In truth, there’s no such thing as an IEM for gaming. Much like most things propelled by marketing, designating an item with a specific function or specialty helps it sell better toward the targeted demographic.
Virtually anything that can produce sound can be used for gaming but considering other aspects like the “definitive” tactical edge or other hyperinflating marketing terms, you might be wondering — is there even such a thing? The answer is both yes and no.
While having an actual measurable benefit is indeed possible, many products just downright play into the placebo effect. It’s even debatable that the tactical advantage everyone is chasing after may be due to the placebo itself.
It’s like getting a Prime Vandal in Valorant and somehow feeling your aim is a lot better because it sounds higher pitched – somewhat making it seem more accurate.
In any case, there are actually many factors we can look at that don’t necessarily revolve around proving or disproving tangible benefits due to placebo.
Types of Games
There’s an infinite number of games out there. The number might not be accurate but I’ll save you a trip to the internet and say you’re talking about a number from 5 million to 2.96 billion. Who knows, right?
The point is, that there are a lot of games out there. But the question is: which types of games need a “gaming” IEM? Well, it depends.
You might be playing a single player that focuses a lot on dialogue. Or perhaps a multiplayer online game where there are a lot of sound effects. Or maybe a classic first-person shooter (FPS) where you need to hear where the enemy is.
I guess we can narrow it down to three options.
If you just need something that lets you enjoy the immersion, pick something that has a good solid low end. This helps with explosions, weapon sounds, and the general feeling of the stage. If you want the definitive edge over your FPS bad guys, get something that’s ideally flat in the midrange and boosted on the treble.
And if you want more precision, I’d suggest getting something with a good presence region. In graph databases, go look over at peaks in the 5 to 6 KHz range. Normally, for music, these frequencies make transients float up which can become a little unnerving. For gaming though, even something as treble-heavy as an HD800 is fine.
Does Tuning Matter?
A quick commercial, if you will.
Tuning is very important when it comes to music but is it that important with gaming? In many aspects, gaming shares the same benefits to different kinds of tuning just as well as it shares detriments.
Audibility and proximity, for example, would be had with a U-shaped tuning whereas a V-shape would prove to be more distant and scooped. Depending on which game you play though, the significance varies. For what it’s worth, tuning is more critical when it comes to listening to music as there’s a lot of expression, nuances, and mixing involved.
This isn’t to say that there is a complete lack thereof regarding gaming, but I find it more forgiving.
Why Technicalities Matter with an IEM for Gaming
An IEM’s technicalities are the strongest indicators that tell you if it’s good for gaming or not.
As you already know, an in-ear monitor’s soundstage is considerably less rendered than those of speakers – let alone headphones but if you’re adamant about using IEMs, focus on the obvious two: sound imaging and soundstage.
There isn’t a definite way to gauge this except for testing the units on music and then on a couple of games, so there’s a con. To make things easier for you though, I made a list of things that might have your brain aflutter.
- Does the number of drivers matter?
- Does driver type matter?
- Does more expensive mean better?
To get to the bottom of these queries, I devised a little experiment. I rounded up five IEMs, ranging from budget to mid-fi, and tested them on Valorant and Apex Legends. The results were surprising.
I didn’t feel it necessary to disclose the brand and model names of any of the IEMs as the results speak for themselves, although initially, the idea was to eliminate research bias. So let’s get to the blow-by-blow.
Does the number of drivers matter?
No, it doesn’t. I found that IEMs, regardless of the number of drivers they have, shared the same degree of proficiency in being able to tell enemy footsteps and positioning.
Does driver type matter?
Although some driver types provide benefits like more extension and what-not, I found that the differences were negligible. So the answer is no, the driver type doesn’t really matter.
Does more expensive mean better?
As I’ve said, the IEMs I’ve used for testing were all on par in terms of function. Of course, resolution is a different story and that’s where most of these differ greatly based on driver type and price.
The upside is that you can go cheap and still get a good gaming experience. It’s entirely up to you if you want to spend the extra dollar.
IEMs vs. Gaming-Oriented Earphones
Given the results of my little test, would it be safe to say that I’d recommend buying one of the products of these companies rather than getting a proper IEM for gaming? No. Earphones are competent to a degree but they cost more than their IEM counterparts and begin to underperform when used for music listening.
Yes, you can make it work but commercial stuff just isn’t going to cut it as there’s less priority for getting the tuning right. Getting an all-rounder IEM is also way better than having two separate earphones designated for gaming and music.
My testing involved the use of various sources, all of which were instrumental in enriching the gaming experience. Sure, you can use your computer’s built-in sound card but the gains of using a source actually make a difference.
It’s actually with a source that your IEMs become different animals. Like all things electronic, in-ears need a certain voltage to perform at their best. There isn’t a magic number so source matching is key.
I find this to be more pertinent with music than with gaming, so investing in a good DAC/Amp or gaming sound card would suffice.
When picking an IEM for gaming, ergonomics may matter to some people more than others but I just can’t stand it when an IEM fits poorly in the ears. The strain and discomfort from wearing them can be distracting and can break immersion from playing.
I’ve found that IEMs with resin bodies to be one of the most comfortable but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pick something similar.
A good rule of thumb is to check whether it has any protrusions that may hurt any part of the ear or cause discomfort. A prime example of an IEM that a majority of users find fit issues with is the 7Hz Salnotes Zero. One quick look at the shell shape and you’ll know what I mean.
Another thing is the nozzle length. Short nozzles tend to limit insertion depth making the fit less secure. This can easily be remedied with aftermarket ear tips and I find that sizing up leads to an overall better seal.
Ear tips also solve the counterpart of a short-nozzle IEM, which is a bulky one. They may sit out your ear a bit but having the right size of tips allows them to fix themselves firmly despite a little bit of protrusion.
Moving on to the next point of interest: microphones. A lot of IEMs offer variants of their cable that have a mic. This is especially useful if you don’t have an external microphone in your setup.
Remember though that not all mic cables are made equal. Some mics are positioned way too far from the chin and make communicating harder. There was a situation where I had to tape the mic to my cheek just so that my friends could hear me on the voice chat, which worked but was terribly inconvenient.
If you do get a badly placed microphone, I’d suggest you look at standalone mic cables with the appropriate length but make sure the terminations match the ones on your IEM.
We demystified the whole “IEM for gaming” label myth and talked about why tuning and technicalities matter. We discussed why IEMs are overall better than gaming-oriented earphones. We also discussed why sources may be as important as picking an IEM.
That’s a lot of bases covered, and I hope I didn’t bore you to death with a wall of texts.
Remember that you can probably burn through your savings by buying an expensive IEM for gaming but given what my tests have shown, the diminishing returns are too real. It’d be wise to get a reliable IEM that’s competitively priced and pair it with a good source.
In doing so, you can splash some moolah on other gaming gear and a bag of potato chips.
Gavin is a college student who has a lot going on. From collecting IEMs and modding mechanical keyboards, to different hobbies like digital drawing, music mastering and cooking. It is safe to say he is a complete multi-faceted geek (and he's kinda cool too)