After 35 hours researching and testing 16 high-end earbud models head-to-head with an expert listening panel, we’ve determined that the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 is the best set of in-ear headphones under $200. In a competitive category, the H3 won our panelists’ ears and hearts by being fun to listen to, comfortable to wear for long periods, and beautiful, to boot.
The Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 sounds fantastic—all four of our panelists placed this set in their top three, with half choosing the H3 as their favorite. The highs are clear but not sibilant: You’ll hear detail on consonants, but they won’t smack you in the face. The lows are smooth and ever-so-slightly forward, so electric bass will pop in rock songs, and hip-hop bass lines will have some oomph. The H3 earbuds are beautifully designed and solidly built, and most important, they were comfortable for all of our panelists. The three-button remote/mic unit is designed for iOS, but the play/pause function should work on most Android phones. While the mic quality was pretty standard sounding for an in-line remote/mic in our tests, our callers were able to hear us just fine. And with Bang & Olufsen’s impressive two-year warranty, you can feel comfortable that the H3 is a sound investment.
For a bit under $200, NAD’s Viso HP20 features a spacious soundstage. It has an extra boost on the treble and bass that really suits hip-hop and rock music, especially live recordings. Not strictly neutral, the lows can sound as if they have a touch of extra reverb on them, but not in an unpleasant way.
This NAD set has an attractive metallic design and a three-button remote/mic that’s on a par with the H3’s, but the earbuds’ bullet-shaped chassis forced two of our panelists to push the tips quite far into their ear canals to get a proper seal. This is ultimately a minor quibble, but when you’re picking between the best, it’s the small flaws that separate first place from second.
Why you should trust us
Not only do I hold a bachelor’s degree in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College, but I also have tested literally hundreds of headphones while working for The Wirecutter.
I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I still do and love. In other words, I’ve been in and out of top recording studios for over a decade. I also have reviewed high-end home audio equipment for publications such as Home Entertainment, Home Theater Magazine, and Sound & Vision. My articles have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, and Time, and on Good Morning America, the BBC World Service, and NBC Nightly News. In other words, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money, and I am committed to finding gear that will make you happy.
Then there’s our panel of experts: In addition to myself, Lauren Dragan, we had Brent Butterworth, a Wirecutter AV writer with decades of experience in the audio field for publications such as About.com, Home Theater, Sound & Vision, and many others; John Higgins, a session musician, sound editor, and occasional Wirecutter writer with a music master’s degree from the University of Southern California; Phil Metzler, a musician/keyboardist in the band Just Off Turner, and Geoff Morrison, AV editor here at The Wirecutter and writer for CNET, Forbes, and Sound & Vision, with over a decade and a half of audio and video reviewing under his belt.
Who should get this
While other features such as volume controls and microphones still count for something, headphones in this price range should sound great above all else-and in general, they do! Unlike less expensive in-ears, which can be lacking in bass reproduction, clarity, and depth of sonic field, the best $200 headphones can rival similarly priced over-ears in sound quality.
However, in this range, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice sonic fidelity for easy travel. These are headphones for an audio fan who is always on the move. They should be compact, portable, and easy to pop in a bag (in a way that you just can’t dream of doing with over- and on-ears). They should isolate external noise so you can listen on a noisy plane or street and not have to crank up the volume, yet still be comfortable in your ears so you can listen for a few hours and not have your ear canals ache. One important point: Although you technically can run with these headphones on, they are not water or sweat resistant. You’ll want to have a separate pair of earbuds to take to the gym or out for a jog.
How we picked
In-ear headphones are a tricky purchase. Not only do you have to take into account sound and build quality, but you also have to remember that fit is of utmost importance. Finding the right fit can be a very personal preference. So when you come across a pair of in-ear headphones that are favored by many different people, with very different ears, you’ve found something special.
