Deciding to incorporate in-ear monitors (IEMs) into a live rig is a big step for a musician. It says you’ve gone past the point of relying on dodgy old monitor wedges that have seen better days and want to improve the standard of your sound, playing and performance. Being able to hear, directly, what your audience can hear can only improve your playing after all. No more guessing if your tone is right. No more hoping your trusty axe has stayed in tune. If it’s accuracy and clarity you need, IEMs will provide the solution. Thankfully, investing in quality IEMs doesn’t have to cost the earth, as this guide to the best budget in-ear monitors proves.
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A decent set of IEMs can cost a pretty penny. At the top end of the scale you could easily spend thousands on a pro-grade set. These are, after all, a specialist tool designed with a number of key things in mind. While you can certainly use them in the same way you’d use a normal set of studio headphones, IEMs are built with a different aim in mind. Allow us to explain further in this guide of the best budget in-ear monitors you can buy right now.
Best budget in-ear monitors: our top pick
Setting a price limit of $400 gave us serious scope to include a broad selection of IEMs. On testing, we found a number of factors to be important. Namely, more drivers really do equal better sound, and ambient noise reduction is essential when using for performance purposes.
Overall, we found the Shure SE215 to be the best budget in-ear monitors, pound for pound. Shure has really nailed the balance between price and performance and the SE215 set performed superbly throughout. If accurate sound is top of your list of needs, then we’d also highly commend the Future Sonics Spectrum G10.
Best budget in-ear monitors: buying advice
- How do IEM’s work? Essentially, they serve the purpose of allowing you to take a direct audio feed from a specific source. They differ, however, from ‘regular’ headphones like those you’d use to watch a movie or stream songs, in that they aren’t tuned to enhance their sound output. What you hear in a set of in-ear monitors is your source audio in its purest form. This is a small but crucial difference for a musician. As, for example, a guitarist or bass player, you need to be able to hear how your instrument sounds to an audience. Relying on on-stage monitors can be troublesome as the sound is competing with other sounds like amplifiers, drummers and vocals. IEMs solve this by both providing a direct audio feed from the mixing desk, and also blocking out ambient noise.
- What are the benefits of in-ear monitors? You can hear exactly, for better or worse, what your audience can hear and you can hear it perfectly. This also has the knock-on bonus of meaning you don’t have to play as loudly as you would have done ordinarily. Drummers, for example, can be a lot defter and more nuanced with their touch as they are no longer competing with the other instruments to be heard. Singers, too, will benefit from being able to hear what the audience can hear, not what the singer themselves hears in their head.
We’ve kept the limit for budget in-ear monitors in this guide to $400. While this is clearly a decent amount of cash in anyone’s books, it does allow us to point out some of the improvements you can expect as you travel up the price ladder – but we also include a couple of options that won’t cost you more than £/$100. It’s also important to view IEMs as a tool, or as an investment in your playing career. They’re not going to make your playing improve, but they do encourage a more professional approach to live performance.
The best budget in-ear monitors available today
As one of the biggest names in pro-audio, you can expect Shure to produce great quality IEMs. The Shure SE215 proves this to be the case, with superb sound reproduction and exceptional ambient noise reduction.
They look and sound the part, without a doubt. We also liked the detachable cable which adds a level of durability to them, and reduces the risk of them being pulled out of your ears mid-performance.
While many of the options presented here are geared towards use on stage, budget in-ear monitors also function well for use in studios. Here, where the ambient environment is quieter, monitors are used to gauge mixes and production. While there’s no substitute for active nearfield monitors, a decent set of IEMs can prove useful.
The Future Sonics Spectrum G10 impressed us on account of the huge frequency range they can produce. Everything from deep, filthy bass sounds right up to airy synths all sounded superb. That being said, they are also capable of ambient noise reduction – up to 29dB – so are equally at home on a stage. Superb value IEMs from Future Sonics.
Sitting at the top end of our imposed budget in-ear monitors restriction, the Audio Technica ATH-E70 offer a tantalising taste of what happens when you start to lay down serious cash on monitoring. The sound reproduction is a good few steps above everything else on show today, ensuring everything from sub bass to shimmering treble sounds exceptional.
If you’ve tried IEMs in the past and are looking to take a step up the food chain, these could be just the ticket.
The drivers in any set of earphones are arguably the most important component. It’s the drivers that push the sound to your ears, so the higher the better usually. In an ideal world, you’d look for drivers controlling – independently – the bass, middle and treble frequencies so each is reproduced perfectly.
As a good intermediate, however, the Mackie MP-220, with dual drivers, offer a great example of how this simple component can add tons to the overall performance level. We found them to be well built, and overall couldn’t help but be impressed by the value they offer.
With many guitarists nowadays looking towards digital tools like amp sims and processors, IEMs can deliver a pure, unfiltered tone to help guide them in a stage environment. The Fender Nine IEMs come from a brand any guitarist will be familiar with, and provide decent levels of noise reduction and a fairly broad frequency response.
They’re not going to compete with more established IEM brands like Shure, but for a shade under $100 the Fender Nines are worth a shout.
One of the main issues when using passive – i.e. not powered – earphones, headphones or monitors is a lack of bass response. The Etymotic ER3XR series promises to combat that. You see, the ‘ER’ in the name stands for ‘extended response’, referring to a widened bass reproduction. While that serves a clear purpose when listening to music or other regular sources, it also means you don’t just hear a jar full of wasps when playing at higher volumes.
Of course, their passive nature also has the benefit that they don’t require an external power source of any kind, and we also liked the included accessory kit containing various different ear plug sizes and – praise be – a clip to hold the monitors steady on your shirt.
While the Shure SE215 we showed earlier in the list are superb budget IEMs, the Shure SE425 warrant inclusion simply because of the superb quality on offer. The SE425 adds in an extra driver to increase (and enhance) reproduction of a wider range of frequencies, and blocks out up to 37 dB of external noise, making them ideal for use on a noisy stage.
In practice, that extra driver makes a heck of a difference, cleaning up and boosting bass and treble frequencies masterfully. If your budget runs to it, the Shure SE425 set makes for a great piece of kit.
We love a bit of innovation here, and the Westone AM Pro 10 deliver on that count. Where the other budget IEMs on this list block out noise in order to allow full focus on sound reproduction, the AM10s let in a certain amount of ambient noise, but filter it so it doesn’t impact the overall sound. The benefit here is that you can still hear what’s happening around you, but without compromising on the sound you’re receiving from the desk. Best of all worlds? Perhaps.
We liked the AM10s – handcrafted in Colorado Springs – on a number of levels, not least the great sound and general ruggedness.