Thanks to Apple and other manufacturers of phones and portable audio players, earbuds have been the most common type of stock headphone for more than a decade and remain extremely popular to this day. Though great strides have been made in sound quality and ergonomics, the most obvious example being the new Apple EarPods, there is still room for improvement in both sound and fit for many users. Earphones, often referred to as In-Ear Monitors, or IEMs, offer the potential for great comfort and sound quality for a variety of ears, but rely heavily on a good seal with the ear canal. This earphone fit guide is designed to help you achieve the best seal, comfort, sound quality, and secure fit from your IEMs.
Notes for the beginner – a good place to start
Earbuds, earphones, & IEMs – more detailed information about earbud types and fit
The Importance of fit
Ear Tips – detailed information on ear tips
Nozzle size – coming soon
Wear Style – coming soon
If you are new to in-ear earphones/IEMs, your first experience can be a negative one. Many people simply don’t like to stick anything in their ears, but earphones require an airtight seal between ear tip and ear canal. If you take a look at image A in figure 1 you will see that they sit in the outer part of the ear while image B shows the ear tip inside the ear canal.
The quick steps for the beginner to get the best, most secure and comfortable fit to go with full sound are as follows:
1) Is your earphone designed to have the cable go down, go over-the-ear, or either? I have seen people wear over-the-ear earphones with the cable down resulting in a horrible experience. The packaging and/or product page should show the proper wear style. Also, make sure to follow the left/right markings.
2) Use the proper sized ear tips. Earphones usually come with multiple sizes of ear tips. Trying all the sizes that came with the earphone will help you achieve the best combination of comfort, security, and good sound quality. Even if you have preconceived thoughts about the size of your ear/ear canal, a particular ear tip may fit better than others. For example, if you have medium sized ear canals, a small ear tip will allow the earphone to fit deeper, which may give a better result. Or, a larger ear tip may sit further out for better comfort, and with the size of your ear or an over-the-ear wear style, still stay put.
3) Adjust the angle the nozzle enters your ear canal. Ear canals are angles forward and up, so the nozzle should also be aimed in that direction. Once inserted, or while inserting an earphone, try different angles with different ear tips to see what feels the best and provides the best seal and comfort.
4) Adjust the depth of insertion. Typically, the deeper the insertion, the better the seal and isolation, but sound quality varies as some earphones sound better with a shallow insertion while others sound better with a deep insertion. Experiment with different insertion depths until you find what works best for you with the particular earphone.
5) Reduce cable noise. Cable noise caused by the cable rubbing against clothing or other objects is called microphonics. If your earphone has microphotonics, there are some ways to reduce or eliminate it.
a) If your earphone uses a cable down configuration, try to wear the cable over-the-ear.
b) Tighten a cable cinch, which is a slider that holds the two parts of the cable together past the Y-split, which is where the cable separates for each channel.
c) Wear the cable under your clothing.
d) Wear the cable behind your back. This may work for when you are up and about, but typically not when you are doing something like sitting at a desk.
While you may find a great configuration for one earphone, another could require a completely different setup due to a different shape, design, ear tip style, etc. It is best to go through this process for different earphones to achieve the highest levels of performance.
EARBUDS, EARPHONES, & IEMs
A) Conventional Earbuds. Earbuds sit in the outer ear and create a loose seal at best, as shown in Figure 1 A. Typically, they provide low isolation from outside noise and need to be turned up louder in noisy environments. In addition to low isolation, the lack of a seal typically results in lower quantity of bass, especially deep bass, compared to other types of headphones. The one-size-fits-all nature of ear buds will result in many users having trouble achieving the best comfort, sound quality, and/or secure fit with earbuds.
B) In-Ear Monitors. In-ear monitors (IEMs), characterized by having ear tips that form a seal with the ear canal, as shown in Figure 1 B, are also commonly called in-ear headphones or earphones. IEM performance is heavily dependent upon ear tips, which we’ve seen called ear nubs, ear bits, inserts, fittings, etc., to determine sound quality, comfort, isolation, and fit security.
C) Types of IEMs. While “IEM” was a term originally specific for earphones designed to insert deep into the ear as shown in Figure 1 C, it has evolved to broadly correspond to pretty much all in-ear headphones. A sub-category, “canalphones”, implies earphones that require a shallower seal (Figure B). Canalphones typically block out less external noise than IEMs, but with the number of different offerings on the market the lines between canalphones and IEMs have become very blurred. We typically refer to all in-ear headphones as “earphones” or “IEMs”.
D) Driver Type. IEMs typically use one of two driver (speaker) types: dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers. Dynamic driver IEMs are typically much more tolerant of fit issues as the larger driver moves more air and works better in a semi-sealed environment. Balanced armature drivers on the other hand are precision devices that need a good seal to recreate bass to their full potential, which is typically at a lower level than dynamic drivers to start. No seal = no bass, and a partial seal, such as that shown in Figure 1 D, equal light bass with a dynamic driver IEM but no bass with most balanced armatures.
Regardless of the true name for an IEM (see Types of IEMs above), fit and the seal are key for performance. Assuming the earphone is being worn the correct way, meaning over-the-ear when required, you may have an improper seal if:
* The sound is tinny, treble-heavy sound, or lacks bass response
* You experience improper stereo imaging with a characteristically “distant” sound
* Your IEMs don’t stay in your ears during no or light activity
* Your IEMs don’t isolate outside noise
There is a good number of people that don’t know how to get the best fit and seal, as can be seen in some over-the-ear and balanced armature models of earphones on Amazon. When someone bucks the trend and says there is no bass from a known bass heavy IEM, it most likely isn’t the product, but the user (although products can be defective).
