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Budget in-ear monitors can sound surprisingly good, even under $100

MAKE LIFE CLICK
Best Budget IEMs
2020

I would say in the last 5-10 years there has been a dramatic growth of budget IEMs that provide incredible bang for your buck. In a blind listening test, I would challenge some audiophiles to call the cheap in-ear monitors from this list as the cheaper pair.

Budget IEM - CCA C12 in-ear monitor
Editor’s Pick
The CCA CC12 with its 5 x Balanced Armature Drivers and 1 x 10mm Dynamic Driver is a smooth and powerful budget IEM that will appeal to the masses. 2 PIN cable that doesn’t really need an upgrade and a well-tuned sound signature will make most budget-conscious buyers happy.

It’s hard not to like the CCA C12. There are no ‘sharp edges’ to the sound that mean you might find difficult to enjoy.


Linsoul KZ ZS10 Pro IEM
Contender
As polarising as opinions can be on the KZ ZS10, the masses agree they are amazing value at less than $50. 4 x BA drivers PLUS 1 x Dynamic driver in a tight-ish little package is hard to image at this price. Slight V shape in the sound signature will still appeal to most.

The KZ ZS10 Pro IEM is impressive for the price. Some may find the high end a little too much especially for long listening periods but many swear by this well priced unit.


We’re aiming to keep this list of budget IEMs under $100 but if we stray a little it’s understandable. When you can pay up to $4000 for a pair of CIEMs online from Noble and similar custom in-ear companies then getting a set of inexpensive in-ear monitors for ‘around’ $100 is alright.

If you are in interested in custom in-ear monitors for musicians or more high-end in-ear monitors then start with our beginner’s guide below. You won’t find any Noble, Ultimate Ears Pro or JH Audio on this list.

READ: #1 Beginners Guide to in-ear Monitors

As the owner and founder of Headphones Canada, my goal was to provide the best affordable IEM for around $250 which was a sweet spot for a whole lot of universal iem brands. Shure, Westone, Fender (Fender bought our Aurisonics), DUNU Topsound, Audio-Technica and Etymotic were crowd favourites.

These days there a range of new brands making in-ears that are surprising audiophiles and headphone connoisseurs regarding the quality of their sound. A lot are from experienced manufacturers in China which seems to result in lower costs of production and an ability to deliver balanced armature and dynamics drivers at an affordable price.

Set of universal budget iems and custom mold iems next to each other on a table
Left: Westone Universal iem with MMCX Cable SOURCE: Make Life Click

Linsoul (Dunu, CC, KZ) was one of the first young earphone pioneers to show that a great sounding and affordable balanced armature (BA) driven earphone could sound amazing for a low price. They also pushed hard on hybrid iems early on.

I’m not kidding when I say I’m super excited about compiling this budget iem list for you as there is nothing in the world more enjoyable than good audio. Seriously, my number 1 passion. So let’s get into it.

So, what is the criteria for this budget iems list?:

  • Ideally under $100 (USD) or as close to that is good
  • Can have MMCX or 2 PIN cables but hard-wired cables are out as if they fail, there goes your budget iems.
  • Drivers can be Dynamic, Balanced Armature (BA) or a Hybrid

We’re looking for:

  • Sound quality
  • Comfort
  • Build Quality
  • Accessories

I fully appreciate that sound is subjective. What sounds good to me might not sound good to you. Example being that I am not a fan of the Sony sound signature but I have close friends who love it. That’s OK. I’ll try to be as objective as possible so you can make an educated decision.

The goal of this article is to highlight the best budget iems that punch above their price point.

Best budget IEMs compared

No specific order to this but happy to recommend an IEM based on your listening preferences. Just get in touch.

