Everything you need to know about Universal or Custom in-ear monitors and what your best choices are.
I believe in-ear monitors (including wireless in-ear monitors) are the pinnacle of personal investment in your audio journey. Whether you looking for custom in-ear monitors as a musician (singer/drummer etc) or you’re an audio and music lover that wants to level up their listening experience.
If you prefer to watch videos and not read, we’ve compiled all you need to know in the video below.
There are two approaches you can take with in-ear monitors, the first is universal in-ear monitors and the second is custom in-ear monitors. We’ll go through both options in this article.
There is no doubt that having custom in-ear monitors (IEMs for short) molded to a perfect fit for your ears is a sublime experience but there are some drawbacks which we’ll discuss below.
This article is designed to be the ultimate guide to custom and universal in-ear monitors so by the time you’ve read through you’ll be an expert on iems. If we don’t answer questions make sure you ask them in the comments below.
- What IEMs are
- Benefits of IEMs
- Dynamic drivers vs Balanced Armature drivers (BA)
- Universal in-ear monitors
- Custom in-ear monitors
- Budget in-ear monitors
- Getting molds done
- in-ear Monitor Cable options – MMCX / 2-Pin
- Negatives of IEMs
- In-ear monitors for singers
- In-ear monitors for drummers
- In-ear monitors for guitarists
- Best custom in-ear monitor companies
- Best universal in-ear monitors
- Custom ear protection
Why trust me? As an audiophile for 20 years and the owner of Headphones Canada for nearly 5 years, I have bought and sold most all headphones and IEMs that have been available on the commercial market from global companies.
I currently own the full range of Westone W series and UM Pro series. I have the Shure SE215 (long time fav of mine in the budget iems category). I own a pair of Heir Audio CIEM 8.0 (8 BA drivers) which were an early project from the Wizard, who is now Noble. I have historically owned the Shure EC2, Etymotic, Sennheiser IE800 and SE846, DUNU range, JH Audio Layla and Roxannes, 64 Audio and many more. That list is not including the headphones. So I have been through a lot of IEMs.
What is an in-ear monitor?
An in-ear monitor is also called an iem for short. In-ear monitors were really born from a need musicians had, which was to be able to hear themselves play on stage and reduce the amount of hearing damage they were incurring.
An in-ear monitor, with the right monitor mix, can provide enormous benefits for musicians.
in-ear monitors for musicians
As a musician, an in-ear monitor on stage also allows you to get a personal mix for what traditionally came back through a foldback (speaker(s) on the front of the stage facing back towards band members so they can better hear parts of the band). e.g. when I was playing as a live guitarist I would have snare drum and kick from the drums and a little of the lead vocals coming back through my foldback speaker.
While foldback speakers are still used, mostly for standing on top of and looking awesome at concerts, a lot of musicians and nearly all vocalists opt for iems these days as it helps with reducing hearing loss while being able to get better pitch having their vocals playing in their ears.
Foldback speakers are still a staple for musicians especially at smaller gigs or when it’s just not practical to have iems on stage. IEMs do require a little more fine-tuning on stage than foldback speakers so it helps to have custom controls or a foldback sound engineer doing the mixing for you.
If you’re a musician reading this list it’s important to know you don’t need a fancy IEM for it to be effective on stage. That’s also why we’ve included an article specifically for the best budget iems for live and recording use in this list.
Typically it is the drummer and singer in a band that go for in-ear monitors. Everyone has personal tastes as to what they have put through their mix but if you have the option to mix your own monitor mix then this is ideal.
In a band situation you might only have one mix that everyone shares, this is not ideal but is often better than nothing. It costs money to have a foldback mixing unit and speakers, and someone has to run it, and sometimes that’s one of the band on stage unless you have a foldback monitor engineer.
Having a custom mix through in-ears allows you to:
- Decide the volume of the in-ear mix
- Decide what you want in your personal sound mix
- Decide how much (volume) of each instrument or vocals you want in your mix
- and…often it’s about what you don’t want in your mix
You want enough that you can stay in time and stay in pitch. Those are the two most important factors but the third is that you still want to FEEL the music. It can be like standing in a vacuum if you have in-ear monitors in your ears because you lose a lot of the feel from actually being in the band; like wearing earplugs at a concert – feels counter-intuitive.
A lot of venues, churches especially, remove guitar amps, put drummers behind screens, limit foldback use and make the musicians all use in-ear monitors. When I played at Hillsong, this became more and more popular. The downside is you no longer felt like you were in the band.
