My first custom in-ear monitor: a personal journey

Like a glove

The advantages of the CIEMs Harvey created for Van Halen are the same advantages that make CIEMs so appealing today. 

The most obvious benefit is that they’re custom moulded for your ears. That means wearing them should – if done right – feel almost seamless, like you’re not wearing earphones at all. If, like me, you sometimes struggle to get a comfortable fit with universal earphones (and the tips they come with), a CIEM will literally feel like your ears have been liberated.

The second advantage, closely tied to the first, is isolation. Regular IEMs generally seal your ear canal from outside noise with silicone or foam tips, essentially plugs, hence the occasional discomfort and feeling of something being ‘stuffed in your ears’. 

CIEMs, on the other hand, seal both your ear cavity and your ear canal with a nozzle that extends as far as the second bend inside your ears. Unlike tips, there’s little to no pressure on your ear canal from the nozzle because it’s made to fit the exact shape, size and depth of your ears. 

This isolation is what allowed performing musicians to discard the wedge speakers they previously used to get live feedback of their instruments and vocals. It also allows audiophiles to create an isolated environment they need in order to hear every sound in a recording in complete privacy.

Image courtesy

The flipside

But it’s not all sweet music and roses. CIMEs have their own downsides, the most obvious being cost and complexity. Just like a tailored suit is generally going to be more expensive than one you can buy off-the-rack, so a CIEM is also going to be more expensive than a regular universal model, and also take longer to make.

Unlike a tailored suit, there’s no guarantee that between your ear impressions and the final product, the fit will be perfect first time, and I’ve heard many anecdotes of CIEMs having to be sent back more than once to refine the fit. 

Lastly, there’s the elephant in the room: resale value. A CIEM will always be much harder to resell because the new owner would need to have it ‘re-shelled’ for his or her ears. That’s not even an option with some CIEMs, so once purchased, it’s a purchase for life. When an IEM costs upwards of $1000, not being able to recoup that investment, should you want to try a different product, is a big pill to swallow for many would-be buyers.   

Be that as it may, I still believe the risks are worth the rewards, but I also advise, wherever possible, that you do your due diligence by testing a universal version of the CIEM you want before committing to a CIEM purchase (if a universal demo is available, that is). It’s also beneficial to gain some experience in the type of sound you enjoy by trying a wide variety of different products, and only then going down the CIEM road.



Guy Lerner

Guy Lerner

An avid photographer and writer 'in real life', Guy's passion for music and technology created the perfect storm for his love of portable audio. When he's not playing with the latest and greatest head-fi gear, he prefers to spend time away from the hobby with his two (almost) grown kids and wife in the breathtaking city of Cape Town, and traveling around his native South Africa.


2 Responses

  1. Hi. I’m from head-fi and looking for nice CIEM as well to match with SP3000. Looking for warm, fun to listen one.

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