IEM NamePriceDriver configurationOhms:
1: Linsoul KZ ZAX IEM$1 x DD + 7 x BA24 ohms
2: LINSOUL TIN T2 Pro IEM$2 x DD16 ohms
3: MEE Audio M6 PRO IEM$1 x DD16 ohms
4: Shure SE215 earphones$$1 x DD17 ohms
5: Moondrop Starfield Carbon IEM$$1 x DD32 ohms
6: Linsoul KZ ZS10 Pro IEM$1 x DD + 4 x BA24 ohms
7: CCA C12 Hybrid IEM$1 x DD + 5 x BA24 ohms
8: Sennheiser IE 40 PRO IEM$$1 x DD20 ohms
9: ThieAudio Voyager 3 IEM$$3 x Knowles BA14 ohms
List is updated with new IEM models that fit the criteria

9+ Best Budget IEMs List

If you have any questions about any of these units, or if you think we’ve missed an affordable IEM that deserves our attention then add it in the comments below.

This list will be updated as more in-ears come on the market.

1: Linsoul KZ ZAX IEM

This is a Hybrid IEM

Drivers: 1 x Dynamic + 7 x BA

Cable is: Detachable

Freq range: 10Hz-40kHz

“Linsoul

The KZ ZAX dropped in late 2020 and immediately the price and sound quality won audio fans over.

KZ, a brand sold by Linsoul, make quite a few budget IEM units at this price point, in fact, they seem to own a good slice of this market space. Previously the ZS6 owned this space but the KZ ZAX have claimed a place on this list due to a powerful driver configuration and excellent value.

Linsoul cables also make it on our best mmcx cables list for building brilliant quality cables for affordable prices. The KZ ZAX has a 2-Pin cable.

The build quality of the ZAX has really stepped up a notch with a smoother, less severe finish.

Why we chose the Linsoul KZ ZAX Dynamic IEM?

While there is only 1 dynamic driver stacked in with 7 balanced armature (BA) driver the overall balance of this in-ear monitor is superb. Strong deep bass with mids that don’t scream in your ear, which many budget IEMs do. The trebles are tasteful but not too harsh.

The hybrid design gives you the low bass and high treble to suit most listening ears. For the price tag, they will, or should, surprise.

I feel these were a real benchmark setter and remain that still. To fit 1 DD and 7 BA and keep the price this lost with the sound this good makes them an easy choice. KZ have had a lot of practice over the years and the KZ ZAX is a sign that their experience is paying off.

Pros

  • Inline microphone cable option
  • Great sounding IEM
  • 1 DD + 7 BA drivers
  • Detachable 2-Pin cable
  • 1 Year Warranty

Cons

  • None at this price. Honest.

Summary: To fit 1 x Dynamic drivers and 7 x BA drivers and keep the price this low with a sound this good makes them an easy choice.

Read the latest reviews for the
KZ ZAX 16 Driver Dynamic IEM


2: LINSOUL Tin T2 Pro IEM

This is a Dynamic Driver IEM

Drivers: 2 x DD (10mm Woofer + 6mm Tweeter)

Cable is: Detachable

Freq range: 12Hz-40kHz

“LINSOUL

Yes, I know, we’re here with Linsoul again with one of the best all-time best selling budget iems on the market – the Tin 2 iems. These come off the ranks already ahead with foam tips and a detachable MMCX cable.

Like the ZS6 they are a solid metal frame and a nice red and blue marker for left and right so you don’t make that awkward attempt to put them in the wrong ear and wonder why the fit just isn’t right. It happens.

The retail box is attractive and totally irrelevant to the sound quality but hey, it’s all part of the experience and makes you appreciate that Linsoul have made a really big effort to create value for money.

Why we chose the LINSOUL TIN T2 Pro IEM?

These have a smaller profile than a lot of the other budget iems on the list. Cost aside we like treble and these bring it without it being too fatiguing. The DUNU line often seemed to be too heavy on the bottom and to sharp at the top but less so with these.

The detachable MMCX cable is just superb for the price. As it’s so often the cables the go first on iems with the MMCX you can replace it easily. And if you want to have a play with upgrading you can always upgrade it too.

Pros

  • OFC Silver plated cable
  • 2 x DD – 1 Woofer + 1 Tweeter
  • Ohms make it easy to drive with smartphone or similar

Cons

  • Few more tips might be nice
  • Treble might be a little brilliant for some (not us)

Summary: The Tin T2 Pro are just a nice little bundle with a strong bright sound. Good size and really good quality build makes them a clear starter on this list.

