Rank the IEMs You've Heard

2021 #3—Spring Update— Nio & IER M9 added and IER Z1R Revisited

Caveats/opening points:

  1. This list is just a reflection of my personal experience and preferences—it is by no means meant to be an objective appraisal of any IEMs’ value or worth.

  2. What I am after, with the listening experience, is emotional involvement. All other factors-- technical proficiency, perceived tonal accuracy, neutrality etc.-- are secondary for me. That’s not to say that those factors don’t play a role—but for me they are simply the means to the desired end of emotional engagement.

  3. Different brands each seem to have a distinct “house sound” or general tuning philosophy that resonates with different people in different ways. To use an analogy, I enjoy both Star Trek and Star Wars, but Star Wars strikes a deeper chord with me…not because it’s any better than Star Trek, but because it resonates more with me internally. I similarly connect with Campfire Audio IEMs in a way that I just don’t, or haven’t yet with, say, any 64 Audio IEMs I have heard. This does not mean I think Campfire is objectively “better”-- I just that happen to vibe more with their products and general aesthetic. I know there are many for whom the reverse is true however, as they say, YMMV.

  4. The more time I spend in this hobby and the more IEMs I hear the less I feel inclined to break an IEM down into its constituent parts—bass, mids, treble, technicalities etc. More important to me than individual factors are how they all play together and coalesce into the overall gestalt of an IEM’s presentation. For example, on paper the Elysium’s bass seems like a deal breaker…but in the context of the signature on the whole it’s absolutely perfect and, in retrospect, somewhat revolutionary.

  5. I’m not sure if this is a controversial topic or what (though knowing this hobby’s propensity for drama, it probably is in some quarters) but I am a very big believer in sources and synergies. As I’ve said before imho good synergy can add a kilobuck or two to the perceived quality of your setup—and it could just as easily reduce even the best IEM to a steaming pile of crap. As such I like to assess an IEM when I perceive it at its best—so all my comments will assume the best possible circumstances under which I have heard it. I know, for example, Andromeda can be source sensitive, but for the sake of this list, I’m not taking that under consideration.

  6. This list is a living breathing thing—some days all my IEMs sound great, sometimes nothing sounds right. Tastes and perceptions can evolve and change in time, not to mention sources and circumstances.

  7. Tolerance and requirements for bass is a lot like spicy food—everyone has their limits and needs. The top 3 spots on my list are all taken by IEMs routinely criticized as “bass light”—this is just a personal inclination and I respect the fact that many others may not connect as well with those IEMs for that reason. YMMV, and all that.

  8. I’ve had the good fortune to own/demo many wonderful IEMs-- and this is pretty much just a list of my most memorable/favorites. Everything on this list I consider very good to great.

On with the list:

1) Vision Ears Elysium => This IEM jumped to the top of my list in December and shows no signs of going anywhere any time soon. It’s not perfect-- no IEM is-- but it excels at natural and lifelike instrumental timbre and is peerless (in terms of IEMs, in my experience) at facilitating an intimacy between the listener and the music. It accomplishes by drawing them in with its seductive, open and organic mid-range coupled with a natural, clear and detailed treble . Pairs brilliantly with my Shanling M8. Elysium review here.

2) Campfire Audio Solaris SE/OG => Dynamic, engaging, spacious, impeccably balanced, layered and staged. This IEM has from the moment I first heard one, struck a chord with me. Of the last two years for all but about 4 months of these two Solari were my main IEM—not losing their status no matter how many other great IEMs I tried. The Solaris’ winning feature is, to my ears, its superb balance of so many factors—it’s just technical enough, just impactful enough, just sparkly enough, and so on, that is a tremendously versatile IEM that works well, and manages to excite no matter what I throw at it. Ultimately what I love about it is its ability to draw you in to the whole of the musical tapestry, leaving you content to perceive as a unity and less inclined to break everything down into bass, treble, technicalities ect. The SE in particular is notable for its more “sure footedness” and character of the mid-range…though you do seem to lose a bit of character and sparkle in the highs in the OG…tit for tat. Male vocals in particular are incredible on this IEM-- moreso than even the Ely (which still wins the day for female vocals). (Here is a 4-way shootout I did with the SE Solaris, VE8, u12t and Legend X.)

3) Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020/MW10 => Imho Andro does two things very very well. The first is present music within a holographic, highly coherent 3-d like stage. The second thing it does is draw the listener into the midrange, or emotional centre of the music-- this is why I feel it moves and touches people like few other IEMs seem to. 2020 and MW10 both have their own unique character—with the MW10 sacrificing a bit of the staging magic for a more robust low end presence—but fundamentally share the same DNA. For someone looking for a “do everything” IEM that is immersive, inoffensive, and engaging it’s hard to think of a better recommendation than the Andromeda…it puts many, much more expensive IEMs to shame

4) Sony IER Z1R => My relationship with this IEM has been tumultuous to say the least. When I owned one two summers ago I ran it through a Cayin n6ii + A01 with Spiral Dot tips. I noted the superb bass and treble but struggled with fit, fatigue, bass clouded mids and the highs and lows not playing well with my ears. Listening to it now, through the Shanling M8, which cleans up, polishes, and solidifies the bass considerably, and with Sedna Tips that hold I comfortably in my ears for long sessions…and the listening experience has been very much transformed for me. The only reason it’s at number 5 is that given the mild-v it presents I do find the bass can be a touch distracting sometimes and such it lacks the sort of balance I prefer overall and that I find in the above IEMs. It must also be noted that the bass the Z1R puts out through the Shanling M8 is the best bass presentation I’ve ever heard in a personal setup. It’s absolutely breathtaking-- I’m listening to it right now and it’s making me want to curl up in a warm blanket of Z1R bass and forget about the world for a while.

The only other things I would say that as great as Z1R’s treble is it can be a touch metallic/sharp at times (something common to DD treble to my ears) and that it’s not quite as remarkable next to the e-stat treble of the Elysium…but this is minutia, both are great. Lastly, it has a definite sub-bass emphasis but it lacks some of the mid-bass oomph and punch that I love about IEMs like the Elysium and Solaris. Still, top marks overall. Sony has always been one of my favorite companies and I’m happy I finally really connected with this IEM. In terms of my perception of the Z1R’s place in the overall pantheon of things I would say that it’s presently the IEM in which the ideas of “fun sound” and “audiophile sensibilities” have been most optimized with respect to one another.

5) 64 Audio Nio => I’m really enjoying the Nio and flip back and forth between it and the Z1R with respect to their positioning on this list. This is the first 64 IEM I’ve really connected with. It has a definite bass emphasis, but not to the extent of the Sony—but its not quite as balanced as Andro/Solaris either and there is a certain sharpness at times (5K?) in a region of the mids/treble that can be a touch fatiguing—but this should be fixable via EQ. If I had to pick one of the two as my only IEM I’d probably go with the Nio as it’s a touch more versatile to my tastes…but right now I’m in the market for a more bass driven sound to compliment Elysium and the Z1R is appearing to be just what the Dr. ordered in my life right now. Stock cable is complete shite and my biggest “wtf” moment with respect to a cable at that price tier.

6) Vision Ears VE8 => The VE8 evokes a similar emotional response to the Andromeda and differs a wee bit in that they sacrifice a bit of space between notes/instruments for a lusher, slightly thicker sound. I could be happy with either of these ultimately, but the air and spaciousness of the Andro sound may win the day for me in a pinch.

7) Unique Melody MEST => Addicting sub-bass, peerless staging and technicalities relative to what I have heard, and an airy top end sparkle. Ultimately they are a little more “v-shaped” than I like and on the whole I prefer the more forward and organic mids and balanced sound of IEMs like the Andromeda and Solaris. The MEST can be absolutely spell-binding to listen to with its insane technical response, but behind the pyrotechnics and flash, it doesn’t quite draw me in emotionally like the first 4 on this list do. Here is a 3-way comparison I did with the MEST, Andromeda and Solaris SE.

8) Empire Ears Legend X => Bass cannon of the gods…peerless with genres like hip-hop and live funk, but not really an all-rounder-- the bass suffocates me as often as it rocks my world. In a sense the most notable thing about the Legend X is its midrange, specifically how it manages to be so present, bodied and detailed despite the insane bass. If you could get LX mids in something like the MEST the very earth might crack open due to the abundance of power and greatness that would generate. Please don’t tell me that’s what the Odin is as I have no plans (or means) to go there.

9) QDC Anole VX => My favorite bass from a BA set…a little fatiguing in the upper mids/lower treble…but that’s its only real drawback. Superbly detailed, resolving vibrant and (imho) highly engaging for the most part, though it can at times sound a little too analytic and sterile.

