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Stage & Studio: Musician’s In-Ear Monitors Buyer’s Guide

This Musician’s In-Ear Monitors Buyer’s Guide is designed to help musicians and engineers make more informed decisions about in-ear monitors and find the monitoring solution that will help them perform better. Our recommendations are based on listening to hundreds of in-ear monitors, including entire product lines from well-known manufacturers such as Shure and Westone, as well as and having discussions with countless musicians and engineers about in-ears.  We selected only the best-performing products at every price point, based on current street prices. The first half of the guide offers some background information for educational purposes, so feel free to skip straight to the Recommendation sections using the links below.

Page 1

Benefits of in-ear monitors
Types of in-ear monitors
Considerations for using in-ears on stage
In-ear monitor qualities
Custom in-ear monitors, fit, and country of origin

Page 2

Sound signatures
Recommendations: Musicians
Recommendations: Mastering & Engineers
Additional in-ears worth a look

BENEFITS OF IN-EAR MONITORS

  • In-ear fit can effectively block out ambient noise, reducing exposure to damaging sound pressure levels
  • Audio performance of in-ears can be far superior to that of stage monitors
  • Reduced time for sound checks as room acoustics are not a factor
  • Each band member can have their own mix
  • Consistent sound regardless of stage position
  • Compact and easily transportable
  • Excellent personal listening experience when not on stage, with noise isolation

When it comes to stage use, the noise reduction properties of in-ear monitors are especially important to consider as repeated exposure to loud music will result in noise-induced hearing loss. Typically, hearing loss cannot be reversed, and by the time it becomes detectable, it is too late. Read more in this NBC News article on musicians and hearing loss.

TYPES OF IN-EAR MONITORS

Type

Description

Pros

Cons

Universal fit in-ear monitors (IEMs) Earphones that use foam or silicone eartips in various sizes to create a seal with the user’s ear canal. • Off-the-shelf purchase
• Lower cost
• Very large number of options
• Can be uncomfortable
• Relies on finding the right eartip size
• Eartips can come off and/or get lost
• Foam ear tips wear out and replacing them can become expensive over time
Custom fit in-ear monitors (CIEMs) Earphones that are custom-made and custom-fitted to the user’s ears. • Offers best sound quality
• Long-term comfort
• Highest noise isolation
• Most manufacturers offer artwork and other customization options
• Typical lead time is 1-4 weeks
• Requires ear impressions
• May require re-fits (see CIEM Fit section at bottom of page)
• Typically only made in the manufacturer’s country of origin
Customized ear tips for universal in-ear monitors Eartips that have been custom-fitted to the user’s ears and installed on universal in-ear monitors. • No need to rebuild/re-mold if earphone itself needs to be replaced
• Long-term comfort
• Don’t wear out
• Typically doesn’t improve sound quality
• Designed for one nozzle size (one type of custom eartip won’t fill all universal in-ears)
• Typical lead time is 1-4 weeks
• Requires ear impressions
• May require re-fits
Musician’s plugs Custom ear pieces that allow for the use of filters for noise attenuation or driver units for audio playback. • Flexibility to use drivers or filters
• Long-term comfort
• Offers varying levels of noise isolation, from low to very high
• Sound quality isn’t as high as custom in-ear monitors
• Typical lead time is 1-4 weeks
• Requires ear impressions
• May require re-fits

CONSIDERATIONS FOR USING IN-EARS ON STAGE

  • Your live mix will require some getting used to, as the sound of in-ears is presented in a different way compared to speakers. In-ears are more of a personal experience and the sound is coming from in and just around your head, depending on the earphone. Once your brain adjusts for the new presentation, chances are you will clearly hear things in your mix you didn’t hear before.
  • Many mixers have built-in EQs, but unless you are making cuts, boosting frequency sections can change the strengths of an in-ear, lead to distortion, and result in an unnatural sound.  It is recommended to get monitors that perform as close to what you want as a starting point.
  • Wireless transmitters/receivers allow for freedom of movement on stage, which is great for singers, guitarists, and bassists.
  • Extension cables can provide sufficient freedom of movement for drummers and keyboardists.
  • Use of a hearing aid dryer between stage use and/or storing your in-ears in a water-tight case with desiccant will keep them performing at their best over extended periods of time as sweat and bodily fluids can block sound tubes and damage internal components.
  • Having a backup set of in-ears, or at least a replacement cable for detachable-cable in-ears, is great in case of an equipment failure.
  • Universal-fit in-ear monitors use ear tips that can get lost or wear out; therefore, having spares in the desired size is recommended.