- A good pair of in-ear headphones should sound even across the entire frequency range. In other words, the bass guitar shouldn’t overpower the lead guitar, the lead guitar shouldn’t cause a loss of detail in the vocals, and the vocals shouldn’t have consonants that are painfully, piercingly loud. The headphones should produce crisp, clear details (without being harsh), and a low end that has pitch and form (not just be “whump whump whump”).
- The fit should be comfortable enough for you to wear for long periods of time. Finding a set of headphones that works for many different ear shapes and sizes—and sounds amazing—is a monumental task, but we’re up to the challenge.
- The build quality should be high, and the company that makes the headphones should be reputable. Ideally, nothing will ever go wrong, but if it does, you want good customer service that will take care of your needs.
To narrow down what to test, I read a ton of reviews—pro reviews, Amazon customer reviews, audio-blog reviews. I scoured Crutchfield, Amazon, and Head-Fi. I looked at every major manufacturer’s site to see what was new since our last review. I checked with professionals like Steve Guttenberg of CNET and Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity for their picks.
After coming across several headphones that seemed to be consistent top choices or that were so new they had no reviews at all (but seemed promising), I ended up with a list of 15 headphones that we would pit against our previous winner (so, 16 in total). During the research phase, all our choices fell between $150 and $250.
The task awaiting our panelists.
We conducted the panel thusly: All listeners used a portable audio device to assess the sound. Why? Because in-ears are made for use on the go, and mobile devices are how the average person experiences these headphones. Also, this way we could test any special remote/mic options, as well. The panelists used music of their own choosing, and with which they were extremely familiar. I asked the panel to consider the sound quality, comfort, fit, build quality, weight, and ease of remote/mic use (if applicable).
This is the only time all of these headphones have been compared directly, back-to-back, by multiple audio professionals. After our panelists ranked the headphones, I then told them the prices and asked them if that information altered their rankings at all. And voilà! We had our pick!
If you want high-quality earbuds that sound great, look beautiful, and have a remote/mic, the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 is for you. The Apple-certified remote/mic is unobtrusive on this pair’s thin and light cable, and in our tests these headphones were comfortable, across all of our panelists’ diverse ear shapes.
The H3 earbuds particularly shine on high notes. They’re capable of rendering notes with rapid attack and delay, which means they can deftly handle quick and delicate notes, such as pizzicato strings. Unlike some headphones in this category, these have no intense boost to the treble. Syllables on lyrics don’t pierce through the mix, and strings sound smooth and authentic. The lows are a little forward, but not overbearingly so, just enough for bass, cello, and lower synth notes to feel fuller and richer.
That tuning makes the H3 especially well-suited for listening to jazz, classical, and anything with acoustic instruments (think instruments that amplify themselves, like brass and strings, as opposed to electric bass or synthesizers). To anyone accustomed to headphones with boosted highs, the H3 can sound somewhat warm, but our panelists found the H3’s overall sound very pleasant.
The H3’s silicone ear tips offer a decent amount of noise isolation—enough that you probably won’t hear someone speaking to you when you’re listening to music at a low to medium volume level. However, if you’re trying to block out back-of-the-plane engine noise, or standing directly next to traffic frequently, you may want to check out our noise-cancelling picks.
Despite a metal chassis, the H3 set is lightweight and very comfortable in the ears. The cable is thin and won’t transfer noise when you move, and the three-button remote/mic unit is easy to use, with a nice, satin, tactile grip to it. The mic sounds fine; your callers will hear you, but it isn’t anything revolutionary. Like all Bang & Olufsen products, the H3 feels very well-crafted, and the company backs that craftsmanship up with an impressive two-year warranty, as well. (Most companies give you a year.) An included hard case helps to keep your investment safe.
Boosted treble and bass for livelier sound
The NAD Viso HP20 is another great choice for a bit less than $200. While these earbuds aren’t neutral sounding, they are a lot of fun for anyone who likes to bump the bass. Offering a solid build, they come in black or silver, with an Apple-compatible remote/mic. The cable is linguine-style—flat and fat—which some people prefer to avoid tangling. However, that heavier cable, combined with the shape of the bud that sticks out of the ear, could make this NAD pair feel a little less stable in your ears.
