8 Best Budget IEMs (Under $100) With Incredible Sound Quality [2022]

Best Budget IEMs
Best Budget IEMs

Introducing the best budget IEMs list, where price-to-performance ratio is the name of the game!

NameDriver/sImpedanceCablePrice
BLON BL-03 Best Timbre10 mm carbon diaphragm dynamic driver32 Ω2-pin detachable cableBUY
HZSound Heart Mirror Best Neutral Set10 mm carbon diaphragm dynamic driver32 Ω2-pin detachable cableBUY
Final Audio E3000 Best Smooth Set (Smooth Criminal)6.4mm dynamic driver16 ΩNon-detachableBUY
Tforce Yuan Li Best Balanced Set #110mm dynamic driver with DLC Diaphragm32 Ω2-pin detachable cableBUY
Moondrop Aria 2021 Best Balanced Set #210mm Dynamic driver unit with LCP Diaphragm32 Ω2-pin detachable cableBUY
iBasso IT00 Best Basshead Set10 mm dynamic driver with multi-layered graphene diaphragm & dual Helmholtz resonators16 ΩMMCXBUY
TRI Starsea Best Treblehead SetDual balanced armature, and 8 mm dynamic driver9.5 Ω2-pin detachable cableBUY
Smabat Proto 1.0 Best Customizable Set10mm Titanium Diaphragm driver (stock driver); various alternative drivers are available for purchase16 Ω (stock driver)MMCX  BUY

How to Pick the Best Bang for Buck IEMs

The idea that audiophiles are people who spend hundreds of dollars on headphones is a common misunderstanding. Not everyone who enjoys music has that extra cash to spend. So if you’re one of the low-budget audiophiles (or if you’re just curious about what’s in this price range), we welcome you with open arms!

However, the budget in-ear monitor (IEM) market is a vast rabbit hole to fall into. It can be tough to distinguish outstanding IEMs from the typical pool of cheap options. You’ll never know if all things advertised are actually what you’ll get. Besides, given the low price, it’s easy to assume that there must be a catch, but figuring out what it is is difficult.

To help you with that, we put a variety of models to the test and compiled a list of the best budget IEMS for you to choose from for less than $100. But before that, here are the things we considered in coming up with this list. Read on as this may help you make a final decision on what to purchase.

Sound quality

Whether you’re looking at expensive or budget pairs, sound quality should be the number one priority when appreciating music. There are some basic specifications and factors that one should look into:

Sound signatures

First, one should look for one’s prospective IEM with a sound signature in mind. The various IEMs are tuned differently, namely V-shaped, neutral, basshead, treble head, midcentric and so on.

The myriad of different sound signatures will suit different sonic preferences and various music genres. For example, bass forward signatures will do better with EDM or hip hop (due to the boosted bass-lines). Some may want an uncolored signature in certain situations (for example stage monitoring or for classical music). On the other hand, vocal lovers would prefer a midcentric tuning to showcase the midrange.

Frequency range

Most IEMs quote a measurable frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz, as that is the theoretical human’s hearing range, from the bass frequencies all the way to the treble frequencies.

Check out this nifty article on the audio spectrum!

However, as one gets older, it is a physiological phenomenon to lose hearing in the higher frequencies. Additionally, if one suffers from noise induced hearing loss (eg. occupational or leisure induced), the 4 khz +/- 6 and 3 kHz areas may be affected too.

Also, some IEMs advertise a larger frequency response that goes below 20 Hz or beyond 20 kHz. While this can help prevent unwanted distortion for frequencies that are near the 20-20K limit, these are beyond what humans can actually hear, so only our dolphin or bat friends may fully appreciate that.

Drivers

The most common types of IEM drivers are dynamic drivers (DD) and balanced armature (BA) drivers.

In general, the former tend to have better timbral accuracy, coherency and a more natural sounding bass (in terms of bass decay and movement of air). The latter, especially when used in a multiple-BA configuration, may give better technical performance.

However, some multi-BA sets at the budget segment suffer from incoherency or timbral issues.

That segues us to hybrids, which combine the best of the DD and BA worlds, so as to make use of the strengths of each driver type. Some other IEMs use more exotic drivers such as planar and piezoelectric drivers, in various combinations.

At the end of the day, driver brand, type or numbers are not the most important. It’s the tuning and implementation that can make or break an IEM.

What source are you using?

