Playback Editor’s Choice: Five Great Earphones Between $100-$300

Equipment+
Categories:
Earphones and in-ear monitors
|
Products:
Audeo/Phonak PFE 122,
Etymotic ER-4P,
Etymotic HF2,
HiFiMAN RE-262,
Monster Cable Turbine
Playback Editor’s Choice: Five Great Earphones Between $100-$300

Not long after the release of the Playback Guide to Earphones & Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors, I received a call from a long-term Playback reader and earphone enthusiast from Europe. The reader had already purchased several Playback-recommended models in the $100-$300 price range, but wanted additional advice on several new models introduced in the Guide. Since the Guide contains earphone reviews developed over a period of several years, the reader essentially wanted to know how models covered several years ago stack up in comparison to new arrivals on the scene.

It occurred to me that other Playback readers might have the same question, and might also want to know which earphone models within the $100-$300 group we consider to be the crème de la crème.

With that thought in mind, and with the usual caveat that “your mileage may vary,” let me share with you my top five Playback Editor’s Choice earphone picks in the $100-$300 class.

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HiFiMAN RE-262: $149

Reasons to Choose Them:

•Capable of a lush, vibrant, rich sound (very evocative on most types of music).
•Well made and well priced.
•Interesting, forward-looking detail: the RE-262’s come wired for use with balanced output headphone amplifiers. These aren’t common (yet), but offer sonic potential for the future.
•Comes with a variety of adapter cables that allow some interesting though admittedly unorthodox fitting options.

Reasons to Look Further:

•Though lush, vibrant, and revealing as advertised, the sound is also somewhat bass-forward—too much so for some listeners.
•Fitting options include a normal wearing position (earpieces worn right side up and forward) and an alternate position (earpieces worn upside down and backwards)—an option that works well for some, but seems overly strange to others. Various adapter cables needed may seem too complex for some.

Etymotic Research hf2: $179

Reasons to Choose Them:

•A combo earphone/headset that’s just the ticket for high-end cell phone users.
•A more than creditable attempt to capture most of the sound quality of Etymotic’s classic ER4P earphone, but at roughly half the price.
•Features balanced armature-type drivers, regarded my many aficionados as the most accurate type available.
•Like the more expensive ER4P, the hf2 emphasizes sonic neutrality and a revealing, highly transparent sound. But in truth, some listeners might find the hf2’s sound just a hair warmer (and thus more accessible) than the sound of the more costly ER4P.

Reasons to Look Further:

•These ‘phones typically sound best when fitted with Etymotic’s signature triple-flange eartips. But the fit of those eartips can be controversial, because they must be inserted deeply in your ear canals in order to work properly.
•Hint: if you can’t make peace with the triple-flange eartips, then try either the compressible foam or mushroom-shaped “Glider” eartips.
•Some might sacrifice the accuracy of the hf2 to get ‘phones that offer a bit of added bass enhancement.

Monster Cable Turbine: $179.95

 

Reasons to Choose Them:

•Though not a spectacular performer in any one area, the Turbine (which was Monster’s first great in-ear headphone) was and still is a fine all-rounder.
•Two key sonic virtues are accurate and neutral tonal balance, plus a good (though not class leading) measure of detail. There are no weird, impressionistic tonal colorations to be found here; instead, these ‘phones sound fundamentally honest.
•Beefy build quality (solid metal earpieces).

Reasons to Look Further:

•The best new models in this class are now “upping the ante” in terms of sonic resolution, refinement, and transparency.

Phonak Audèo PFE 122: $179

 

Reasons to Choose Them:

•Available in pure earphone form (PFE 111/112) or as a combo earphone/headset (PFE 121/122).
•One of the most impressive new mid-priced ‘phones we’ve heard in a long time, and one that in many respects sounds like a greater-than-$300 model.
•Offers three types of user-selectable and color-coded acoustic filters that give three distinct voicing options (the various options are based on data Phonak has acquired through years of hearing aid-related research). Thus, users simply choose the filters that, for their ears, yield the most accurate and natural sound overall.
•At its best, the PFE 122 offers a terrifically refined, sophisticated, and transparent sound.
•Very comfortable and easy to insert.

 

Reasons to Look Further:

•Not everyone will have the patience (and/or manual dexterity) needed to do trial-and-error testing with Phonak’s various acoustic filters, which are extremely tiny and a bit tricky to install. Hint: When in doubt, start out with Phonak’s “Black” filters, which we found the most accurate overall.

Etymotic Research ER4P

Reasons to Choose Them:

•A classic in its own time.
•Though it has been in production for many years, the ER4P was and continues to be a truly great, high-resolution in-ear headphone. Some would argue that the ER4P’s overall accuracy has never been surpassed.
•Remarkably well-balanced, dead-neutral voicing, with a sound that is open, transparent and clear.
•Features balanced armature-type drivers—a type thought by many to offer the highest overall levels of performance.
•Once properly fitted, noise isolation is excellent.
•Comes with numerous cool and genuinely useful accessories.

Reasons to Look Further:

•Though undeniably accurate, the sound of the ER4P can and does strike some listeners as being a bit analytical and “cold.”
•Typically, the ER4P sounds best when fitted with Etymotic’s signature triple-flange eartips, which require a deep-within-the-ear-canal fit for best results. But the fit and feel of these eartips is controversial, leading some to quip that you “don’t so much wear the ER4P’s as you ‘implant’ them.” But note: Etymotic does offer alternative eartips that may, for some, yield a more comfortable, easy-to-live-with fit.

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You can read the full reviews of these and other earphones in the Playback Guide to Earphones & Custom-Fit In-Ear Monitors. Download your FREE copy, here.

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