Slight fit issues aside, the HP20 sounds great. It produces a little more intensity on high notes, so if you like that bit of extra volume to add detail to consonants or fret noise on a guitar, you’ll adore the HP20. These headphones also have a bit of a low-end bump that pushes kick drums and bass line to the foreground of a mix. The big soundstage gives you a feeling of depth in sonic space (as opposed to sounding two-dimensional and inside your head). That affected depth comes at a price, however: Acoustic instruments sound great—just not authentic, especially at higher volumes. It’s as though you’re listening to an acoustic guitar that’s miked and has reverb on it, rather than having your ear next to the instrument itself. Overall, rock, pop, and electronic music are really well-suited to the HP20, and any instrument that goes through an amp or FX pedal sounds extra lively on these headphones.
As with many options in this category, the difference between good and great is subtle, and really noticeable only when you listen to several headphones back-to-back. If you like having a touch of extra detail and a touch more bass without distorting the rest of the mix, you’ll be happy with the NAD Viso HP20.
How our picks compare
Winner: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3
Second place: NAD Viso HP20
Although this category sees a lot of tough competition, the H3’s more neutral sound edged out the boosted highs and lows of the HP20. For anyone who likes to bump bass or prefers extra intensity on consonants, however, the HP20 is a great option.
Comfort and fit:
Winner: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3
Second place: NAD Viso HP20
A flatter earbud design and a lighter cable helped the H3 edge out the HP20 in fit. You’ll spend less time fidgeting with the H3 than the HP20, as the NAD design’s thicker cable and bullet-shaped earbuds can cause the HP20 pair to sag and tug at your ear canals.
Build quality and remote/mic:
Tie: Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H3 and NAD Viso HP20
Both models are built to last, with sturdy metal construction and a nice grippy feel to the cable and reinforced connection points. Both pairs have a three-button remote/mic, and both of those sound about the same over phone calls (fine), though the NAD remote feels a little more plasticky than the B&O one. But the NAD HP20 comes with both a ¼-inch adapter and an airplane adapter, whereas the B&O H3 does not. Both have carrying cases that feel high-quality. Overall, it’s a wash.
- The Audio Technica ATH-CKS1000 earbuds are kind of bizarre looking, but our panel found them to be surprisingly comfortable to wear. Brent and I detected a treble peak around 4 or 5 kHz that gave everything in that high frequency range a metallic quality. Hi-hats, for example, had an added hissing edge (instead of “Ts, Ts, Ts,” hi-hat hits were more like “TSS, TSS, TSS”). Additionally, the mids sounded a bit blurry and lacked dexterity. Phil tried to describe the effect by saying they had a somewhat “boxy artificial sound,” as though instead of seeing a band live, you were watching them on TV. Overall, the ATH-CKS1000 isn’t bad, but it isn’t the best.
- Bowers & Wilkins’s C5 S2 is an update to the original C5, the first pair of in-ear headphones I ever tested that had actual bass. And the C5 S2 still has loads of it. The newer tuning makes the bass louder in the mix but less muddy, and the highs are slightly quieter, so when a song with a kicking bass line starts thumping, you begin to lose some of the detail in the vocals, cymbals, and such. Despite that, our entire panel thought the C5 S2’s voicing was an improvement from the original. In fact, if these earbuds had been more comfortable, we might have chosen them as a bass-lover’s option—the fit is just too likely to cause issues for us to make a full endorsement. The security-loop design is best suited for folks with smaller ear canals, like Geoff, who loved it; the rest of our panel disliked it. With my midsize ear canals, I didn’t mind these earbuds for short periods, but I once wore them on a flight from LA to NY, and by the time we touched down, my outer ears ached. That said, if you like the fit of the C5 S2, you might like the sound too (especially if you love bass). If you want to read more about the sound, I also reviewed the C5 S2 for Sound & Vision.