In general, most budget IEMs are easy to drive, the majority of them can be driven from a lower-powered source such as a smartphone or DAP.

When talking about this, two things to look out for are sensitivity and impedance. The former refers to “how loud the earphones will be for a given level from the source”. The latter influences how much power is needed to make the IEMs functional.

Occasionally, some IEMs (e.g. those with low sensitivity and/or high impedance, or those with planar drivers) do need amplification, so check out this nifty power calculator to see if the gear in mind needs more juice!

Isolation

Will you be using the IEM on the go outdoors? Or at home?

When outdoors, isolation is important to preserve hearing health, as one would need to jack up the volume to overcome outside noises without it. The bass frequencies are generally the first to be lost in a noisy environment, and one won’t be getting good sound if a poorly isolating set is competing against outside noise.

In general, IEMS without vents (usually pure BA types) or closed-backed IEMs tend to have better isolation when compared to vented (usually DD types) or open-backed type IEMs, so pick your poison.

The fit and ear tip material also affects the overall isolation of your IEM. Generally, if you value fit and isolation, it’s recommended to go for memory foam tips.

Though, bear in mind that foam tips may dull the treble and they may also be less durable than silicone tips. Eartips are as personal as shoes and is a purely subjective situation, as we all have different ear anatomies and preferences. For this, feel free to check out our useful guide on how to select the perfect ear tips!

Detachable vs non-detachable cable

An IEM with a non-detachable cable may become a white elephant after an awkward yank (e.g. cable caught on the door), and this is a potential point of failure down the line when the cable is damaged. Also, cable microphonics may be present with a non-detachable IEM, which can lead to an irritating “cable noise” when the cable bumps against you.

Thankfully, most IEMs are shifting away from a non-detachable concept, but at the budget segment, quite a few companies still cut costs by utilizing non-detachable cables.

In general, an IEM with a detachable cable may be more useful as a daily beater set as such, as even if the cable is damaged, one can buy aftermarket cables easily. On the flip side, one should consider babying a non-detachable IEM well when on the go.

Over-the-ears or cable down?

Do you prefer to use your IEMs with the cable around/over the ears or hanging down? In general, over-the-ear IEMs give a more secure fit and less cable microphonics. Plus, the over/around-the-ear design also helps keep the IEMs in place, while taking the cable out of the way.

However, they may be a bit more troublesome to insert into the ears, as beginners might not be used to using them over-ears. Having said that, after fiddling with over-the-ear IEMs a few times, it becomes second nature, so no worries!

Some IEMs are only designed to be either over ears or cable down, whereas some can be used with both methods. So if you’re still unsure which design to go for, you can opt for something that lets you experience both.

8 Best Budget IEMs To Buy In 2022

BLON BL-03

Best Timbre
BLON_BL_03-2: The "benchmark" IEM at sub $30!
The “benchmark” IEM at sub $30!

Key features

  • Driver: 10 mm carbon diaphragm dynamic driver
  • Sensitivity: 102 dB/mW
  • Impedance: 32 Ω
  • Cable: 2-pin detachable cable

The BLON BL-03 are the very definition of cheap and good, and are one of the cult favorites of budget audiophiles in audio forums for the past few years.

Indeed, the BLON BL-03 are frequently touted as one of the benchmark single dynamic driver sets at the sub $30 segment for timbre and tonality. (I define timbre as what lets us tell apart a musical instrument or voice, even when they are hitting the same note at the same fundamental pitch and loudness).

One will commonly see queries on forums asking how does XX IEM compare with the BLON BL-03? Many even cite the BLON BL-03 as a giant killer that can dethrone more expensive sets!

The BLON BL-03 are somewhat Harman tuned with a mid-bass hump. They sound very analogue-like and boast an organic timbre.

In fact, there are not many budget IEMs that have as good timbral accuracy as the BLON BL-03 at this price point.

The BLON BL-03 are very non-fatiguing and allow one to chill and sit back to enjoy the music. They are easy to drive, but scale better when amplified. They do very well with music genres that feature acoustic instruments or vocals.

However, the BLON BL-03 have an achilles’ heel of a very short nozzle, which may necessitate some to get aftermarket longer eartips (eg Spinfits). Isolation is also below average. Plus, they are also not the most technically proficient set, so this set is best suited for music that doesn’t have too many elements.

The perfect pairing?
The perfect pairing?