10) 64 Audio **u12t => I understand the love for these but I can’t relate to it. They’re technically very proficient, tonally very safe…but ultimately not very exciting (to me). I once likened the u12t and Andromeda to the “mars and venus” of IEMs…and I stand by this to some extent. Listening to the u12t is intellectually stimulating-- it lays bare and presents accurately all the elements of whatever you’re listening to, is gloriously detailed, and tonally capavble…but it all kind of falls flat for me and fails to evoke an emotional response. Conversely the Andromeda never fails to sweep me off my feet every time I listen to it. The u12t gets respect because it’s great at what it does, but it’s not for me.

11) Campfire Audio Atlas => Loads of fun but treble can be intense at times and didn’t really succeed as an all-rounder for me. As this list indicates pretty much everything I’ve owned since has bettered it. I should say though, that the Atlas presented a fun and bombastic sound that hasn’t quite been equaled by anything else I’ve come across, which is one of the reasons I’m really curious to hear Campfire’s new 2020 Dorado and Vega models.

12) Sony IER M9 => I wasn’t satisfied with my initial assessment of the M9 so I spent a couple more hours with it today and fiddled with it until I got a better fit and I got it to sound a lot better with my Sedna tips instead of the spiral dots I was using. It’s a rather pleasant an inoffensive sound-- would say something of a poor man’s u12t. It lacks the grand stage and dynamics of a Solaris or Z1R, the emotive sweep and seductive of a VE8, Andro or Elysium or the insane resolution and technicality of a VX-- it’s hard to fault per se, but it’s not the type of signature that draws me in and holds my attention.

13) CFA Andromeda Gold => Could have just been timing-- I first heard the Gold shortly after it was released and it didn’t really grab my attention. I heard it again a few days ago and it was the same thing. Maybe it’s just a timing thing and that if I heard this IEM under better circumstances I would feel differently about it…but it’s a classic case of an IEM that (for me) doesn’t really rate as there are many others on this list that (imho) do what it does, only better. Don’t let the ranking dissuade you though-- each IEM on this list is top tier and may be a dream come true for someone.

On the Radar: EE Odin (fantasy), Erlkonig (fantasy), Trailli (not even fantasy), CFA Dorado & Vega 2020, Volt, Luna, Jolene


A truly excellent piece of writing. You have some great experience with TOTL Iem’s. It’s a fantastic list of gear. I think that everyone’s audio journey is unique and of course what people like and dislike is always going to stir emotions. Perhaps a little too much on certain forums.

A list of somebody’s favourite Iem’s is a truly personal thing and as you say there’s no right or wrong in a person’s choices. After all in my opinion it’s all subjective 9n the end.

Again thank you for letting me in on your personal journey through Iem’s. I have really enjoyed following it so far and will be interested in the next chapter.


Thanks man…your kind words mean a lot. This is indeed a very personal journey :slight_smile:


I just grabbed the new Solaris LE and it’s only my second audiophile IEM. I bought it for work but I’ve been thoroughly impressed by it. I feel it’s holds it’s own against my lcd-4 and Stellia and that shocks me. Seeing you review makes me second guess myself a little less. Appreciate your condensed rankings.


Hello! I’ve been enjoying reading the lists you all have posted, especially since I’m currently in the market for IEM’s. I’ve only ever owned SE535’s and the IE800’s, but am ready to step up to TOTL level. My job entails much travel and so IEMs are ideal. I just have two questions that I hope are appropriate for this thread.

1: since it’s very difficult to test drive IEMs (don’t know where to do that during Covid), I was hoping a decent method of discovering one’s sound preferences would be to correlate IEMs to open back headphones, which would help someone who was considering purchasing headphones ‘from the other side’ understand what they should pursue. I own Focal Clears, HD800S, HD600, and Nighthawks. The Clears thus far have my favorite sound signature because I find them well balanced in regards to musicality and accuracy, though I would desire more bass and desperately wish the soundstage was greater. Also, perhaps the tiniest bit bright for me. Based on that info, what IEMs would you recommend? Or what grouping of headphones should I consider?

2: which of these IEMs have great isolation and which are not recommended for airplanes/subways?

If this post is not appropriate, I apologize for posting incorrectly!


Welcome to the forum! You might get more answers to this query on the IEMs Discovery & General Discussion thread.