This is one of the reasons companies like JH Audio pioneered in-ear monitors that sound amazing. Multiple drivers allow for a full frequency spectrum and you can really add the band and feel of the music back in.
A singer might want some drums, keyboard or guitar and their own voice back through to hear pitch and timing.
A drummer might want vocals, bass guitar and some keyboards for feel and timing.
A guitarist might want kick drum, snare drum, keyboard and vocals for an overall feel and timing elements.
The beauty of a personal mix is that it’s personal.
In the studio some engineers and band members will also use iems for mixing e.g getting click tracks for recording. While headphones are most often used, some like the noise isolation and natural fit an IEM gives you. It still feels natural to use IEMs so you can play without the distraction of cans on your head.
Guys like Jerry Harvey who did a lot of mixing and fold back mixing for bands like Van Halen had a lot to do with the evolution of iems – he founded Ultimate Ears, now owns JH Audio and worked a lot with Karl Cartwright. Dale Lott is considered a pioneer of the hybrid IEM (After selling aurisonics to Fender he has now started https://spear-labs.com/).
In recent years audiophiles have picked up on how incredible iems are and so the birth of consumer-focused lines was born. Now, brands like Nobel, UE (Ultimate Ears), JH Audio, Linsoul, Empire Ears, 64 Audio, Campfire Audio, MEE, Shure and others have started producing in-ear monitors for music lovers who may not necessarily even play live music.
The good news is, generally a good in-ear monitor is just a good in-ear monitor for listening and playing live with. We will link to articles that list specific iems for specific uses as we go so if you’re looking to buy something we can make some recommendations to make that choice easier.
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Custom in-ear monitors
Custom in-ear monitors are designed specifically for you. They are typically what you will see all singers and drummers using at any live concert. They are molded to be a perfect fit for your ears.
The benefits of Custom IEMs include:
- Comfort – they can feel more comfortable as they are curved and shaped to your ear.
- Confident fit – if you are jumping around on stage then custom IEMs will not feel like they are going to fall out of your ears with a little physical movement. You can head-bang or pull off dance moves with confidence if you feel like your iems are going to come lose
- Better seal – iems become quite useless if the seal is not secure. If there is spill from outside noise then you lose all benefits of using an IEM on stage
- Better sound – this is arguable but some people would say the natural fit to the ear makes for better sound. It might be placebo but I’d tend to agree. Because you get surface contact with your ear for the whole in-ear monitor it seems to make for better sound resonance in the scapha, antihelical fold, fossa and concha.
To get custom IEMs you have to first get a mold done of your ear, and a good part of your inner ear. This can be done at an audiologists. They are most often found at hearing clinics as it’s the same molds they do for hearing aids.
Ideally you will find one that has done ear mold for IEM fittings as sometimes the depth of the mold can change, and the need for complete perfection. One audiologist I went to had multiple molds done of his ears and then he chose the one he liked best for his iems.
The molds are made by injecting a silicone type rubber foam into a person’s ears. Much like getting custom ear protection molds or hearing aid molds done.
- Typically a piece of foam or small amount of sterile cotton-wool is placed down the ear canal for protection
- Then they use a large syringe to inject the mold into the ear and wait for it to set
- Once it has set it is removed and the result is a (hopefully) perfect mold of your ear shape
There is typically a good chunk of ear wax attached to the end and they might even give your ears a little clean first. Don’t be grossed out, it’s your ears natural way of keeping healthy.
This is sent off to the IME company of your choice, they will all give you an address to use. They take your mold and create your own custom IEM shell, often using 3D printing technologies, place all the drivers and circuits in it and the result is a custom fit iem for your ears.
Challenges with Custom in-ear monitors
One challenge with custom iems is that if the mold isn’t perfect it can let in external sound and ruin everything about the sound – no bass, lots of spill. It’s a frustrating exercise and you have to go back and forth getting changes and it’s often hard to articulate where you think the fit is off.
When you first put them in your ears, which is a challenge the first few times, if you hear no bass then you can push a little harder against the iem shell in your ear. This usually blocks any sound leaks. If you find the audio improves then you can generally assume you need a refit.
Most companies will offer a 30-60 day return and refit option.
I also have to add, when my first set of custom IEMs arrived it took me 2 days to realise how to get them fit properly. Even as a regular user of universal IEMs I couldn’t get the fit right. I lamented the hassle of getting them refit but after sleeping on it, and stressing about the investment, I realised I just hadn’t inserted them correctly. I still have a small fit issue on one earbud but not enough of a hassle to send it back.