Loathsome loops: These Polk (left) and B&W (right) designs are comfortable only on certain ear shapes.
- The tonal profile of the Beyerdynamic DX 160 iE came as a surprise to us, as Beyerdynamic is usually known for a crisp high end. This pair, however, seemed more mid-forward; as a result, guitars overpowered vocals, and the entire sound ended up kind of muddy feeling. The bass, perhaps because there were no highs to contain it, wound up sounding bloated and formless when we compared this pair against the stellar competition in the category. Overall, we were underwhelmed.
- The Brainwavz S5 boasted great reviews at the time we looked, but it lacks a remote/mic. When we started researching, the S5 was $130, but you can often find it on Amazon for under $100, so we were hoping for a lower-priced sonic gem. Unfortunately, in our tests the S5 had an intense high-end peak both at 3 kHz and somewhere around 6 kHz that could be fatiguing to folks who are sensitive to higher frequencies. This pair also emphasizes any flaws in recording, so if you’re listening to something with a tape hiss (as some older, pre-remastered recordings from before 1980 have) you’ll notice it a lot more. These headphones just weren’t quite good enough to beat out our top choices.
- With the DUNU DN-1000, DUNU gets one thing very right: lots of tips. Sizes, shapes, materials—if you can’t get this pair to fit, you don’t have ears. In our tests, John really liked the sound, putting the DN-1000 as his third-place choice. The mids were wonderful; piano music sounded fantastic. We got a great sense of space, and the bass was intense but had a quick decay, so it had that standing-near-an-amp feel. The main problem? The highs were so intense that anything in the treble range had a tinny feel. Even string instruments sounded as though they had stainless steel strings instead of natural fiber. It was a subtle shift, but enough to tip the scales in favor of the other headphones we tested. That said, if you like a lot of tip choices and prefer intense bass and highs, you might really enjoy the DN-1000.
Now this is how you get a good fit. Tons of tips, optional over-ear hook adapters, and even spacers for deeper ear canals, all included with the DUNU DN-1000.
- Klipsch has a great reputation with its speakers, so we don’t know what’s going on with its headphone engineering. The Klipsch X11i has several flaws that you wouldn’t expect from such a prestigious company. First off, the tips are oblong; in our tests the entire panel had to size up the tips, and even then we felt as though the headphones were unstable in our ears. But when you have larger ear canals, like Brent, you need XL tips—which aren’t included or available for sale, despite the fact that Klipsch makes them. Regardless, even if the tips fit you properly, the X11i produces a “thup thup” bass and ill-defined highs that hiss at you. Nobody on our panel liked the sound—and frankly, we expected better.
- Om Audio’s Inearpeace earbuds are your classic boom-and-sizzle headphones. The design looks nice, but in our tests the sound was sadly lacking. When we told the company’s reps how we felt about the sound, they were nice enough to send us a new pair on the off chance the culprit was a manufacturing defect. Alas, it wasn’t. The highs were tizzy, the lows were woofing, and the mids got lost. Remember the first-generation Beats? This pair sort of reminded us of that. We love the look, but we just couldn’t zen out to the sound.
- The Polk Nue Voe design includes a small stability loop made of solid plastic. The plastic has no give, and if you don’t wear it in the right position, it can put pressure on your outer ear. As a result, for many of our panelists, fit was a huge problem. That’s a pity, because the Nue Voe is by far the best set of Polk headphones we’ve heard yet. The soundstage was large, with a good sense of space. The bass was minimally boosted with a very slight dip in the male vocal range, but the high end was detailed and clear. Overall, Brent said it best: “If the fit weren’t such an issue, these could go head-to-head with anything here.” Sadly, unless you are in the minority that has the perfect ear shape to accommodate the stability loop, the poking of plastic in your ear will prevent you from being properly pleased with this Polk pair.
