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

19 comments

  1. Incredible reviews. I’m a drummer so I want maximum isolation to protect my ears. Not as concerned with fidelity. I haven’t been able to find noise reduction ratings for some of these IEMs. Do you have any idea what the NRR is for the 9/10 and 10/10 isolation, or the difference between 9 and 10? I currently use earplugs that give me 33 dB NRR (the best available). I’ll get either the Spiral Ears 3-way, SA-43, or Sensaphonics 2X-S. Noise reduction is the deciding factor for me. Thanks!

    • Hi Jamison, we don’t measure the isolation, just test it in a comparative way. Silicone provides the best isolation, but the acrylic shell with a silicone fill of the M-Fidelity products is just about as good overall with a bit more high-frequency isolation. Fit and canal length also play into isolation, so ask if the manufacturer has a “musicians fit” which makes the canal longer.

      Since you are a drummer, the SE-3 or SA-43 would be better suited to your instrument due to the superior bass capability. Let me know if you have any other questions. Please be sure to let us know what you decide to get and how they perform for you.

      Cheers,

      Joe

  2. Hey Joker

    Any reason you don’t include the rha m750 on this list? Kinda contemplating between the m750 and the se215s, and everywhere I read seems to make the m750s out to generally be the better product.

    I’m a bass player, for an idea of what I might need.

    • The MA750 just didn’t have the ideal form factor – it’s a little too flashy and too heavy in the ear, the cables aren’t replaceable, isolation is not quite as good, and so on. It’s a nice consumer-class earphone, but it’s also pretty bassy and I doubt RHA themselves thought it would find use as a monitor.

  3. hello joker,

    i was considering to buy TDK BA200 after reading your reviews on this website, until i read this page. i’m a musician (performing & arranging), so i want IEM that falls in the reference sound signature category. but on “mastering & engineers” section, the recommended IEM that suits my budget is the Etymotic HF5. so, is the BA200 still recommended for mastering & engineering? how do you compare BA200 & HF5 in terms of that? thanks a lot in advance.

    • The BA200 is pretty close to reference flat, but a little on the warm side (meaning slight emphasis on the bottom half of the spectrum vs the top). In the case of the BA200 this is very mild, but it’s still a colored sound vs the more neutral HF5. This is by no means uncommon with stage monitors – the Westone UM PRO 30, for instance, is even warmer, and the entry-level Shure SE215 is far more bass-heavy – but for me it’s just off the edge of what I’d call “reference”.

      With that said, the form factor of the HF5 is not great for stage use, so if your purpose is split between performing and mastering, the BA200 is still the better option as it will be usable for both.

      • thanks for the reply!

        could you recommend other IEM for those purposes? BA200 seems to be the one, but it’s beyond my budget (though it’s really tempting to stretch it). i consulted to the “headphone list” page with each reviews back and forth, and i was also considering VSonic VC1000. but i couldn’t find it anywhere on amazon nor ebay. even the BA200 is discontinued (though it still exists on amazon). don’t they make successor product for it?

      • oh and by the way, i’m a drummer, so noise isolation factor is highly considered too =)

        • HF5 is probably your best bet then, if within budget. Isolation doesn’t get any better than that and the performance is about as good as it gets for the price, too.

          If you really need a more stage-friendly form factor then I guess you can give up some isolation and go for a VSonic GR07 Classic, which is not as flat as the HF5, or the Creative Aurvana In-Ear 3 or Shure SE215, both of which are warmer / even less neutral.

          • wow nice! now i’m leaning towards GR07. in amazon and ebay it’s priced around $99 now. i hope it’s the same product that you’ve reviewed. thanks a lot! your work and dedication reviewing/introducing IEMs are amazing! greetings from Indonesia =)

          • hi joker,

            sorry i need to ask one more question. apparently i still can find VSonic VC1000 on lendmeurears website. i’ve concluded that both HF5 & VC1000 are in the balance sound signature category. but from this website reviews, VC1000 has better sound quality than HF5. and actually VC1000 is quite cheaper. so how do you compare between HF5 & VC1000? thanks.

          • and how about VSonic GR01?

          • Yes, GR07 Classic should be $99, though some sellers try to sell it for more.

            The VC1000 is a very good earphone. Few reasons I recommend the HF5 over it in this guide:
            1) HF5 is more neutral. VC1000 is slightly brighter than true neutral, much the same way BA200 is slightly warmer than true neutral. Both are still neutral compared to most other earphones on the market, but with the HF5 is a benchmark the minute differences become noticeable.
            2) I tend to trust the construction quality of the HF5 more, especially since you won’t just be using them on the go and in the library.
            3) Noise isolation is better on the HF5.

            GR01 is more neutral than the VC1000 but I also wouldn’t recommend it for durability in a pro setting. Plus, it’s more expensive.

          • thanks very much! you’re the best.

  4. I was thinking of picking up the MEElectronics A151 with the intention of using it for male vocals. In your recommendation for them, it seems you were using the 1st generation A151. Now that MEElectronics has released a 2nd generation model of the A151, do you know if it would also fare well for monitoring male vocals?

    • I haven’t tried it myself but from looking at the measurements comparing the 1st and 2nd gen the 2nd gen actually looks better on the whole. It should be brighter than the 1st gen (which was a little dark for my taste) and may be a little less forgiving, but overall it should work about as well.

  5. 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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