I picked these companies through multi-faceted criteria of technical superiority, logistical reliability, build quality, art, value, and spectacle — it’s not necessarily about who makes the absolute best-sounding CIEMs — it’s about who pulls it off the best in a whole package, and who will remain a mover and shaker in this industry years from now.
These are my picks (in no particular order):
Ultimate Ears: Some people believed (including me) that when Jerry Harvey left the company in 2007 and Logitech assumed ownership that UE would spiral downward into the gutter. Not so. UE is easily the largest and most capable CIEM company in the world. It’s easy to say that they’ve sold out and catered completely to the mainstream, but they’ve been quietly innovating in the CIEM segment with technologies that other companies can only dream of implementing. To make their Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor a reality, they will need to have the capability to laser trim their SMD components on-demand (my guess entirely; this is not something that UE has come forward and talked about publicly), something that is costly and unfeasible for most of these small cottage workshops. Their new Vocal Reference Monitor utilizes new hand-wound inductors; if they dare implement that for something that is tuned only for voice, then it means that the engineers at UE have found a way to make miniature inductors way less noisy (read: less distortion/THD) than ever before. There’s a reason why most IEM makers only use resistors and capacitors in their crossover circuits, but that’s no longer a challenge for Ultimate Ears.
JH Audio: People naturally expected big things from JH Audio when Jerry Harvey started his own company; however, the JH3A fell flat on its face, and the company has never had good customer service nor great turnaround times. Their new FreqPhase technology, though, is getting my attention. I almost called them out by saying it was just a marketing gimmick when they first announced it at CanJam 2012, but when basically every single experienced insider is raving about how amazing the new earpieces sound, you better believe that Jerry Harvey has got something good here.
FitEar: One of my favorite companies, Suyama’s FitEar burst onto the audiophile big stage when it introduced their TO GO! 334 universal IEM as one of the first universal in-ear monitors to break the $1000 barrier (trailing only the Final Audio Design FI-BA-SS and AKG K3003). While certainly, their prices are daunting (their custom-fit MH335DW and Monet monitors approach $2000 USD in price when converted from Japanese Yen) and their availability outside Japan is poor, FitEar has built up a reputation for its painstakingly intricate design and construction, including proprietary pin connectors and titanium tubing and horns, to go with sonic superiority. There’s something about the delicate, skill-intensive nature of CIEM building that especially suits the Japanese way of manufacturing.
Heir Audio: This new company that sprouted out of Chengdu (via Micro-DSP) has a secret weapon: the Wizard. Dr. Moulton’s artistic creations have taken the art of CIEM to a whole new level. When it comes to artwork, all the other companies are just playing catch up. This fact, combined with their aggressive pricing policies, amazing customer service, and forays into universal IEMs, has turned the company from small fry into the talk of the town. No, they’re not quite as big-time as the true juggernauts in the business, but mark my words, they’ll get there.
ACS: They almost didn’t make the list, but I figured I needed a company that makes its monitors from silicone in the mix as well. ACS is a juggernaut in the industry, nearly as prominent as UE; their client base is just as star-studded, and though they originated from the UK, they have offices and laboratories around the globe. What made me put them on the list, however, is their long-standing commitment to hearing loss research. Going forward, research about noise-induced hearing loss will be increasingly important as every man, woman, and child becomes used to the iPod/Beats age of personal audio.
1964Ears — I haven’t really been wowed by any of their CIEMs, but their 1964-V3 represents one of the best all-around values in the entire CIEM industry. I’ve never ordered from them, but from what I’ve heard, they have excellent customer service.
Westone — What can I say? They’ve been there from the beginning, alongside Ultimate Ears, making the very first acrylic custom in-ear monitors. They’ve got their fingers in every single aspect of the business, and are the only company that consistently and reliably makes vinyl-tipped shells.
Spiral Ear — Founded by a former ACS employee, this tiny little design house in Poland is home to probably the most ridiculous of silicone CIEM designs — the SE 5-Way Reference. This thing is beyond spectacle. Five bores? Five-way crossover? Delayed ignition (probably some circuit design that introduces group delay) woofer? Beloved by some of the most hardcore enthusiasts as having the most organic sound of any in-ear monitor around? Shut up and take my money! This is mystique at its finest.
So, what do you guys say? Did I miss anyone?
ADDENDUM | COMPANIES SUGGESTED BY COMMENTERS
Unique Melody — China is definitely the biggest market for personal audio in the future, but interestingly, Unique Melody serves far more international customers than domestic ones. Despite starting off humbly as a remold shop, they’ve developed an entire line of critically acclaimed custom in-ear monitors such as the Miracle, Mage, and Merlin. They continue to improve with the Platform Pure 6 and a new triple dynamic CIEM.
Cosmic Ears — out of Scandinavia by way of Great Britain, Cosmic Ears has been stirring the pot with their very affordable lineup of custom in-ear monitors.