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Also Good:

Sony MH755

An honorable mention goes to the Sony MH755. The IEM themselves actually costs less than a plate of fish and chips, and they were originally bundled with Sony Bluetooth receivers such as the SBH24. Some audiophiles discovered that the MH755 sounded good and a cult developed over them!

The MH755 are a harman tuned IEM with good tonality and timbre, but a bugbear is the very short non-detachable microphonic cable.The MH755 by themselves are also hard to find in the wild nowadays and many fakes abound, so the safest way to get them, is to buy a Sony Bluetooth receiver as mentioned.

HZSound Heart Mirror

Best Neutral Set
HZSound Heart Mirror: This set is a mirror to your music (no pun intended), such is the clarity and transparency the Heart Mirror brings to the table!
This set is a mirror to your music (no pun intended), such is the clarity and transparency the Heart Mirror brings to the table!

Key features

  • Driver: 10mm carbon diaphragm dynamic driver
  • Sensitivity: 106 dB/mW
  • Impedance: 32 Ω
  • Cable: 2-pin detachable cable

There are not many neutral tuned IEMs at the budget segment, with most tuned to be V-shaped or harman-like to suit consumer preferences. The Heart Mirror are an exception, boasting a neutral bright tuning that is well done.

The Heart Mirror have very nice mirror-like shells, they are as beautiful sounding as they look.

They have forward upper frequencies without veering much into shoutiness. They also have very good timbral accuracy, with fast transients and excellent technicalities. The Heart Mirror are analytical and have a very transparent midrange, which makes them a good set for critical listening. This set can give some more expensive sets a run for their money!

Those that want a lusher and thicker signature may need to look elsewhere, but for an analytical and technical set, the Heart Mirror are certainly one for consideration.
Those that want a lusher and thicker signature may need to look elsewhere, but for an analytical and technical set, the Heart Mirror are certainly one for consideration.

Unfortunately, the soundstage on the Heart Mirror isn’t the largest and they do scale much better with amping, and may sound meh from a lower powered source. The Heart Mirror’s bass is also neutral, so bassheads might want to consider alternatives.

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Final Audio E3000

Best Smooth Set
Smooth and lush are the keywords to describe the Final Audio E3000.

Key features

  • Driver: 6.4mm dynamic driver
  • Sensitivity: 100 dB/mW
  • Impedance: 16 Ω
  • Cable: non-detachable

The E3000 are part of the bullet-shaped E Series of the Japanese brand, Final Audio. The E3000 feature an L-shaped tuning, boasting big bass and a rolled-off treble. They also come with Final E black tips, which are a very popular eartip among the audiophile community; these tips are useful to tame treble and tighten the bass.

The E3000 have a big soundstage, with superb imaging and instrument separation at the sub $50 price point. The midrange of the E3000 is lush and well balanced and truly is the star here. Timbral accuracy is also authentic and organic.

This set is very suited for our treble-sensitive brethren, with the tuning non-fatiguing and on the dark side. They can be used for hours on hours, or even for a sleeping IEM.

All things considered, we can aptly describe E3000 as a ‘smooth operator’.

Due to the low sensitivity, the Final Audio E3000 need amplification, and one is not advised to use a weak source with them. The cables are non-detachable too, which could be a deal-breaker for some. The E3000 also have sub-par isolation, and some might find the bass on the E3000 slow and nebulous (the bass tightens when amplified!)

Compared to the E3000, another honorable mention for a “smooth criminal” would be the Tanchjim Tanya. This set also has a non-detachable cable and is bullet-shaped, though they are less proficient technically than the E3000. Like the E3000, the Tanya require amping to scale better; think of them as a mini and cheaper version of the E3000.

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TForce Yuan Li

Best Balanced Set #1
The Yuan Li are named after the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty in China, and this set is authoritative to say the least.

Key features

  • Driver: 10mm dynamic driver with DLC Diaphragm
  • Sensitivity: 103.5 dB/mW
  • Impedance: 32 Ω
  • Cable: 2-pin detachable cable

The Yuan Li are the debut IEM of a new CHI-FI brand, TForce. They boast an organic timbre, with good tonality and technicalities. This set is very well balanced, perhaps only lacking in soundstage and sub-bass extension. This is rounded off by packaging and shells that are very beautiful.

The Yuan Li do most departments well, and they are smooth yet able to allow vocals to cut through in the midrange. The Yuan Li go for bass quality over quantity, so bassheads best be looking elsewhere.