Read the latest reviews for the
LINSOUL TIN T2 Pro IEM


3: MEE Audio M6 PRO IEM

This is a Dynamic Driver IEM

Drivers: 1 x DD (10mm )

Cable is: Detachable (MMCX)

Freq range: 20Hz to 20kHz

“MEE

Staying around the $50 price mark we have the MEE Audio M6 Pro. This is the second generation model of what has always been an incredible seller in the budget IEM space. Like the Shure SE215, don’t judge it on it’s single driver.

Designed for live audio use e.g. vocals, guitarists who aren’t allowed to turn their amps up loud and get forced to use iems on stage (not bitter at all) and other such uses. The M6 Pro also makes a great all round audio partner for listening to music.

You can buy this in black, blue, clear and red.

They have a long history of success with this model and it’s definitely on of their flagship units.

Why we chose the MEE Audio M6 PRO IEM?

Yes, the sound is good but almost more impressive is the value for money. You get two cables – one stereo and one stereo with inline mic. You also get 7 pairs of ear tips and one of those pairs is a set of Comply T-Series memory foam (which you should totally put on first in our opinion).

From an audio perspective, these really are great for musicians as a live monitoring iem. It’s not just about the quality but the practical feel and fit. The frequency range makes them a perfect partner for stage use. If you can’t afford the Shure SE215 for live use, these are your best pick in budget iems.

The cost of the comply tips alone makes me wonder how they afford to do it so cheap. The final slice of audio goodness is the ability to upgrade to the Bluetooth MMCX wireless cable for only $10 more.

The fit is excellent so if you are going to use them for stage use that is important. The IPX5 water rating also makes them a good partner for running or exercise.

Pros

  • MMCX Cable
  • For $10 more you get an MMCX wireless Bluetooth cable with it
  • Good range of tips (7 pair)
  • Includes a pair of Comply T-Series memory foam tips
  • 2 included Cables (one with inline Mic)
  • IPX5 water rating

Cons

  • None at this price

Summary: The team at MEE Audio have kept the M6 Pro budget iem in the affordable price range for years while slowly improving the accompanying accessories. Perfect for stage use and exercise – they know this market well.

Read the latest reviews for the
MEE Audio M6 PRO IEM


4: Shure SE215 earphones

This is a Dynamic Driver IEM

Drivers: 1 x Micro Driver

Cable is: Detachable (MMCX)

Freq range: 22Hz – 17.5kHz

“Shure

From the first of the big brands comes the Shure SE215. Available in a range of colors including blue (SE215-BL), clear (SE215-CL) and black (SE215-K) and white. These are a single driver (micro driver) and have been one of our all-time favourite IEMs for as long as Taylor Swift has been making hits.

It comes with an MMCX cable which can be swapped out for a Shure MMCX cable with an inline mic or a Bluetooth MMCX cable too. https://www.shure.com/en-US/products/accessories/rmce-bt2

The accessories kit is generous with a nice semi-soft carrying case – they say soft but it is quite rigid so I call it a semi-soft. It also comes with some great tips in small, medium and large.

I’m not sure the SE215 technically fits soundly in the budget iems space because they don’t feel budget at all and the accessories are great.

Shure SE-215 IEM with Case and ear tips on table
Shure SE215 Carry Case with Ear Tips | Source: Make Life Click

The Shure SE215 IEM micro driver feels like it’s tuned for accented bass.

Why we chose the Shure SE215 IEM?

I originally had the Shure E4c so years ago moving to the SE215 was an easy step. They remained in my essential kit for a long time until I lost them one day. I wasn’t flush with cash so I waited and eventually purchased them again. This is how solid I think they are as a well priced IEM.

Why would I purchase it again?

  • Build quality – these have been with me years and other than losing them, have never given up a cable or similar.
  • Sound quality – these are never fatiguing but always sound good.
  • Perfect for live music use for in-ear monitoring
  • Fit – such a nice easy to put in and well-fitting iem.

For a single micro driver budget iem these deliver respectable bass and solid mids and treble. Suitable for a broad range of music styles and tastes.