In my limited experience, it’s tricky trying to find an IEM that correlates to the sound of full-size headphones. There’s something of an apples-to-oranges element to the overall presentation, especially when it comes to soundstage, of course. Such qualities as frequency response and tuning, resolving ability, macrodynamics, and the like can be a better frame of reference, so it’s helpful that you described what you like and what you find less pleasing about the Clear. I’ve likewise got the Clear and an HD 800 SDR and I’ve yet to find equivalent IEMs.

In some ways, the closest to the Clear I’ve found is the Final Audio A8000. These IEMs extend well at both ends of the frequency response, and the bass is satisfying; their imaging is excellent; the soundstage is good enough, actually quite decent (for an IEM), and there’s plenty of punch and dynamism to the sound. The deal-breaking problem for me was the treble: it’s too fatiguing, and it has a kind of crystalline or hard, almost glass-like quality to it. I share your sense of slight brightness in the Clear’s treble and these Final Audio IEMs are worse in this respect. Still, I hope this is a useful data point, even if it only helps you rule out one option.

You might be better served with a Campfire Audio Solaris 2020. I found it quite aggressive - not unlike the Clear, then, in a way - but it was also too bright for my tastes. Others don’t share that opinion, though, so I’d suggest looking through the reviews on various forums. The original Solaris might be a better option for you. Its bass is excellent, it has a nice bit of sparkle in the treble, and it does have an excellent, 3D soundstage. It’s not the widest soundstage, if you prefer the spaciousness of the HD 800S over the Clear, but almost everyone calls it “holographic.” For an IEM, it’s truly impressive in this regard.

For a beautifully open, spacious soundstage - such as you can get from an IEM - the Campfire Andromedas (both the original, now aka the “2019,” and the latest version, the “2020”) are a great option. The resolution is excellent, for the price (there are better, as you’ll have seen with @jrockwell’s posts), and there’s a lovely sparkle to the treble - more so with the original, which might suit your tastes better. The snag is the bass. It’s good in its way but it lacks heft and sub-bass extension. Here the Solaris wins. But for musicality, the Andro is great. You might find the 2020 version too dark. I have it and like it as a contrast to my over-ear headphones.

One last thought: I just auditioned the Empire Ears Odin. They’re very impressive, especially in their resolving capabilities, musicality, and engaging qualities. The bass is probably the best I’ve heard with an IEM. It’s not overdone; rather, there’s a slight emphasis but the textures and heft, and the sub-bass depth, are lovely. The treble lacks that last bit of sparkle and extension but the IEMs aren’t fatiguing and, with the exception of listening to acoustic instruments, especially in classical music, I didn’t feel as though I was missing out too much.

There are always tradeoffs, and I’ve yet to find an IEM that’s close to the Clear. But I don’t have much experience with IEMs, and I’m still searching myself for something that follows your preferences. Do please let us know if you find something, I’d be keen to find out about it!


I’m blown away by your thoughtful, thorough response. Thank you for your time.
Will keep you updated on my decisions for sure.
One final question about these TOTL IEMs: are they sealed well for use on public transportation? My se535’s seal exceptionally well, like ear plugs. But the IE800’s leaked enough sound to make them not worth using on the subway (in NYC. Japan and most other modern subways, no problem) but tolerable on airplanes.


Thanks! I hope it helps.

I’m afraid I got my Andromeda 2020 after the lockdown so I’ve not ridden on the subway with them or flown on planes. My best guess, though, is that the Andromeda won’t provide you with enough isolation since they’re shallow-fitting IEMs. I tend to prefer deep-insertion IEMs for those situations and have a pair of modest Massdrop Plus IEMs for them.

Other shallow-fitting IEMs include the Final Audio A8000. The Solaris, both original and 2020, is medium-insertion, at most, so I can’t be sure about how well it will suit your needs. The Empire Ears Odin was a medium-insertion and did a good job of isolating outside sounds but, again, I heard it only at home. Sorry for not being more help here.

Edit: one additional thought, you might look into the Jerry Harvey Audio IEMs as the company has a long tradition of making studio monitor IEMs or ones for stage musicians. The Angie gets lots of plaudits and the Jolene will come out later this year. CIEMs might be another option to consider. I’ve never had or heard any so I can’t be much help there.


My IEM experience is limited, but recently acquired the Meze 12 Classics V2, which just released. I did a short review on it, yet to be approved by the moderator, but it should show up on this site soon. Incredible clarity, track separation/definition and very balanced. They do lack low end if you’re into modern dance music. The bass is crisp and punchy, and not at all fat and warm as some may like it.