In fact, I’d say the Yuan Li are like a baby Tanchjim Oxygen, which are often cited as one of the “reference” single DD IEMs at the Mid-FI segment.

The Yuan Li are a looker!
The Yuan Li are a looker!

Although the Tanchjim Oxygen are approximately 2.5 times the price of the Yuan Li, the Yuan Li can hit about 70% of the technical performance of the Oxygen for much lesser coin, so the price to performance ratio here is nothing to be sniffed at.

The TForce Yuan Li can be driven from lower powered sources, but they scale tremendously well with amplification.

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Moondrop Aria 2021

Best Balanced Set #2
They are one of my daily drivers!
They are one of my daily drivers!

Key features

  • Driver: 10mm Dynamic driver unit with LCP Diaphragm
  • Sensitivity: 122dB/Vrms
  • Impedance: 32 Ω
  • Cable: 2-pin detachable cable

The Moondrop Aria 2021 are another very well balanced set, scoring high marks in the 3Ts of timbre, tonality and technicalities. Confusingly, Moondrop had released an older bullet-shaped IEM a few years back, also called the Aria, which has since been discontinued.

The newer Aria are one of the most recommended and highly regarded budget single DD sets that were released this year, and for good reason. They are pretty good all-rounders, and can take on most music genres with aplomb, with few weaknesses in the tuning (I do find the note weight a tinge on the thinner side).

There are some complaints of the paint chipping or bubbling off the shell for the Aria 2021, which is a bummer, but I’m sure the Anime packaging more than make up for this, right? Right?

No Moondrop is complete without their quintessential Anime artwork!
No Moondrop is complete without their quintessential Anime artwork!

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Also Good:

Whizzer HE01

In my book, the Whizzer HE01 can be considered within the same breath as the Yuan Li and Moondrop Aria 2021, featuring good tonality and timbre. Though perhaps the HE01 may lose a bit in the technicalities department to these other 2 contenders and may not have the most textured bass. Nevertheless, the HE01 are a solid pair of single DD sets that should please most budget listeners.

Tin HIFI T2 Plus

The T2 Plus are a crowd-favorite and are frequently recommended on forums, they feature a U-shaped tuning with excellent timbre and tonality. The T2 Plus may come across as boring and a bit lacking in dynamics, but otherwise they are a solid recommendation for those looking for good sound on the cheap. One caveat: there are reports of QC issues with the MMCX connectors on this set, so do consider purchasing them from a store with a robust returns policy!
 

Tin T3 Plus

The T3 plus are a balanced harman-tuned IEM, and are quite an all-rounder for most music genres. They are easy to drive and do most departments well, with a great tonality to boot. However, the bass is a bit one-noted and lacks texture, which holds this set back from true greatness. 

iBasso IT00

Best Basshead Set
The basshead storm-troopers have come to town!

Key features

  • Driver: 10 mm dynamic driver (multi-layered graphene diaphragm incorporated in a unique dual Helmholtz resonators driver)
  • Sensitivity: 106 +/- 2 dB
  • Impedance: 16 Ω
  • Cable: MMCX

Now on to one for our basshead brethren, the iBasso IT00 feature big sub-bass that can rumble to the deepest recesses of the earth! The bass quality on tap is also not too shabby.

The IT00 are easy to drive and are well-accessorized. This set does most departments well, featuring above average technical performance, good timbral accuracy and a smooth and non-fatiguing treble.

The white shells are also pretty unique in the sea of hackneyed black or silver colored industrial looking IEM shells!

Unfortunately, the IT00 suffer from driver flex.

Driver flex refers to a “crinkling” sound when one inserts an IEM into the ear, due to the driver bending from pressure (when air cannot escape well). Driver flex is usually related to a too tight seal, and is partially related to the tips we use and/or our ear anatomy.

Thankfully, driver flex may be mitigated to some extent via using foam tips (as foam is porous and allows air to escape), using other silicone tips (of various sizes) with lesser seal, or via opening one’s mouth/pulling up the earlobe during IEM insertion (this opens up the ear canal).

Some other budget sets that bassheads should check out include the TFZ No. 3 (massive visceral jaw rumbling bass!) and the Tingker TK300 (good mix of bass quality and quantity).

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TRI Starsea

Best Treblehead Set
Psychedelic colors in a sea of stars!
Psychedelic colors in a sea of stars!