Excellent for their first designed purpose – live in-ear monitoring. Vocals, keys, guitar certainly a great frequency range.

Pros

  • Nice little case
  • Good range of tips
  • Sound quality
  • Build quality
    Great musicians choice

Cons

  • None at this price
  • Maybe not as exciting for audiophiles as some of the multi-driver units on the list

Summary: The SE215 are a perfect choice for music lovers but hits its sweet spot as a musicians IEM. The frequencies and tuning are excellent for long listening periods with nothing that will cause fatigue. For us, we’ve always found Shure’s tuning perfect for rock/heavier music but it’s not limited to that.

Read the latest reviews for the
Shure SE215 IEM


5: Moondrop Starfield Carbon IEM

This is a Dynamic Driver IEM

Drivers: 1 x Dual Cavity DD (10mm)

Cable is: Detachable (2 PIN)

Freq range: 20Hz – 20kHz

“Moondrop

A little less known but still well-liked is the Moondrop Starfield Carbon. Moondrop has produced a few affordable iems but most are in the higher price bracket.

Differing from previous IEMs on the list so far, the Starfield Carbon has a .78mm 2 PIN cable, often found on more expensive units and preferred by many audiophiles.

The cable is a 24AWG OFC (oxygen free copper) which is also pretty sound for this price range.

It has a Carbon Nanotube diaphragm which is meant to produce a tighter high end output but overall has a more balanced sound compared to it’s bigger brother the KXXS which are $200 more.

Comes with a great range of accessories including: Cable, carry case, S/M/L Tips, tweezer tool, replacement filters,

Why we chose the Moondrop Starfield Carbon IEM?

With the option of a 2 PIN cable and an aesthetic that will woo some and repel others the Moondrop Starfield stood out enough, and with enough positive audio qualities, to make the list.

The finish is well done and the solid metal house with gold plated elements can only mean good things for the end result – optimising resonance.

Nice sound stage and balanced tuning (bass still strong) that won’t wear you out like some of the Linsoul KZ range.

Pros

  • Looks
  • Accessories
  • Build quality and finish

Cons

  • Looks (see what we did there?)
  • A little more costly than competitors but the quality is there

Summary: If you want tight sound, impactful but not intensely deep bass with tight mids and highs? The Moondrop Starfield Carbon is a good choice. If you like the look it’s an even bigger bonus.

Read the latest reviews for the
Moondrop Starfield Carbon IEM


6: Linsoul KZ ZS10 Pro IEM

This is a Hybrid IEM

Drivers: 4 x BA + 1 x DD (10mm)

Cable is: Detachable (2 PIN)

Freq range: 7Hz-40kHz

“Linsoul

If you go back to the top of the article where we talked about dynamic drivers having what is considered to be more bottom end punch, you’ll understand why Linsoul chose a 4+1 for this hybrid and cheap iem.

The KZ ZS10 has 5 drivers in ear iem bud. The single dynamic driver handles the bottom end, then there are 2 x BA (balanced armature) drivers (50060) that handle the middle frequencies and 2 x BA drivers (30095) tuned for the high end.

The result? Pretty good, and that’s before we comment on the look of these affordable powerhouses. A great full frequency range in a well-built in-ear.

The faceplate is a stainless steel and is very striking. The ear fit is nice and doesn’t look as bulky as other budget models. That isn’t to say it’s small though – at this price point, you need to be realistic about fitting in the drivers and making a universal mold that works for the masses.

The choice of a 2 PIN cable plug means you can remove, replace and upgrade the cable on these.

Why we chose the Linsoul KZ ZS10 Pro IEM?

It’s impossible to ignore this model. Linsoul have expanded the KZ range to include almost any combination of drivers you want for under $100 but the balance of these drivers makes the most sense in many ways.

It’s not always about how many drivers you can cram in to a housing and this 4+1 configuration is really nice.

The tuning is definitely a V shape so I wouldn’t buy these for classical or folk music personally, but the V isn’t too deep so it’s not like you lose all midrange.

Ultimately, at this price why not try them I say. I’d also recommend using foam tips with these, not rubber tips.