IN-EAR MONITOR QUALITIES AND FEATURES

  • Form factor: Most lower-cost in-ears use a cable-down wear style.  In-ears designed for pro use typically use an over-the-ear design, which provides a more secure fit, keeps the cable out of the way, and is oftentimes more comfortable.
  • Isolation: Since in-ear monitors are inserted into the ear canal, they all block external noise, but many factors play into the amount of noise attenuation.  Custom-fit IEMs isolate best, but there are still variations depending on ear anatomy, shell type, and shell fill.  Universal-fit IEMs use ear tips to create the isolating seal between the earphone and ear canal, and different ear tips will offer varying levels of isolation, with foam usually providing the most.
  • Sound signature: Ideal sound characteristics are different for different instruments, and different still for sound engineers.  See the Sound Signature section below as well as each detailed recommendation for more information.
  • Sound quality: The quality of sound is derived from the Attack, Decay, Sustain, & Release (ADSR).  Accurate recreation of ADSR and capability to reproduce a wide range of notes results in more detail, recreating not only the main note but also the harmonics, room reflections, and even making audible the sounds of fingers on instruments such as a guitar or harp.  The more accurate the ADSR, the more precisely soundstage proportions and stereo imaging will be recreated, and the more realistic the environment will sound.  While some in-ears listed have high price tags, their performance is oftentimes also very high, making them an excellent music tool and providing a more natural and “live” experience.
  • Driver types: There are two main driver types for in-ear monitors: 1) dynamic drivers, which are like miniaturized conventional speaker drivers and can recreate the entire frequency spectrum; 2) balanced armatures (BAs), which were designed for hearing aids but adapted to in-ear monitors for their high efficiency and resolution.  Different drivers offer different sonic characteristics. Balanced armature designs with multiple drivers are plentiful these days, using up to 12 drivers per channel in an attempt to offer the best performance in every frequency range.  Hybrid designs use both dynamic and balanced armature drivers in combination, typically with a dynamic driver for the lows and a balanced armature setup for the mids/highs.
  • Durability: As with any earphone, the most common failure point is the cable, and a detachable cable allows for a relatively low-cost replacement if needed.  Also, since in-ears are placed in the ear, sweat and ear wax can cause damage, either immediately or over time.  Proper care, including using a hearing aid dryer and/or desiccant will extend the life of the in-ear monitors.  We recommend avoiding permanent-cable monitors with built-in microphones/remotes, as the long-term durability is typically worse.
  • Specifications: Manufacturer-provided specifications for earphones don’t make much of a difference as there are no enforced standards for testing or reporting.  This means that each manufacturer is free to use whichever method makes their product look best, making comparing the specs of different earphones worthless.  Additionally, it is very difficult to gain insight into sound quality from the specifications.

CUSTOM IN-EAR MONITORS, FIT, AND COUNTRY OF ORIGIN

As the name indicates, custom in-ear monitors are custom fitted to the owner’s ears.  In order to do this, a pair of ear impressions must be taken and sent to the manufacturer, who then builds the custom-fit shells using negative molds of the impressions. This means there are additional costs on top of the custom in-ear monitor’s base price, both for getting the ear impressions taken and for shipping them to the manufacturer, as well as additional time necessary for the process.  However, custom-fit earphones can offer better comfort, isolation, and sound quality. Some CIEM manufacturers have gone global and have offices or resellers in multiple countries to simplify shipping.  Our recommendations attempt to provide options on multiple continents in every category.

Quality ear impressions are the first step in ensuring you get a proper fit when you finally receive your completed monitors. While some companies offer do-it-yourself impression kits, it is recommended to go with a professional audiologist for your first set of impressions (call a few local offices to find the best price).  Impression depth is key but making sure the impressions are free from voids is also important, as is making sure your ears are in a healthy state, which is best done with a professional checkup.  The goal is to get a perfect fit the first time.

Custom In-Ear Monitors Buying Process
Typical custom in-ear monitor buying process; process steps may vary by manufacturer. Purchase may be required when you place your order or when they receive your impressions.

Once the completed CIEM is delivered, it is important to make sure you have a proper fit as quickly as possible. Improper fit will lead to lower isolation and/or discomfort, plus the sound quality and sound signature can change considerably.  For more information on how to check the fit once you receive your CIEM, read the CIEM fit guide. CIEM manufacturers realize there may be fit issues and offer free re-fits, usually within the first 30 days but sometimes longer (a re-fit consists of the manufacturer modifying or remaking the shell to improve fit).  Most CIEM companies will work with you on all fit issues, but it is key to find the issues and inform the manufacturer early on.

Read on to page 2: Recommendations

About average_joe

Having a life-long love of high-quality audio and gadgets, average_joe got back in touch with his audiophile side after a hiatus caused by life. His focus became headphones and related gear as the size and price fit his life better than home audio. He believes the entire audio chain is important, and likes to continue to think past the headphone and on into the head, as he believes understanding the details of how we hear will lead to a better audio experience.

3 comments


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  1. Hello! I’m a musician who does a little of both studio work and live work. I’ve been looking to invest in a set of ciem, and it seems that either 1964 V6, UERM, or Noble 4C would fit the sound and qualities I’m looking for.

    Could you possibly include the Noble 4C in this rundown? Or comment on it? I’d love to know how it stacks up against the other two that I’ve mentioned.

    • I can only comment on the silicone 4S model. The reason it wasn’t included in this guide alongside the V6-Stage and UERM is that’s it’s more of a consumer take on the balanced sound signature. It’s smooth and mellow, which is typically not the case with reference earphones. The UERM and V6-Stage tend to be a bit more bright and “analytical”.

      I compared to the 4S to both the V6-Stage and UERM in depth here: http://theheadphonelist.com/headphone_review/noble-4s/

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