If you are experiencing any of the above issues, try pushing the IEMs deeper into your ear canal and/or try different ear tips. Using an incorrectly sized eartip can have other negative effects on the seal, such as an eartip that is too small may not reach the sides of the ear canal for an airtight fit while one that is too large can make getting a deep enough seal impossible or – in some cases – can even collapse inside the ear canal, again preventing a good seal and reducing comfort.
Other factors that can affect fit include insertion angle, earphone design, and earphone wear style. The ear canal is naturally angled slightly towards the front and top of the head, and angling the earphone appropriately during insertion can help. In addition, wearing IEMs “over-the-ear” by wrapping the cable around your ear before inserting the earphones, can often help avoid parts of the ear anatomy that can otherwise prevent a good seal. I can usually get a much deeper and therefore better seal by wearing IEMs that are designed for cable-down use with the cable over the ear.
Most earphones will have a very noticeable reduction in outside noise when a proper seal is achieved. There are some exceptions, such as the relatively rare open-backed IEM, or some that are just poorly designed and don’t offer a lot of isolation, which would be indicated in the isolation rating for the review. It is also important to note that most IEMs won’t completely block out external noise, and your awareness level, anatomy, ear tips, IEM design, and music volume will all contribute to how much external noise you can hear.
Ear tips are the interface between the earphone and your ear canal. Everybody’s ears are unique, so certain ear tips may work better for you than others. Typically, a minimum of three sizes of ear tips are included with an earphone, but there can be multiple sizes and types, or in an extreme case, one size/style (EarSonics).
Single flange – Single flange ear tips are the most common ear tips, and as the name implies, they use a single piece of silicone to create a seal. There are significant differences in single flange ear tips due to material density, thickness, and shape. The denser the material, the more isolation they will provide and the higher the level of bass. The thicker they are, the less pliable they will be, which may be good or bad. If they are too soft, they can collapse in the ear, which is affected also by shape, and if they are too hard, they can become uncomfortable. A very popular shape that works well with most ears is the Sony hybrid ear tips, and this pack includes 4 sizes. Westone recently released new STAR (+ TRUEFIT FOAM) ear tips that work well for many.
Bi-flange – Bi-flange ear tips have a large and small flange on the same stalk and while there are many different sizes and shapes, there are far fewer options as they are less common. The advantage a bi-flange ear tip has over a single flange is they can have two independent areas that can seal with the ear canal, creating a better overall seal. This will result in more bass and isolation if you can get them to fit. The disadvantage is the limited sizes available, and if they don’t fit your ear, they will be useless. Using a bi-flange ear tip when only the smaller flange creates a seal isn’t a good idea as it is best to use a single flange, which offers many more sizes and shapes. If you have very large and deep ear canals, the Hi-Fi Man bi-flange ear tips may work well.
Triple flange – Triple flange ear tips take bi-flange ear tips to another level. When they fit, they provide a better seal and higher levels of isolation. They work well for getting the most out of many balanced armature earphones as the seal is critical for bass performance, if your ear canals are deep enough. Triple flange ear tips typically work very well with earphones that have angles nozzles and those that use an over-the-ear fit. Most triple flange ear tips are soft, although the Westone style aren’t, and are susceptible to bending in the ear canal and muffling the sound. Triple flange ear tips are readily available, and this Amazon seller has a good rating with a great deal.
Foam – Foam ear tips are soft, compliant ear tips that conform to your inner ear. They come in a wide range of density and finish, and Comply has made foam ear tips extremely popular with their ultra-soft foam. Other foam is denser, but will conform to your ear canal over time. Inserting foam ear tips is different than inserting a typical ear tip, as the foam should be compressed before the ear tip is inserted, and the earphone needs to be held in place until the foam expands back into shape. Foam offers an exceptional seal and high levels of isolation. The negative with foam, which is dependent upon the density, is that they don’t last as long as silicone ear tips, most can’t be cleaned, can be expensive, and some absorb some of the treble energy, changing the sound. Monster makes foam ear tips with a silicone insert at the tip to alleviate the treble absorption issue, but the foam they used caused my ears to itch.
Other styles – There are plenty of non-standard ear tips available, and one main player in that area is Sensorcom, which manufactures various sizes and shapes. If you have a large IEM collection and want to play around with different ear tips, there are other options out there that can make a difference. Some manufacturers include unique styles of ear tips, such as Sennheiser in their IE80.
Custom fit ear tips – Custom fit ear tips are available for various earphones, and can be made for any particular earphone upon request. While I do think there is an improvement with custom fit ear tips, the relatively high cost and low levels of improvement prevent me from recommending this style of ear tip. It may work for some, especially those that want a custom fit and to have the ability to replace the earphone when necessary, or swap between several IEMs with the same nozzle size.
Spacers – Earphone nozzles vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, so not all ear tips will fit all earphones. What happens if you have a smaller sized nozzle but want to use ear tips with a larger diameter stalk? If you just put them on, they will end up stuck in your ears. Using a spacer will alleviate this issue, as it will fit securely on the earphone nozzle and allow the ear tip to fit snugly. The spacers I prefer are from Shure “Olive” foam tips, but you can use any foam insert or a small diameter plastic/rubber tube. If you do use a foam ear tip, use caution when removing the foam, and I recommend finding small tubing instead.
Home-made – I like the longevity and sonic qualities of silicone, but also appreciate the better isolation of foam, but didn’t want to keep replacing foam all the time. Removing the stalk from a foam ear tip allowed it to be placed under a flange of a single flange ear tip, providing the best of both worlds. I also experimented with using some tubing in to extend the distance from the IEM to my ear drum, which increase the soundstage size, providing more of a headphone feel with the IE8. Let us know if you have any earphone mods you use.