Which IEMs are right for you?
Earphones Versus In-Ear Monitors
Are earphones and in-ear monitors (IEMs) the same? Answer: Yes and No. Yes, technically, an IEM is an "earphone" and vice versa. Audiophiles and music lovers would say not so much. Build and sound quality worthy of "studio monitors" creates the distinction.
What is a "studio monitor"? Ever see recording engineers wearing headphones or IEMs in front of a large mixing board? Recording engineers select gear for truth in sound. Accuracy requires money, a little less money today than twenty years ago, but there is no free lunch. Thus a "studio monitor" or "monitor" is equipment true enough to be used by a recording engineer as a "studio monitor".
Noise isolation is another difference. Earphone travel is likely to let in the crying babies, airport announcements, and other noises every life is better without. You get what you pay for. Expensive miniaturized drivers with customized or universal tips block out a chaotic world in favor of your music. So, yes earphones are technically in-ear but they are hardly studio monitors so no earphones are not IEMs.
In-Ear Monitors Buyers Guide
In-ear Monitors (IEMs) are form-fitting in-ear headphones created so musicians could hear themselves and fellow musicians onstage. Noise out and music in is such a compelling idea IEMs quickly developed audiophile and music lover fans.
IEMs are as popular as blue jeans in a smartphone-enabled noisy cubicle farm world. Small enough to slip into a pocket or wind around a digital player such as the Astell and Kern SP1000M in-ear monitors outsell headphones. IEMs account 61% of sales in the growing headphones market (Futuresource).
Smart IEM buyers study information about the type, upgrades and Moon Audio best sellers to find the right IEM.
In-ear Monitors are marvels of micro-engineering. Some high-end IEMs have more miniaturized components than expensive speakers. Dynamic, balanced armature, planar magnetic, and electrostatic are drivers used in IEMs.
Dynamic drivers are tiny versions of the woofers and tweeters used in speakers. Dynamic driver IEMs include a tiny diaphragm, usually 8mm to 11mm in diameter, connected to a coil of wire around a magnet. When electrical signal moves through the coil a magnetic field is created moving the diaphragm back and forth. More bass is the main advantage of dynamic drivers, but “more” isn’t always better.
Balanced Armatures & Hybrids
Balanced armatures use a U-shaped armature suspending one end of the U between a coil of wire and a pair of magnets. A magnetic field is created when an electrical signal passes through the coil the armature vibrates. Vibration moves a diaphragm to create sound.
Balanced armatures can be as small as 5mm on their longest side, so as many as a dozen can be packed into an IEM. Typically, separate drivers are used for treble, midrange, and bass. Multiple drivers may be used for a single frequency.
A crossover circuit, much like those found in speakers, divides the signal into bass, midrange, and treble. Less punchy bass response is the downside of balanced armatures. “Hybrid” IEMs solve the lack of solid bass response by using balanced armatures for treble and midrange and a dynamic driver for the bass.
Some high-end IEMs use planar magnetic drivers. Planar magnetic drivers use an ultra-thin an ultra-thin mylar diaphragm with a wire coil suspended between perforated, magnetized plates. Sending an electrical signal through the coil moves the diaphragm back and forth. Music is another name for diaphragms moving back and forth. And planar magnetics are known for producing beautiful music with spacious sound and detailed treble.
A variation on the planar magnetic driver is the air motion transformer (AMT). AMT uses a diaphragm folded into pleats, like an accordion bellows. When an electrical signal passes through the coil the pleats “squeeze” and music comes out.
The Shure KSE1500 and KSE1200 use an electrostatic driver. Electrostatic is similar to planar magnetic drivers. The difference is in the diaphragm. An electrostatic driver has a layer of conductive material carrying a bias voltage (200 volts). The two magnetic plates surrounding but not touching it carries the audio signal. Like planar magnetic drivers, electrostatic drivers are known for spacious and detailed sound.
Universal IEMs use silicon rubber or foam tips to fit earphones into a listener’s ear canal. Most universal IEMs include two to a dozen variable sized and shaped tips designed to fit typical ears. After a little experimentation, off-the-shelf ready to listen with immediately universal IEMs achieve a great fit for any ear.
Custom-fit IEMs are molded to fit a listener’s ears. A mold or scan of each ear is made (see How To Order Custom IEMs). Manufacturers use those molds to create custom fit in-ear monitor just like your favorite musician.
Why is Fit so Important?
IEM fit impacts sound quality. Optimum fit means better sound, more noise isolation, and improved bass, soundstage, and mid and upper tonal clarity. The best universal in-ear monitors include extra tips, the spongy piece at the end that goes into your ear. Ears come in all shapes, so many of the best IEM makers include a variety of tips. Custom IEMs use a mold of your ear so no tips are needed.
Most high-quality IEMs include interchangeable cables. You can change cables to fit your digital player (DAP), headphone DAC/AMP or musical tastes. There is an active debate within audio about cables. One group, let's call them the Quants (for quantitative) like to graph things. This group thinks if you can't evidence on a graph it (sound benefit) doesn't exist.
The other group – let's name them artists – know what they hear. Artists believe in "sound signature" or the discernible sound difference between components, cables, and recordings. There's a third group, the hybrids, with some quant and artist beliefs and philosophy. Philosophy and psychology are important words when thinking about audio, sound, and gear. Philosophy describes somewhat self-reinforcing ideas or frameworks.
