Wired headphones are making a comeback and I’m excited

Streaming music has never been easier; with Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, and more, you have essentially instant access to millions of tracks no matter where you are. What’s particularly interesting is that you can now get lossless music as standard through Apple Music, which is a huge differentiator. Even though I’ve been a subscriber to Spotify for nearly a decade, I prefer Tidal as a secondary service because its catalog is of higher quality.


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But with Apple Music essentially democratizing lossless audio, I don’t see the need to use Tidal or Spotify. I still subscribe to Spotify, but most of my casual listening these days is on Apple Music. When it comes to budget audio gear, the last three years have fundamentally changed.

While wireless earbuds remain the main option, IEMs (in-ear monitors) have exploded in popularity in recent years, coinciding with the introduction of lossless streaming. At first, it’s not hard to see why. While the best wireless headphones have a lot of useful extras and great sound, they still aren’t on the same level as in-ear headphones.

FiiO KA11 decoder review

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While 3.5mm jacks are a distant memory on phones, you can now buy a great adapter DAC for not much money (the $30 Fiio KA11 is a great example of this) and get more on the go. Good sound. As with most market segments, the renewed interest in over-ear headphones is largely due to the great value offered by Chinese audio manufacturers.

I’ve tested dozens of in-ear headphones over the past 12 months, and the bottom line is, budget earbuds have never sounded better. Brands like Fiio, Moondrop, and KZ Audio have plenty of budget options under $50 that sound incredible, and they’re just as durable as more expensive earbuds.

FiiO FX15 in-ear headphones review

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There are dozens of excellent options in the $100-$300 segment, and I think these are the best option if you’re interested in trying in-ear headphones again. If anything, once you cross the $500 mark, you start to see diminishing returns. The $649 Fiio FX15, the brand’s most expensive in-ear headphones as of this writing, use a combination of three sets of drivers to produce fantastic sound with excellent layering and a wide soundstage. Thieaudio uses a similar system in its $1,299 Prestige LTD, but is that twice as good as the Fiio? No.

Affordable in-ear headphones like the Tangzu Wan’er and 7Hz Salnotes Zero 2 that cost just $25 are redefining the entire category, making it easier to get great sound on the go. Considering you can buy a good adapter DAC for around $30, you’ll need to spend $55 on a portable audio setup that lets you enjoy lossless music.

FiiO KA11 decoder review

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This would have been unthinkable even three years ago, but it illustrates the incredible speed of today’s audio industry. Yes, I know wireless earbuds still offer unparalleled convenience, and while the sound quality has improved significantly (thanks to the Creative Aurvana Ace 2’s use of innovative solid-state drivers), they still don’t have the same effortless in-ear elegance, but you But I can’t get such a refined sound.

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