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 Apple AirPods, 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. There are also many Bluetooth True Wireless or TWS, earphones that ditch the cable but still require a good seal between the earphone and ear canal.
One of the most important aspects of obtaining a good fit is to protect your hearing long-term. A recent study reported individuals who use earphones in an already noisy environments are a 4.5-fold higher risk of hearing loss, so keeping isolation as high as possible to enable lower volume levels is critical! 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
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 both (see Wear Style)? 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 come 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 microphonics, 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.
6) Listen at the lowest possible volume. Many people love to crank-up the volume so loud you can hear their earphone 10 feet away. This will most certainly lead to Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) over time, and the unfortunate part of the equation is the affected people won’t know for years until it is way too late. Doing the above to get the best seal and noise isolation for earphones/IEMs will allow you to listen at a lower volume and protect your hearing. This becomes more important as your environment becomes louder. I personally try to keep the volume as low as possible and give it 5 minutes or so to let my ears adjust and I am usually fine.
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 a lower quantity of bass, especially deep bass, compared to other types of headphones. The one-size-fits-all nature of earbuds 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 of 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 who 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. NOTE: Please double-check that the linked products will fit your particular IEM or ear bud before purchase.
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, which come in sizes based on their earphones but can stretch on larger nozzles. This pack includes four sizes and this one comes with three three. Westone sells Star silicone replacement ear tips in a fit kit or individual sizes that work well for many, and SpinFit makes well-engineered ear tips with many different nozzle sizes.
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 it 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. Lower profile bi-flange tips. 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.
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 angled nozzles and those that use an over-the-ear fit. Most triple flange ear tips are soft, although the Westone style isn’t, and are susceptible to bending in the ear canal and muffling the sound. Triple flange ear tips are readily available, and this pack has multiple types of ear tips, including triple flange.
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 than silicone ear tips and often is more comfortable for long-term wear. 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. There are many, many options these days including Comply (assorted sizes), Shure, Westone (thin earphone nozzles), JLab, and Sonicfoam.
Hybrid: A cross between silicone and foam providing additional durability and the ability to clean the ear tips vs. a pure foam alternative and may work well if you can’t get the right fit with silicone and don’t want to spend on replacing foam often. There are a few options including AirFoams and Zotech. The AirFoams are also available for AirPod Pros. Hybrid ear tip isolation is typically on par with Foam.
Other styles: There used to be a lot of non-standard ear tip options, but now it seems there are many fewer such as mushroom ear tips (I have tried the Sensorcom version, not these) and these, also called mushroom. If you have a large IEM collection and want to play around with different ear tips, there are a few other options available.
Custom-fit ear tips: Custom-fit ear tips are available for various earphones, and can possibly be made for any particular earphone upon request. They usually block the highest level of sound of the mentioned ear tip options. While I do think there is an improvement with custom-fit ear tips, the relatively high cost and low levels of improvement make recommending this style of ear tip a bit more challengeing. Use cases where custom ear tips make sense include:
- You are regularly in loud environments
- Use with very expensive IEMs you really like
- You have fit issues due to very small, very large, or non-standard shaped ear canals
- Your IEMs have bulky or odd-shaped housings that prevent a good seal
A custom-fit ear tip will genrerally only fit one nozzle size, ear bud, or earphone. A custom mold will be required, which will require a trip to an audiologist and an additional fee unless you are willing to take a self-impression, and you can get a self-impression kit here.
Most companies offer custom tips for specific earbud or earphone models including: Sensaphonics, Adv., Snugs (also make versions for use under a motorcycle helmet and for use while swimming/in water), Custom Art, and MicroSonic (I would recommend calling for more information). MEE Professional makes custom eartips for their products.
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.
Earbud Covers: While earbuds fit many people, there is still a very large percentage of the public that doesn’t get a good fit, missing out on sound quality and requiring the volume to be turned way up (how many people have “enjoyed” other people’s ear bud audio when around them?). There are many options that will fit the variety of earbuds available, providing more staying power, higher isolation, and better overall sound quality. This will usually allow listening at lower volume levels, protecting your long-term hearing!
There are generally two wear styles for earphones: cable down and cable over-the-ear. Most cable-down earphones can be used with the cable over-the-ear, but IEMs that are designed with the cable over-the-ear, as the vast majority of high-end IEMs are today, would require modification for the cable-down configuration. On a side note, I have experienced people wearing an earphone designed for over-the-ear use with the cable down resulting in an awkward fit and most likely a poor fit and lower sound quality.
Typically, a cable over-the-ear design uses a wire in a sleeve, rubber, or other means to form the cable to go over the ear and keep its shape. The modification would involve removing the cable shaping device and may void warranties.
Cable-Down: This is the typical wear style and most people just stick with this style. What advantages are there to a cable-down configuration? It is easy to insert and remove and is generally well-accepted. Possible disadvantages include microphonics (noise caused by the cable rubbing on a shirt, desk, backpack, etc. when you are moving) and it is easier to dislodge or partially dislodge when you are moving around.
Cable Over-the-Ear: If your earphone is designed for an over-the-ear fit, you are you are all set! If the earphone is designed for a cable-down configuration, all you have to do is rotate the earphone so the cable is oriented up, toward the front of the ear. If it is your first time trying, I would recommend doing so in front of a mirror. Remember, if the earphone is not symmetrical / round, this can be more challenging, and some earphones won’t allow for this. For example, the Apple wired earbud can’t be used over-the-ear because the sound port is directional, but the TGXEAR Serratus and Ripples can be. Some IEMs are designed to work well both cable-down and over-the-ear such as the 643Ears Loak.
Advantages of an over-the-ear wear style include dramatically reducing or eliminating microphonics, a more secure fit, the cable can be located closer to the body, and/or more easily concealed under a shirt or even run down the back of your shirt. Once you get the hang of putting on over-the-ear wear style earphones, it becomes second nature!
Check out our reviews to see current higher-end products that provide amazing sound and high noise isolation.