- A former winner, the RBH EP2 still holds up in this category, to an extent, as the slight bass bump and dynamic sound still make it a quality pair of headphones. But progress happens, and when we compared the EP2 against our winners, it just barely lacked the flat, even sound and extra detail in the highs that we could hear from the best in the category. If you already have the EP2, you don’t need to upgrade. But if you don’t own any headphones in this price range, we’d say our top picks just barely edge out the EP2 this time around.
- The RHA T10i earbuds have the best-designed chassis of this entire group, hands down. They’re beautiful to look at, and the over-ear hook design is comfortable yet sturdy and unobtrusive. The cord feels solid and produces minimal cable noise, while the stainless steel accents add to an overall luxe feel. These earbuds even have filters that allow you to acoustically EQ the sound. But in a category of fantastic headphones, the T10i just doesn’t sound good, no matter which filter you use. In our tests, Brent remarked that the colorations to the sound were so numerous and varied that it was difficult for him to even describe what was wrong. As Phil worded it, “Putting on the RHA was like having Iron Man land in your front yard … and then he takes off the helmet, and it’s Rick Moranis.” If only RHA’s sound were on a par with its genius design, the T10i would have taken this category by storm.
- Westone’s W10 offers great build quality and comes with a huge amount of tips to choose from, but in our tests this pair didn’t sound nearly as good as the other headphones we tried in this range. The mids and low end were fine, but the treble range was all wrong: The high end was simultaneously sizzling and undefined, so words with an “s” ended up making vocalists sound as though they had a lisp. Three of our four panelists commented that the overall profile sounded “cheap,” as though the drivers were not of high quality—which, with Westone, generally isn’t the case. We can only assume it was an issue with the voicing that led to the confusing top end. Whatever the cause, the W10 didn’t make it into our top choices.
- The Torque t103z, like the newer RHA headphones, gives you the ability to change filters to customize the listening experience: With purchase, the t103z arrives with flat, high-pass, and low-pass filters. If that isn’t enough, Torque offers even more customization with special additional filters available for purchase separately. In our tests, fit was an issue, with John saying he felt as though the t103z earbuds were going to fall out; meanwhile, I found myself messing with the vacuum created by the included tips. Overall, this Torque pair is worth keeping an eye on, and if you like the filter concept, it’s our choice over the RHA headphones. That said, if you don’t like to tinker with your headphones constantly, stick with our top pick.
- The well-reviewed Etymotic hf5 is notable in that Etymotic also offers the ability to purchase custom ear molds, an option that is generally available only for very expensive studio earsets. Unfortunately, with this pair the downsides are great: It lacks a remote/mic, the sound is very treble-heavy, and the tips are overwhelmingly hateful (perhaps purposefully?). If you happen to like the sound of older Grado over-ears, you might find these earbuds your cup of tea sonically. In our tests the treble was crisp, but no bass was available in the sound. Brent, Geoff, and John didn’t care for these headphones at all, and I found the sound merely okay if I jammed them into my ears—but then, they were completely uncomfortable and made me feel as though I had stuck a tampon or cheap drugstore earplugs in my ears. Not enjoyable.
(Photos by Lauren Dragan.)
- Review: EP2 Earphones By RBH, Even Better The Second Time Around, TechGuySmartBuy, April 18, 2013,
- RBH Sound Bolsters its Headphone Line Up, CEPro, March 1, 2013,
- Review: RBH EP1 In-Ear Headphone, Sound & Vision, August 22, 2012,
- The Best Earphones, PCMag, Jan 10, 2013,
- InnerFidelity’s “Wall of Fame” Earphones, Inner Fidelity, March 31, 2012,
- The Best Earbuds, CNET, April 13, 2013,
- 2013 Headphone Shootout Part 2: The IEM’s, Stereowise Plus, April 30, 2013,