Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What Are In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)?

With the advent of portable music, a majority of people listen to music with headphones or earphones. Why not listen to your music the way it's meant to be heard? Higher fidelity audio can now be enjoyed on-the-go. While there is already a large market for high-end headphones and earphones, today I would like to recommend a type of headphone that I firmly believe are the best portable headphones: in-ear monitors.

In-ear monitors (often abbreviated to IEMs) are essentially like earphones, except they form a seal within your ear canal (do not confuse this with your inner ear). This seal helps reduce outside noises by approximately -20 through -28 dB. This is called noise isolation, and it is different from noise cancellation (which removes outside noises by utilizing frequency waves to annihilate the ambient waves coming from outside).

The result from this noise isolation? Better attenuation of details in music, as details usually drown out when you are listening with earphones and ambient noise is leaking in. Not only this, but you crank the volume much less than you normally would, since you can listen to your music at lower volumes.

IEMs provide a much more comfortable fit when used with foam tips. Better yet, they don't fall out of yours ears like regular earphones.

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However, the real advantage of in-ear monitors lie in their exceptional technology. IEMs often utilize 2 or 3 sound drivers to "separate" the sound frequencies between the lows (for bass), mids (midrange—for vocals), and highs. Secondly, the type of driver technology used is often Balanced Armature drivers (I go into detail about the difference between Balanced Armature drivers and Dynamic Drivers in my post here). By utilizing several sound drivers, audio quality tends to skyrocket. Your favorite band sounds like they are right there in the room playing with you. Vocals are pristine and clear. Bass is clean and without distortion. Highs shine without being drowned out by everything else.

Many IEMs utilize multiple drivers. The result is an increase in sound quality.

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The end result? You can actually appreciate the rawness of an electric guitar or the thumping beats in hip-hop songs. Sometimes, you realize that you haven't actually listened to your favorite band before this increase in audio quality.

Overall, there are three attributes about IEMs that make them stand out among other headphones:
  1. Noise Isolation: This results in better attenuation to details in music and no need to crank up the volume to dangerous levels.
  2. Sound Quality: Multiple drivers often result in a tremendous increase in sound quality. Since each speaker only focuses on one range of the spectrum (i.e., one speaker for mids, highs, and lows), distortion is very low while details are preserved. Many (not all) IEMs utilize multiple drivers.
  3. Comfort and Fit: IEMs super soft foam tips can be used (such as Comply tips), which are compressed prior to insertion, and then expand in your ear. When they're done expanding, you can barely feel anything on.
You may be thinking "But I hate sticking things in my ears!". In that case, IEMs may be a good choice.

A majority of IEMs are compatible with foam tips—which are not only super soft, but also have fantastic seals compared to plastic tips. Foam tips can be compressed prior to insertion, and once they're in your ears they expand to fit the shape of your ear canal. Thus, IEMs with foam tips can be much more comfortable than earphones that irritate your ears or constantly fall out. One of the best manufacturers of these types of foam, Comply, offers multiple types of soft tips for a variety of IEMs.

Soft foam tips (such as Comply tips) offer superior comfort compared to earphones.

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IEMs range in their audio quality and prices. Some of the most affordable IEMs start around $100—however, these IEMs are usually single balanced armature driver IEMs and do not offer a good balance between value and audio quality. Moving up towards higher fidelity IEMs usually results in 2 or 3 drivers being utilized. These IEMs range between $200-$400+ in price, depending on their configuration and brand. The important thing to note is that IEMs should be considered as an investment, as they do not usually fail from wire issues and driver failures. If they do, most IEM manufacturers offer a minimum of a 1-year warranty, with others offering 2-year warranties and higher.

With a variety of IEM manufacturers including Shure, Sennheiser, Westone, and EarSonics, it can be difficult to choose the right IEM for you. It is important to make sure that you know what type of sound signature you prefer (be sure to see my post on sound signatures here), as well as the type of music you listen to and enjoy. You can also consult the head-fi forums for more information regarding IEMs and which IEM is right for you.

If you do decide to purchase IEMs, enjoy the increased noise isolation, sound quality, and comfort. You may just rediscover details in music that you've never heard before!