Do you prefer headphones or IEMs

My main gears and upgrades for music listening have always been headphones. I use IEMs solely for the convenience when I commute. Recently I’ve read some threads and reviews stating that IEMs are way more value for money compared to headphones. They have one of this discussion over at the IEM forum, thought I’ll create one here for the headphone fans too, to get both side of the views. That got me thinking if getting end game IEM is more practical in the financial sense than climbing the really expensive headphones ladder. What do you guys prefer? I would love to hear your opinions!

I own the following:

Headphones: Grado Hemp, Gold Planar GL2000, Beyer DT1990 and DT177X, Senn 58X, Stax L300, Hifiman 400i 2020 version and SHP9600 (use it mainly for conference call).

IEMs: Fiio FH5, Shouer Tape Pro, Tin Hifi P1 and T2 Plus.

DAC/Amp: Topping D30 Pro with A30 pro and Elemental Sherlock Hybrid Tube amp.

Be it headphones or IEMs, any recommendations for my next upgrade? Overall I enjoy modern pop and acoustic music.

Headphones > IEMs for pure audio fidelity. IEMs will never be able to get halfway toward the speakers/concert experience by slamming any significant skin surface with sub-bass, only large over-ear headphones can do that. But from what I’m reading lately IEMs might have taken the lead in recent years for {detail + neutrality}/price ratio. Despite that, it’s still very hard to find them attractive because they get gross pulling out earwax all the time, plus their very existence is a violation of every audiologist’s constant advice to never stick anything in our ear canals if we can help it.

Can’t personally confirm or deny the quality rumors as the only in-ear-anything I use are the Jabra Elite 65t, and those are just for the convenience of having them do passive sound isolation without clamping my eyeglass arms or looking weird, when I’m out in the noisy parts of the city, or I’m at a restaurant and a group of families with 10 screaming kids is at the next table, or just at the office (if we ever return) if I’m sick of getting my head clamped by earmuffs.

Depending on the budget, if I had what you have there, the next things I’d be curious about would be a higher-end dynamic like a Focal Utopia, a higher-end planar like an Abyss 1266 or a Final D8000 or an Ether C Flow, or some Stax electrostatics.

Oh yea I have entry level stax L300. I agree with your suggestion but those headphones level are where the prices will increase significantly!! I’m not sure if I really want to invest so much more into audio :sob::sob: I have yet to own anything that I will consider as end game yet. I was hoping I can find it at a more affordable price in IEMs, but I guess that’s not gonna be easy.

You have to realize that since 50 kUSD headphones exist, “endgame” is always just as much about deciding where you want to stop for maximum price as it is about choosing the perfect headphones below that price. So first pick a price limit for your max-fidelity/critical-listening headphones and resolve to never go past that, or you will never find peace in this hobby. :person_in_lotus_position: :slight_smile:

My view is the same regardless of where in the forum it’s posted.
They’re different listening experiences.
IMO they should be treated as different journeys, two separate trees to climb.
However, in terms of value, even £2K+ IEMs just need a phone or DAP to power them (just one aspect to consider).
Conversely, even £2K IEMs can’t provide the soundstage of a Fidelio X2HR.
It’s a game of compromises and there are physical limitation inherent to in ears that cannot be overcome - funnily enough, on-ears share some of those limitations.

IEMs generally bring you closer to the sound and as a result, can more easily reveal a lot of detail. Even my WF-XB700s surprise me sometimes with what I’m hearing in the music that I haven’t heard before when using over ears or even speakers.

There are cans like the BLONs that exist which is crazy value for money - somewhat similar would be the Sundaras and HD6XX in the headphone range that are seen as bargains because they’re resolving above their price category.
In any case, both Headphones and IEMs can get very expensive if you’re trying to approach end game. Ultimately, I would say headphones will give you the better overall experience, though it can be more work and effort. Similarly, speakers and subs provide the best experience but can require a silly amount of work (room treatment, measuring with mics, DSP, placement, cables etc).

So, once you figure out that they do things differently, THAT’S where the preference factor comes in.
If you don’t need a very big sound stage or your cheeks to vibrate in any way, and say mids were your main love, I don’t think anything is going to bring you closer than a decent IEM. Electrostats (headphones, not the IEM driver) have silly resolution and by far have had the best mid performance I’ve ever experienced, but if you can match that texture with an IEM, that plus the closeness would win for me - plus electrostats are expensive and bespoke, again, IEMs, plug them into your phone and they’re already great.

My description is becoming cyclic. They’re physically different, it’s down to preference, both are separate journeys that one has to travel individually to answer the question as to which they prefer and what they see as good/better value.


For me, I think it comes down to use-case. Personally, I’ve invested twice as much in IEMs compared to headphones primarily because:

  1. Climate — I live in a hot climate (Florida), so having headphones on my head can get sweaty/uncomfortable very quickly

  2. Isolation — I like to listen to music outside—whether on my apartment balcony or while walking in my neighborhood, and have found that the noise isolation of IEMs allows me to be more immersed in the music regardless of outside noises. Good sounding Closed-back headphones IMO simply don’t cancel enough noise.

  3. Convenience — I work from home, but need to take calls periodically throughout the day, and find it annoying to have to switch gear when someone calls. So, instead, IEMs paired with something like the BTR5 allow me to seamlessly transition between listening to music and taking calls. Moreover, since IEMs are generally easy to drive, I don’t need to haul around a more robust portable amp to enjoy them.

That all said, the one thing that Headphones do that most IEMs, even expensive ones cannot, is soundstage. The closest IEM I’ve been able to find with decent soundstage is the Sony EX1000, but it’s nowhere near the level that some entry-level headphones can produce. As far as price vs performance is concerned, I think IEMs win if you’re looking to spend under $200 or under $500 if you need a closed-back. Headphones offer better sound to value above those limits.

So, to more succinctly answer your question, I personally prefer IEMs due to my personal listening habits and environment. After all, it doesn’t matter how great your gear is if it’s too inconvenient to use!

FD5 and…ADX5000. :slight_smile:

I started with headphones, but the isolation purity of IEMs and their rapidly increasing sound quality is just unbelievable, and now IEMs are winning for me so far. I have an HE6se here with some good amps, but FD5 is kicking its butt! :\