the expansive soundstage of the A4000, and the velvety smoothness of the Euclid and Supermoon.

But let’s face it, at $80 (or less), the Triple Driver do not have to meet such lofty standards to be worthy of their price. In fact, when you consider just how much cheaper they are, it’s a miracle that they come even close.

As tempting as it might be to think that the more you spend on a set of wired IEMs, the more you’ll get an equivalent boost in sound quality, that’s actually not really the case.

There’s no question that if you spend $1,300 on the Audeze Euclid, or an even heftier $1,500 on the Campfire Audio Supermoon, you’re getting truly impressive audio. And yet, as I’ve shown, much of that investment is rewarded in other characteristics, like a custom fit, high-end finishes like stainless steel and carbon fiber, and an assortment of cables and other connection options.

Still, it’s a potent combo, and well-heeled audiophiles and music pros will likely see this as the price that must be paid for their obsession or career. To quote the highly quotable Ferris Bueller, “they are so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

But if your wallet isn’t quite up to that level of spending, you can still enjoy very good sound in a set of wired earbuds for considerably less.

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