Some people even recommend just adding some glue or silicon to the area you find doesn’t fit but, if you’ve just spent $1000+ on a CIEM and the company is offering a refit, send them back before you go all DIY in them.
The last note on custom in-ears is the ability to customise the design of them. Yes, those diamond sparkly in-ears you see Pink or Jennifer Lopez use can be yours! The outside of CIEMS can be anything you want, depending on the capabilities of the manufacturer, you can have colours, text, sparkly bits, logos and more.
Custom in-ear Care and Maintenance
It’s important to keep your custom in-monitors clean and well maintained. The two main enemies of in-ear monitors are wax and sweat (humidity)…nice…
You will want to use the tools provided to keep the audio canals clear and make sure you don’t leave them in moist or damp places. Ideally, you will also put them somewhere they can air out after use.
After a long playing or listening session, you can get a build-up of humidity in a lot of CIEMs which isn’t good for the insides.
You can get them professionally cleaned at some audiologist or hearing aid clinics if they feel confident.
If you want to clean your own make sure you use the wax scrapper too, or looped cleaning tool, which will be included in your purchase. You can wipe down the outside with gentle rubbing alcohol to break down the wax. Use a soft microfibre cloth, or any soft cloth will do if you don’t have a micro-fibre cloth.
Most manufacturers will also sell in-ear vacuums and there are dryer units you can buy. JH Audio have a few here https://jhaudio.com/accessories#view=grid&filter=maintenance and 64 Audio have some here: https://www.64audio.com/accessories/Maintenance-Tools – you could start with the company you purchased your CIEMs from.
Whether you have a 2-Pin or an MMCX cable you should remove it from time to time and with the sockets down. Corrosion around the plug can grow and become an CIEM killer also.
All quality CIEM manufacturers will provide a good, solid case which you should use!
Universal in-ear monitors
Universal IEMs are designed to fit anyone. You can also change the tips on the iem with foam or rubber ends of different sizes to suit your ears.
There are a lot of benefits to universal IEMs. Generally, they are easier to fit, can be adjusted and are lighter to wear. The Shure SE215 is a great example of an affordable and well-fitting universal IEM that costs less than $125.
One of the benefits of universal is that you can also resell them (as they are not designed only for you) and upgrade as your finances might change. I started with etymotic and Shure’s budget models and progressed to the SE846 and Heir 8.0 CIEM over the course of about 15 years.
You can change the tips regularly as they become tired or worn out (Custom in-ears don’t use tips so they don’t wear out).
You can also change tips as your ears change over the years (yes, they grow bigger as you age)
Universals can also be quick to put in and out of your ear, customs can take some effort.
Universal in-ear monitors can also be shared. If you are a musician, especially if you play in a college band, drama group or church band, then you might not own the in-ear monitors themselves. You might just use them each week/weekend when you play or perform and then pass them back. In this instance universal IEMs make the most sense as you can just change the foam or rubber tips on the end of the earbud.
Custom in-ear monitors vs Universal in-ear monitors
|Benefits||Universal in-ear monitors||Custom in-ear monitors|
|Easier to upgrade|
|Can be resold|
|More secure fit|
|Can be shared|
|Physically larger size|
*arguable but generally agreed on
Major brands in the in-ear monitor market
There are a few companies that stand out in both the universal and custom in-ear monitor market. A lot of these we have tried and a lot we haven’t so it’s hard to comment on all of them. Here is the current list (if you’re a brand not on this list get in touch).
- JH Audio
- Ultimate Ears Pro
- Westone Audio
- Campfire Audio
- Empire Ears
- Noble Audio (The Wizard)
- 64 Audio
Negatives of in-ear monitors
There are very few negatives with in-ear monitors for audiophiles. It’s hard to get them out when people are talking to you is about as bad as it gets, if that’s bad for in your opinion.
For musicians the negatives of iems also come down to some personal preference. As a singer or drummer they can be absolutely amazing. You get critical focus on your playing and singing which is brilliant. As a guitarist or keys player there can be a void that in-ears create.
If you are playing with just iems you can feel like you’ve been disconnected from the band. All that money you spent on your valve amp seems to be a bit of a waste when you can wallow in its sonic goodness. When you are standing in the middle of a band with the vocals, drums, bass pumping along with you it can be a sublime experience, it might take some experimentation with in-ears before you find that balance.