Key features

  • Driver: High-frequency balanced armature: Customized TRI-HI-A, three-frequencies balanced armature: Knowles ED-29689, low frequency dynamic driver: 8 mm composite silicon crystal biological diaphragm
  • Sensitivity: 106 ± 2dB
  • Impedance: 9.5 Ω
  • Cable: 2-pin detachable cable

The TRI Starsea are a very beautiful set, featuring good accessories and a shell that feels and looks like custom IEMs. They will also attract attention when used outdoors!

Looks aside, the Starsea have very good technicalities (in imaging, instrument separation, micro-details and soundstage) for a budget set, with 4 tuning options being the icing on the cake. These tuning switches allow one to change the TRI Starsea to anything from a mild U-shaped to V-shaped tuning, just with a flip of the switch.

On some tuning configurations, the trebleheads among us will enjoy the treble extension and air that this set can bring to the table. In view of the good isolation and fit, this set may even be used as a stage monitor or for audio work in view of the excellent technicalities.

One thing to note, the Starsea are rather source picky, in view of the low impedance of 9.5 Ω, so they fair better with sources with < 1 Ω output impedance, as per the ‘rule of eighths’ of source matching.

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Smabat Proto 1.0

Best Customizable Set
Fiddle with the various dampers and drivers to create a musical feast of your own!
Fiddle with the various dampers and drivers to create a musical feast of your own!

Key features

  • Driver: 1 x 10mm Titanium Diaphragm driver (stock driver); various alternative drivers are available for purchase
  • Sensitivity: 110 dB/mW (stock driver)
  • Impedance: 16 Ω (stock driver)
  • Cable: MMCX

It is no exaggeration that the Smabat Proto 1.0 are Lego for audiophiles, and one for the tinkerers amongst us. This set features a shell that one can plug various dampers and aftermarket drivers into, to change the sound to your heart’s content. They can literally be switched from a basshead to a neutral sound within seconds.

The best part is that everything is plug and play and no soldering or DIY skills are needed, creating accessibility for the masses. The permutations at play are just mind-boggling.

The stock configuration of the Proto already boasts good tonality and timbre, and is just the tip of the iceberg. Unleash your creative juices to fine-tune (no pun intended) the sound to fit your preference.

The silver/red/gold dampers can be inserted into the hole inside the shell of the Proto, to change the bass frequencies.
The silver/red/gold dampers can be inserted into the hole inside the shell of the Proto, to change the bass frequencies.

Comfort might be a bit hit or miss due to the larger shells, but thankfully, the Proto can be worn over-the-ears or cable down to increase fitting options. Isolation is also not the best. The Proto’s stock packaging comes with the various dampers one needs, but aftermarket drivers are sold separately.

The aforementioned TRI Starsea can also be tinkered with to give various sonic permutations, but the Proto definitely have more tuning options and give way more drastic changes in the sound!

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4 comments

    1. Hi Sir/Mdm

      The Tin T2 Plus was reviewed by my colleague, though personally, I would probably give them a 3.5 – 4/5 score.

      The Tin T2 Plus are actually mentioned in the article under “also good” ie honourable mention, just below the Moondrop Aria portion.

      I thought the Tin T2 Plus have quite a safe U-shaped tonality and good timbre that suits most music genres, but they have quite bad QC for MMCX (for my set and multiple reports on forums). There are a lot of reports of MMCX connectors failing and sound cutting out.

      Other than the QC issues, the T2 Plus are quite a solid set, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t get much ear-time from me, cause I find them a tinge boring and undynamic. YMMV though!

  1. What about the KZ Accostics hype going on these days with multiple driver options. Can you explain why they are not on the list then?

    1. Hi Sir/Mdm

      I’ve owned around 20 KZs in the past and TBH, most of them are not too bad technically, but majority had bad timbre and tended to be quite boosted in the upper registers and can get fatiguing/sibilant. Most of them are V shaped too, personally I’m not really a fan of their house sound, but of course different strokes for different folks.

      There was even a recent KZ driver scandal here: https://www.headphonesty.com/2022/03/kz-fake-multi-driver-iem-scandal/

      KZ was my very first introduction to the CHIFI budget IEM world (with the KZ ZS6) and I thank them for that, but the past few months, their marketing strategy seems to be via releasing multiple sidegrades every few weeks and hoping something sticks on the wall. Kinda like using consumers as beta testers, a few weeks later they release a Pro version of it.

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