Quants believe in data, instruments, and testing. Artists believe in experiences, testing, and knowing greatness when they hear it. Whose right? Answer: everyone. Your hearing is highly subjective. You may love Bob Marley's reggae or Biggie/s rap and your friend may prefer country or classical. It's all good and Moon Audio makes a cable for quants, artists and hybrids.
Silver Dragon Cables
Made with as close to pure silver as possible helps mid to upper range instrumentation clarity, soundstage and tightens lower end (bass).
Black Dragon Cables
Warms, tightens, and improves low-end sound (bass) while improving mid-range clarity and diffusion. Diffusion of muddled sound only hurts what we hear while diffusion of clear sounds improves our listening experience.
Bronze Dragon IEM Cables
Designed to help bright or thin-sounding IEMs round out, warm up, and sound better.
Blue Dragon Cables
Some gear could sound perfect if the cable got out of the way if the cable was neutral. Blue Dragon was designed to get out of the way letting headphones, DACS/AMPS or DAPs sound signatures come through unmolested.
Upgrading stock cables maybe the biggest better sound bang for the buck. Here are our our Dragon Audio Cable offerings for IEMs:
Adding a digital to analog converter (DAC)/headphone amp is another simple IEM sound upgrade. We guarantee any smartphone will sound better with any of these DACs.
Don’t let the diminutive size fool you, Chord’s mighty-mouse DAC travels easily, bringing high fidelity sound to your IEMs no matter where you are.
Add Chord Poly's music streaming to it’s “mighty mouse” DAC/Amp for a special sound even when you’re in an airport.
When your listening at home adding a Questyle CMA400i will transport your IEM sound to heaven or someplace close.
Smartphones are good at many things, but they don’t do anything great. A smartphone won’t replace your Nikon D850 camera. Expecting even the best smartphone or tablet to sound as good as digital players, DACs and Amps are nuts.
That’s why we recommend upgrading your IEM sound with an iPod-on-steroids digital audio player such as:
A little smaller than it’s powerful sibling the SP1000, the SP1000M was designed for great sound on the road.
Created to deliver high-end sound at a mid-tier price, the A&K SE100 is our best selling digital audio player (DAP) this year.
Audiophile sound from a little ready to travel DAP makes the Questyle QP2R a music lover favorite and our 3rd best selling DAP this year.
Best Selling IEMs
Finding the perfect In-Ear Monitors isn’t hard, but we can’t know what is most important for you. What we can share is our top five selling IEMs and some more information about our IEM brands.
Electrostatic detail comes to in-ear monitors for the first time thanks to Shure’s innovative design. The Shure KSE1200 comes with an amplifier and lots of tips sure to create a snug fit for any ear.
You may want to add a Chord Mojo DAC with KSE1200 for the best sound.
The Shure KSE1500 electrostatic IEM comes with a digital to analog converter (DAC)/amplifier powering sound sure to please even the most discerning audiophile’s ears so not hard to see why the KSE1500s are a close 2nd to our best selling KSE1200s.
No need to add a Chord Mojo DAC since the KSE1500s includes a DAC/Amp.
JH Audio Lola
Custom or Universal
If you like C-O-L-A you’ll love Jerry Harvey Audio’s DOME powered L-O-L-A IEMs.
Best Selling Brands
Shure | Naperville, IL
For decades, audiophiles have loved the rich, enveloping sound of large electrostatic panel speakers from Quad and MartinLogan. Shure’s KSE1500 and KSE1200 are the first to bring electrostatic sound into an IEM.
Both the KSE1200 and KSE1500 include a special amplifier that powers Shure’s drivers while providing the electrostatic diaphragm’s bass. The KSE1500 has a DAC built in, so no need to upgrade with a Chord Mojo. If you have an iPhone 7 or later you’ll need a DAC since Apple removed the headphone jack. You may also need an Apple CCK to connect a DAC such as the Chord Mojo.
Shure’s numbers tell how many drivers. So the SE846 has four drivers, the SE535 three and the SE425 two. More drivers can mean better sound and you’ll notice a detail, soundstage, and depth of sound difference between Shure’s 2 and 4 drivers IEMs.
Drew recommends Silver Dragon IEM headphone Cable for Shure V1 for Shure SE425, SE535, and SE846.
JH Audio | Orlando, FL
JH Audio founder Jerry Harvey invented the custom-molded IEM more than 20 years ago, and Lola is his most innovative product. While other hybrid IEMs use a dynamic driver for the bass and balanced armatures for the mids and highs, the Lola uses a pair of 4.9mm dynamic drivers for the midrange, mounted in a patented D.O.M.E™ Dual Opposed Mid Enclosure that perfectly tunes their sound.
The magic of the dual dynamic midrange drivers will be clear the moment you hear vocals through the Lola. Lola sounds just as vibrant and captivating with instruments, too – everything from tenor saxophone to electric guitar to grand piano takes on a new intimacy when you hear it through the Lola.
Audeze | Santa Ana, CA
Audeze built its reputation by making some of the world’s finest planar-magnetic headphones. The LCD-i4 brings the company’s planar-magnetic technology to IEMs delivering distinct sound.
Each LCD-i4 earpiece is a tiny version of the planar-magnetic drivers found in Audeze headphones. The LCD-i4 is an open-back design, so it won’t block external sounds and is not designed for noise cancelation.
Open-back also means the LCD-i4 produces the spacious, enveloping sound for which Audeze’s headphones are revered.