Ten of the world's most expensive in-ear headphones
Earbuds are portable, easy to use, and usually fairly inexpensive. But the market has begun to mature, yielding high-end products well suited for the discerning listener.
The price might seem surprising considering their small size, but similar to fine jewellery, the value is found in exceptional craftsmanship, research, and quality materials.
Many of the models in this line-up will approach (and in some cases even exceed) the quality of top-of-the-line over-ear headphones, which are traditionally known to produce greater fidelity and a better soundstage.
Shure KSE1500 Electrostatic
Electrostatic drivers (a thin electrically charged diaphragm that creates a broader, more accurate frequency response) are rarely found in speakers because of the level of precision and labour required to produce them.
Electrostatic drivers also need a lot of power to operate, often making them cost prohibitive. Shure KSE1500 is the first and only pair of earbuds to include them, and its development took eight years of top-secret production.
The closed design, which houses a single electrostatic driver in each earbud, is driven by a built-in 200-volt amplifier that employs a parametric equaliser and high-quality built-in DAC.
Thanks to some of the top-notch clarity, sound detail, and driver control, the KSE1500s are likely to become legends of high-end audio. They can be purchased from authorised retailers, including Amazon and Guitar Centre, for $US3000 (about $A3975). (shure.com)
Campfire Audio Vega
Rigidity and stability always make for better sound, and the top-of-the-line Vega earbuds from Campfire Audio — an ambitious boutique earbud manufacturer in Portland, Oregon — takes this principle to heart.
Vega is created using a liquid-metal alloy that combines hard metals like titanium and copper to reduce frequency interference. Don't let the single-driver design concern you, these $US1300 (about $A1720) earbuds will elevate your expectations for fidelity.
It is also the only pair of earbuds in the world to feature an 8.5 mm non- dynamic crystalline-diamond driver, which ensures maximum rigidity. Vega ships with a detachable cable and can be purchased directly from Campfire Audio or numerous dealers worldwide. (campfireaudio.com)
Sennheiser IE 800
Sennheiser helped pioneer the high-end earbud market in 2013 with its popular IE 800s. At $US800 (about $A1060), the earbuds were initially seen as excessive (a price that is reasonable by today's standards), but its construction stands the test of time with top-notch ceramic-damped housing and lightweight materials.
The earbuds also feature a durable cable and oval-shaped rubber inserts for a better fit and come with a leather carry case, ear adaptors, and a cleaning tool. (sennheiser.com)
If trim and clean bass is a top priority, the Ultrasone IQ earbuds are worth exploration. The in-ear design boasts exceptionally detailed sound and impressive bass control that has resonated with a wide variety of audiophiles.
The $US900 (about $A1190) earbuds are also designed to sit flush in the ear for maximum comfort — even while lying down. Its wire loops around the top of the ear, and the section of wire closest to the earbud is stiff and mouldable in order to hold its shape and adapt to the listener's ear.
Ultrasone IQ ships with a genuine leather box for storage, as well as two different cables for smartphone or standard use, with a detachable standard cable jack on each earbud. (ultrasone-shop.com)
Noble Audio Kaiser Encore
Kaiser Encore earbuds — the successor to Noble's Kaiser 10 model — features an interesting ribbed machined exterior and a two-tone steel-grey-and-silver colour scheme.
However, the $US1850 (about $A2450) Kaiser Encore also has the sound quality to back it up. Precise interior tuning allows its 10 proprietary balanced-armature drivers to produce some of the best sound possible. And its sensitive rigid-aluminium design works with low- or high-amplification sources.
Each pair of earbuds is hand-assembled and includes detachable standard-size cable plugs. (nobleaudio.com)
Vibro Labs Maya
Vibro Labs creates beautiful artisan wood in-ear monitors that have a cult following among audiophiles. Maya, Vibro Labs' flagship design, is known for its improved midrange and peak frequency strengths.
Available in a standard, $US700 (about $A930), or custom fit, $US800 (about $A1060), every pair of Maya's in-ear monitors comes with a detachable cable and four drivers set up in pairs, each of which delivers sound to the ear via separate passages. Upgraded cables are also available and include versions for music players with a balanced output.
For an additional $US200 (about $A265), both the standard and custom versions can be upgraded to a masterwork model, where the colour and aesthetic design of the wood is hand-selected by Vibro Labs owner Luke Pighetti — the craftsman responsible for Maya's stunning appearance. (vibrolabs.com)
The hefty and durable AKG K3003i earbuds, $US1000 (about $A1325) are an incredibly detailed pair of earbuds that pioneered hybrid triple-driver design and received Robb Report 's Best of the Best award in 2012.
Its brushed-metal housing offers an industrial and sophisticated but unobtrusive appearance, and its three sets of sound-tuning filters can be applied to the earbuds based on listening preference (although most will probably prefer the reference sound filter over bass or treble).
To reach their full potential, pair the earbuds with a portable amplifier or high-end digital audio player. (akg.com)
64 Audio A12
A typical pair of loudspeakers will contain two or three drivers, each of which produce certain frequency ranges in the sound spectrum. A pair of earbuds typically contains only one driver that produces all frequencies. The 64 Audio A12 custom in-ear monitors are far from typical, with each earbud containing 12 drivers — four drivers for each of the high-, mid-, and low-frequency ranges.
In-ear monitors (IEMs) sit deeper in the ear canal than standard earbuds and are typically meant for professional applications due to their detailed sound that is both neutral and uncoloured.
The A12 IEMs feature absorbing elements that eliminate some of the pressure that typical noise-isolating earbuds create inside the ear passage, allowing the listener to focus more on the music detail without distractions. Expect a broad, 3-D soundstage that exposes even the minutest elements of your favourite recordings.
Each pair of A12 earbuds, $US2000 (about $A2650) is custom moulded to the listener's ear and takes four to five weeks to produce. (64audio.com)
Final Audio Designs LAB II
The unique mesh LAB II earbuds from Final Audio Designs are arguably the most beautiful in our line-up, and they are also the rarest.
Production of these open-backed earbuds was limited to 200 examples (price upon request), and they sold out quickly. But rumour has it that Final Audio Designs may produce more in the future (like it did with the limited-edition LAB I model).
Created using 3-D titanium printing and polished with a chemical process for refined comfort, LAB II earbuds contain a single 15 mm dynamic driver that Final Audio Designs custom-developed in-house using materials like iron, aluminium-magnesium alloy, and a neodymium magnet for the driver.
A mechanical equaliser is positioned at the front of the earbud to direct the sound entering the ear. A detachable cable with MMCX connectors comes standard. If you are lucky enough to find a pair, rest assured that you have a sonic masterpiece. (final-audio-design.com)
Ultimate Ears UE 18+ Pro
Custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) are usually not attractive — they are perfect moulds of the listener's ear canal and thus are not symmetrical. Sonically, however, they are significantly better than standard earbuds, and the new Ultimate Ears UE 18+ Pro IEMs are on the top of many audiophiles' wish lists.
Each earbud features six balanced-armature drivers, and a patented triple-bore sound channel keeps the lows, mids, and highs separate until they interact with the eardrum. Priced at $US1500 (about $A1990), the new UE 18s are available in a variety of colours and come with a personalised carrying case and a cleaning tool. (ultimateears.com)