Pros

  • Nice build
  • Good driver array
  • Price

Cons

  • None at this price
  • They are quite a polarizing iem

Summary: It’s a little bit ridiculous that KZ have managed to fit a dynamic driver and 4 x BA drivers into a unit with a stainless steel faceplate and 2 PIN cable for this price. The sound is personal on this but worth a try if your feeling adventurous.

Read the latest reviews for the
Linsoul KZ ZS10 Pro IEM


7: CCA C12 Hybrid IEM

This is a Hybrid IEM

Drivers: 5 x BA + 1 x DD (10mm)

Cable is: Detachable (2 PIN)

Freq range: 7Hz-40kHz

“CCA

So, we were pretty excited about the KZ ZS10 but we’re even more excited about the C12.

The humour in all this is that CCA is a sister company of KZ under the Linsoul brand. Why so many? Probably to enable them to create sound signatures and styles which suit different audiences.

The C12 is another budget IEM that is aimed at audiophiles first but it makes a great on-stage IEM too. It packs In 5 x BA drivers and 1 x 10mm DD – this is one more BA than the ZS10. What do they do with that extra balanced armature driver I hear you ask? Well there is the dynamic driver at the bottom then 2 x BA for mids, 2 x BA for highs and a single BA driver for ultra highs.

It comes with a 2-PIN cable with a 3.5mm plug on it so you can upgrade if the mood takes you. The external panel on it is a Zinc Alloy which is attractive enough and provides some durability.

Why we chose the CCA C12 Hybrid IEM?

While we don’t believe the more drivers the better we do feel 5 x BA drivers stands a pretty good chance of sounding great. Once you have such a quality array of drivers and cable it’s all down to the tuning of the unit.

The sound signature of this should suit the masses – especially those who enjoy a smoother sound where the bass is strong and treble is rich without being too fatiguing or sibilant.

It always amuses me the number of people who compare these units to $300-$1500 units like they are in the same league. A testament to the sound? or challenged listeners?

The C12 are an all round winner in the budget IEM category.

Pros

  • All those drivers for the price
  • Price, if we didn’t mention it already
  • OFC Cable is decent
  • Cable with MIC an option
  • Good noise isolation
  • 1-year warranty

Cons

  • Try different tips for the best fit

Summary: The C12 gives a smoother output that some of its KZ cousins. This will appeal to many as a good reason to choose these. 5 x BA drivers and a single DD at this price continue to impress. The CC10 are also worth a look.

Read the latest reviews for the
CCA C12 Hybrid Budget IEM


8: Sennheiser IE 40 PRO IEM

This is a Dynamic Driver IEM

Drivers: 1 x DD

Cable is: Detachable (Internal Cable Duct – PP)

Freq range: 20Hz – 18kHz

“Sennheiser

The Sennheiser IE 40 Pro are squarely aimed at the affordable end of a live stage or recording IEM market. Working to take a little bit of market share off the Shure SE215 and the Westone UM Pro 10 no doubt.

Why we chose the Sennheiser IE 40 PRO as a budget IEM?

If you are a live musician you need an IEM that doesn’t have a sound signature that is too exciting. You want something that is fuss-free, that fits well and doesn’t wear you out if you have to wear them for hours at a time performing or recording. Too much treble and bass can be exhausting over time.

The IE 40 fits the needs of musicians in an affordable package. While the cable connector is specific to Sennheiser you can buy another one-off them if you need to.

Noise-isolation will depend on the fit you get and the tips you use but you’ll achieve what you need with some trial and error.

I still like my SE215 for the heavier bass but these are worth a listen especially if you like Sennheiser tuning. Would be most like the UM Pro 10 or UM Pro 20 for the very neutral sound signature.

Pros

  • Like the well-molded look
  • Nice fit
  • Long listening sound signature
  • Perfect for muso’s – guitar, vocals

Cons

  • Proprietary cable fitting

Summary: The IE 40 are not the most exciting sounding IEM on the list but they produce a decent sound and will make any musician happy with a well made, comfortable and long listening elements.