Typically it’s singers and drummers who will be first to go towards in-ear monitors as a stage solution. This makes sense.
Understanding in-ear monitor drivers
There are typically 2 types of iem drivers. The driver is the powerhouse of the audio and how it is processed and pushed to your ear. We won’t go into planar magnetic earphones and similar, we’ll stick to the bread and butter of typical iem drivers available which are Balanced Armature Drivers or Dynamic Drivers.
- Dynamic drivers – a dynamic driver is driven by a diaphragm and voice coil with a current passed through it causing the coils to vibrate creating sound.
- Balanced Armature (BA) drivers – an iem could use one BA driver per side or up to 12 or more. Each focuses on a different frequency range and is enabled with a crossover. e.g. In a triple BA earphone, one BA driver could drive the bass, one the mids and one the treble. These were originally designed for hearing aids but evolved to iems.
- Hybrid iem – typically combines dynamic drivers and balanced armature (BA) drivers in a single earphone. Some believe dynamic drivers can have better bass, others like the smoothness of a BA driver. Hybrid iems give you options for both.
If you are looking at Customer in-ear monitors the chances are you’ll get only Balanced Armature drivers (BA). The reasons are plentiful but they are quite delightful to work with, easier to tune and fit well in a custom mold.
If you are going for a universal in-ear monitor then you will typically get any mix of BA, Dynamic drivers or hybrid which combine both. Most entry-level universal IEMs for musicians like the Westone UM Pro 10, Shure SE215 or Sennheiser IE-40 will use a microdrive or single dynamic driver. These are excellent for live and recording use.
Are any of these drivers better than others? Well, each has their strengths and weaknesses but that is a little too much detail for this post. If you’re interested then comment below and we can get into it.
The importance of a good fitting IEM
One of the biggest challenges with iems is fitting them in your ear. So often we would get complaints at headphones Canada that the IEMs people purchased lacked bass or any quality at all. This isn’t generally the fault of the iem, rather its the need to get a solid fit in your ear. One small sound leak and they are toast.
IEM’s can be unforgiving if you don’t fit them just right. Don’t worry – this comes with a little practice.
The general trick is to compress or roll the foam ear tip between your fingers to squash it, if it’s foam, like a comply tip. Then you pull the top of your ear back a little bit and insert the iem earbud with a bit of a forward or twist roll. Hold it there until the foam expands or the rubber tip feels like its firm.
It shouldn’t hurt and you don’t need to jam it all the way in. If at first, it feels wrong keep practising and once you get it right it just begins to feel natural and work every time.
Custom iems can sometimes, but not often, include a small tube of gel. This can be rubbed over the surface and creates an easier fit as you put them in your ear. Once you have used them a bit you will find you get a light build up of oils from your skin and a little wax which makes them fit much easier in future.
If the fit is good then the world will fade away a bit. It will almost sound like your underwater. The most important thing is that you can’t hear anything normal. If you can hear sounds or air movement then you may have a leak and you won’t get a good bass response.
As mentioned above, if you are unsure of the fit or the sound isn’t good, you can give them a little push against your ear once they are in and that should seal any gaps and present the correct sound. If the sound doesn’t change and it just feels squashed then you probably already have a good fit.
in-ear Monitor Cables
There are two typical cable types for in-ear monitors. The first is MMCX and the second is 2 PIN. There are other cable types but these are the most common types of cables that you will get.
Some prefer a 2 Pin cable as they trust its ability to transfer solid audio signals but there are some draw backs. You need to make sure you always have a solid connection with the pins and make sure you don’t ‘hang’ the IEMs around your neck as if the cable isn’t tight you might drop an earbud.
MMCX cables provide a solid connection and allow movement of the earbud meaning you’re not fighting the cable as it just rotates in it’s socket to ensure the cable goes where it needs to you over and down the back of your ear.
With MMCX cables you can also replace or upgrade them with a very wide range of cables available from all sorts of brands. You can also get Bluetooth MMCX cables so you can have the awesome sound of an IEM with the portability of Bluetooth headphones.
You can see more about MMCX cables at our best of list below.
ALSO READ: Best MMCX Cables
Noise Isolation vs Noise Cancelling
If you are using foam ear tips on your IEMs you should achieve really good noise-isolation. This is different from noise cancelling. Noise-cancelling is used in an ‘active’ sense which means there is something working to cancel the noise.
A good foam ear tip will provide good noise isolation which relates in part to the section above – it should sound like you have your fingers in your ears, like you are underwater and the sound can’t get in from the outside world.
