What Are In-Ear Monitors, and Who Should Use Them?

Personalized in-ear monitors on a digital mixing console.

In-ear monitors (IEMs) have recently gained popularity among audiophiles due to their pristine audio quality. Let’s see what sets them apart from other listening devices.

What is an in-ear monitor?

Chances are you’ve got some sort of audio headset on your ears right now. It can be a pair of wireless headphones, such as Airpods, or a heavy pair of wired headphones. In-ear monitors are a completely different type of audio device. They are mainly intended for professional use. As for the fit, they are somewhere between the waterproof closure of the headphones and the low profile of the headphones.

They are called monitors because they were originally created for musicians and performers to “monitor” a combination of audio sources in different places. For example, a member of a group would hear a mixture of different instruments and voices that would go directly into their IEM. They were also used by singers to listen to an instrumental guide track while recording vocals. Artists and media personnel generally have EMIs specially tailored to the shape of their ears.

Nowadays, EMIs are accessible to everyone. Stores offer a wide range of prices, designs and sound profiles for each type of listener. You can probably find them at your local audio store or music store.

Although IEMs that cost tens of thousands of dollars still exist, you can get a pair with fantastic sound that costs no more than a pair of regular headphones. There are also many communities of audiophiles dedicated to compare, optimize and discuss in-ear monitors.

What makes EMI unique?

Personalized in-ear headphones for a musician.Joshua Rainey Photography / Shutterstock

The most obvious difference between in-ear monitors and other devices is their appearance. EMIs are designed to resemble an ear. They are usually supplied with silicone, foam or rubber tips that fit inside your ear canal. Many monitors also have a foldable or molded wire that hangs over the top of your ear.

Because they fit so well in your ears, EMIs tend to be very comfortable to wear for long periods of time. Their shape and spikes also block ambient noise.

Another unique feature of EMI is their modular nature. Almost all models have detachable cables and headphones, interchangeable with other models. You can exchange your cable for a braided cable for extra durability, or very long wires for live performance.

Perhaps the main reason why audiophiles tend to gravitate towards EMI is the way they sound. Personal audio devices use a transducer, also called a driver, which converts electronic signals into audio waves. Most modern EMIs use what is called a balanced frame, which is a tiny and powerful transducer originally invented for hearing aids. Others use a dynamic driver, which can improve bass performance.

High-end monitors can have multiple drivers, each for different frequencies, so you can customize an audio mix to your liking.

Using EMI as a medium listener

There are many advantages to using an IEM as a daily audio listening device.

Even if you’re just an average listener, you will likely notice a significant difference in audio quality between a pair of headphones and an in-ear monitor. More bass, more clarity and a higher frequency range are just a few of the things you can expect.

The shape of the EMI to your ear and the adjustment of the ear tips also allow you to enjoy a more complete range of sounds.

Many earphones block the flow of air, so your ears and the surrounding area get warm and sweaty. Headphones can also be heavy. EMI is light and comfortable to wear for long periods.

Although the in-ear monitors do not have active noise cancellation, they block most noise from the surrounding area. Even at low volumes, you are unlikely to hear anything in your environment. This means that you can play the audio at a reasonable level while maintaining the noise canceling properties.

Should you get a pair of EMI?

A woman wearing Audio Technica ATH-E70 in-ear headphones.Audio Technica

If you care about pristine audio quality and want excellent noise cancellation, getting a pair of EMI is not a bad idea. However, if you prefer wireless headphones or find audiophile technology intimidating, in-ear headphones might not be for you.

However, if you take a pair of EMIs, it’s a great way to break into the audiophile community. You will find many opinions, guides and negotiation groups for amateurs. There are also resources to get the best EQ performance from your EMI.

Of course, before buying IEMs, make sure you have a 3.5mm headphone jack on the device with which you want to use them. Many mobile phone manufacturers have completely removed the headphone jack from their latest devices, so you may also need to purchase a dongle. However, most laptops and desktops still have built-in audio jacks.

Alternatively, you may want to look for a direct box. Many audiophiles buy one of these devices to get the best possible performance from their EMI.

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