9: ThieAudio Voyager 3 IEM

This is a Balanced Armature IEM

Drivers: 3 x Knowles BA (CI-22955/ED-29869)

Cable is: Detachable (2 Pin)

Freq range: 20Hz – 20kHz

“ThieAudio

This is another IEM from Linsoul but we chose it for different reasons. This is a budget IEM really aimed at musicians, although audiophiles may also enjoy it’s refined tuning.

It comes with 3 x Knowles BA drivers and sits at the higher end of the price point. Knowles drivers are made in American and are very popular on high-end in-ear monitors so once again the price point of these is impressive considering the hardware.

It has a three-way cross over and the coolest thing about this budget iem is that there are a couple of a high end and low-end tuning switches on the earbuds which allow you to switch the bass and treble tuning to your preferred output. This is the same as what is on their $1000 Voyager 14 IEM – impressed – we were.

The cable is an 8 core copper and silver mixed wire, also impressive for the money.

They are a universal IEM.

Why we chose the ThieAudio Voyager 3 IEM as a budget IEM?

Being a new unit on the market only in the last year, it’s hard for the ThieAudio Voyager 3 to compete and make significant noise against its other cheaper cousins in the CCA, Dunu and KZ range. That’s a reason we wanted to highlight it as a real contender in this budget IEM class.

To have a 3-way cross over, 3 x Knowles BA drivers and the same frequency switching options as their $1000 14 driver units is impressive. Also, the cable is not just OFC copper but with the silver thread through you start to see real value for this price.

Knowles BA drivers are made in America and a quick search will show you how widely respected they are on much more expensive units on the market. The bottom end is powered by 2 x Knowles CI-22955 and the treble is powered by 1 x ED-29869.

Looks might not thrill us as some other units but who cares if they sound this good.

It seems important to note is is also available in a customer in-ear also, or CIEM, for only about $20 more.

Pros

  • Copper and Silver threaded cable
  • 3 x Knowles BA drivers with 3-way crossover – nice
  • Freq. switch on earbuds for personal tuning

Cons

  • None at this price

Summary: We think its a matter of time before the ThieAudio Voyager gets picked up by more people. As always, Linsould has crammed in some impressive hardware into a small price. Might also suit people interested in the Moondrop Starfield.

Read the more on the TheiAudio Voyager 3 on Linsoul


Previous models from this list:

The KZ ZS6 Quad Driver Dynamic IEM were a strong player and still delivery great sound but there are newer models that are strong enough to move this off the list.

Why is my brand not on this list?

That’s a good question. There are a lot of brands that didn’t make this 2020 iems list but if you think they deserve to then let us know in the comments.

Etymotic didn’t make this list. We really love their earphones but most exceed the ‘budget’ range. We also struggle with in-ears that don’t fit with an over the ear cable. For monitoring or FOH (front of house) mixing they are fine but on stage with a lot of movement going on, just not ideal. Don’t let us put you off though.

Read also: Best in-ear monitors for Singers

Summary

This list could never be comprehensive but I do feel if you pick any one of these budget iems you’ll do well. There are new models emerging often which includes many cheap iems from Linsoul and more which we’ll keep up with.

The basic summary can almost be grouped into three types of sound signature, in part due to Linsoul’s prevalence on the list. Those are:

  1. Analytical with sharper high ends – with an audiophile focus (KZ range)
  2. Neutral tuning with a balanced output – perfect for long listening sessions and live musicians (Shure/Weston/Sennheiser) etc)
  3. Hybrid goodness with an impactful sound that goes deep and high – also mostly an audiophile audience

If you have budget IEMs you like that isn’t on the list – throw it in the comments and I’d love to hear what you like about it.



CC C12 Budget IEM right earbud
CCA C12 in Ear Monitor
Build Quality
Sound Quality
Features
Price
What we like (Pros)
Great array of drivers for the price
Price
Full end to end feel to the sound
What we like less (Cons)
Design isn't our favorite but it's sound that matters
4.8

This post was last updated on 2020-11-02 / Some images from Amazon Product API & some links may be affiliate links which may earn us a commission from purchases.


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