This list for me is something like the Billboard 200 in that it’s a fluid moment in time and not something etched in stone. This is something of a “thermometer reading” of my tastes at this present time.

1) Vision Ears Elysium
2) Sony IER Z1R
3) Campfire Dorado 2020*
4) Campfire Audio Solaris*
5) Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020*
6) Unique Melody MEST* (Eastern Audiophile Version)
7) Vision Ears VE8
8) Empire Ears Legend X
9) 64 Audio Nio
10) QDC Anole VX

*These IEMs get special distinction from me for hitting above their respective price brackets.


Totally agree with you that Z1R whith the right sinergies is almost perfect


True but in fairness I’d say that about half of the IEMs on that list.

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Current moment in time, ranking for preference not objective factors, only including the ones that I have in my possession (I don’t remember others well enough).

  1. QKZ VK4 - My mainstay, has been for a long time, gets more time than even my circumaural headphones purely on the basis of sound. Amazing bass and overall tuning, technicalities allegedly not great but somehow that doesn’t keep me from enjoying the music.

  2. Moondrop Starfield - when I want something a little more natural and relaxed, but still really enjoyable. Also very comfortable in bed.

  3. KZ ZS10 Pro - More aggressive V-shaped signature, good when on-the-go in noisier environments.

  4. Sony MH755 - I don’t use these much, but appreciate their price to performance ratio.

  5. ThieAudio Legacy 4 - I can understand why some people would enjoy these, I don’t

  6. Blon BL01 - If my ears were shaped differently I might like these when I want something on the warm side

  7. Campfire Audio Andromeda 2019 edition - I occasionally pull these out because my mind tells me kilobuck IEMs should sound amazing, then they quickly go back in storage when I remember that I just don’t like the tuning. I should work harder on selling them because I know some people like the tuning.

  8. KZ ZST - my first Chifi IEM, not good enough to listen to, not valuable enough to sell, not big enough to throw out.

  1. Tralucent 1+x Plus
  2. Dunu SA6
  3. Anew X1
  4. KBEAR Believe
  5. Shanling ME80

I own or have owned all of the below. The list doesn’t represent everything I’ve heard, but the ones that have had some lasting impact, whether positive or negative.

1. 64 Audio Nio (currently own). It’s just sublime. A nice, clean bass response that is complimented by lush mids and smooth highs. It hits my preferences perfectly. It’s like 64 Audio broke into my house and measured my hearing while I was asleep. The cable is blasphemous, though, and makes me physically angry. The entire unboxing is seriously the most underwhelming experience you can imagine. But it gets what matters right – the sound.

2. Campfire Andromeda OG (previously owned; I regret selling this every day). Engaging. Like many others, this was my first high-end IEM. To my ears, everything sounded balanced and the highs weren’t an issue. And, my god, that soundstage.

3. U12T (currently own). Truly the all-around everyone says it is. Technicalities are simply awesome. I don’t actually find them boring like others have sometimes stated. It doesn’t put a foot wrong. But that’s also the quality that keeps it from being my favorite – it doesn’t take any bold risks with its tonality.

4. Shure SE846 (previously owned). No, it’s not the most resolving anymore. It’s not even close and probably bested by many IEM’s that are less than half the price. Maybe the technicalities don’t really hold up by today’s standards, but in terms of tuning, it has that “x” factor.

62,293.Sony IER-M9 (previously owned). Completely against my preferences. Folks have said it is warm and has a good bass impact. I couldn’t disagree more. My first thought when I heard this was, “What bass?”. There’s a special place in hell for this IEM. I can’t stand it. It could put death to sleep. I seriously would rather just not listen to anything than listen to this. It doesn’t matter how resolving something is if it fails to talk to you in any way.

Coming in this week: IER-Z1R!


The ZIR sounds exciting. Some people say it is the best IEM for Bass. I’d love to know (if anyone on here could tell me) how the ZIR stack up against the Legend X or Campfire Atlas in the bass region.

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Just picked up the Nio and 100% agree- I think it is also my fave. I’m now wondering what other full/lush/warm IEMs are out there. The EE Phantom has my eye…


I wonder how you feel about the Dorado 2020 now, several months down the track? :grinning:

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Hi @Gordon, welcome to the forum! @jrockwell has a thread over on head-fi where you can see his ranking of IEMs. He’s still enamored with them:


Ultimate Ears UE18s for me. I have some “over the counter” Shures that aren’t all that bad either.