Rubber ear tips can be more comfortable for some but they don’t offer the same level of noise isolation. This may not be of paramount important so what is important is that you try all the tips you can to make sure you have the right fit e.g. small, medium or large, and that you have the right type that makes you happy.
Companies like Comply make great tips and they have a good tip finding engine to find the right tip for your iems.
In-ear monitors for Singers
If you are a singer or vocalist then a set of in-ear monitors can change everything in your world. No more competing with the guitarist for the foldback mix or volume, not more struggling to hear pitch and no more hearing damage.
in-ear monitors for vocalists will usually involve a wireless belt-pack receiver and the transmitter will be attached to the monitoring sound-desk. This allows you to be wireless on stage – able to move around freely and still have a great monitoring experience.
You are able to adjust the volume on the belt pack so the overall mix is the volume you want. You will need to work with the monitoring engineer to get the mix of instruments you want just right. You don’t have to have all the band and you won’t have to have the high volumes you have with out iems.
The benefits of singing with iems is that you will save your voice. You won’t find yourself straining to hit notes. This is due to two key reasons:
- You won’t have to sing louder to hear your voice and pitch. You can have your own vocals in your in-ear mix and adjust the volume level to where you want it. You can sing more delicately with less strain.
- You will be able to pitch much easier when you have your own vocals in your ear. Add in a little keyboards or guitar and you have what you need to pitch without the strain.
In-ear monitors for Drummers
Drummers live in a loud world. You are the center of the band and any mistakes are pronounced simply but the fact that you are the loudest unit on stage. Using in-ear monitors as a drummer can have enormous benefits.
You’re at risk of hearing damage so you might have even used ear foams in the past to protect your hearing. The problem with earplugs alone is you lose the band.
A good set of in-ear monitors will protect your hearing by isolating loud noises while still letting you hear the vocalist without having to strain your ears over your drums and the guitarist’s amp next to you, which is set to 11.
Your mix might include vocals and some other melody instruments like keyboards, piano or guitar to keep the feeling in the music. You will also probably want a good chunk of bass guitar in the mix to ensure that as a rhythm section you are tight and synchronised well.
You need a good fit if you are an enthusiastic drummer. This is where there are benefits to custom in-ears for drummers as the fit means you can get as enthusiastic as you like but you know your IEMs will fit.
You might also find you have more feel with a set of IEMs with good bass and bottom end.
Budget in-ear Monitors
The good news is there is a full range of budget IEMs for musicians and audiophiles (not that the word budget and audiophile are often seen together).
These IEMs typically cost less than $100 and there are a lot priced around $50 that will be up for the job.
We’ve done a full list for 2020 with recommended affordable models. See all the details at the following link. If you want further recommendations just ask in the comments below.
ALSO READ: Best budget IEMs
In-ear monitor FAQ
What in-ear monitors do professionals use?
A lot of the professional in-ear monitors you see are from JH Audio and Ultimate Ears Pro and are custom molded in-ears. Other companies in this space include Westone, 64 Audio, Alclair, Empire Ears, Campfire Audio, Noble, Shure, Sensaphonics and others.
Can in-ear monitors be used as earphones?
Yes. Not only can you use in-ear monitors as earphones but there are more and more companies making in-ear monitors specifically for music listening. The frequency response and driver configurations can result in excellent audio reproduction that exceeds typical earphones
Who invented in-ear monitors?
Very early versions of in-ear monitoring work is given to Chris Lindop using earbuds with Stevie Wonder. Kris Cartwright (Westone) did IEM work through the 80s and 90s with bands like Def Leppard. Most credit for the invention of the in-ear monitor is given to Jerry Harvey (Monitor engineer for Van Halen) (Ultimate Ears / JH Audio) and Kris Cartwright when they collaborated on improving IEM technology for bands like Van Halen.
In-ear monitors really are the pinnacle of a personal audio experience. Whether it is a custom in-ear or a universal, it provides you with your own personal space to manage your sound the way you want it. This does assume as a band you have a decent fold-back mix and monitoring set up that can make the most of it all.
For audiophiles the options now available to you are simply excellent. The brands making custom and universal IEMs to cater to audio lovers is longer every year giving more and more choice, even if it gets a little expensive at the high end.
Expensive earbuds some people might say but when you’ve had multiple drivers pushing sonic goodness in your ears you’ll find it hard to go to anything else.
Questions or comments, please put them below and we’d love to chat more.
Read also: Best iem under $200