In-ear monitor buying guide: 9 things to check

In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) aren’t as popular as AirPods, but they have a huge fan base among audiophiles, artists, live artists, and sound engineers.


For this article, we will assume that you are somewhat familiar with some audio concepts and understand some terminologies. But don’t worry if they don’t, as most are pretty straightforward. So, if you’re looking to buy your first pair of IEMs, here are nine things you need to check out.


1. Are the cables straight or over-ear?

In-ear monitors come with two types of cable design: straight and on-ear. Straight cables hang directly from the bottom ends of the headphones, just like regular headphones. On-ear cables wrap over and around the back of your ears.

Most IEM cables use the on-ear design, as it helps secure the earbuds better to your ears and also conceals the cables. However, they may seem a bit intrusive at first if you’ve never tried them before. Straight cables become more scarce the further up the ladder you go.


2. Are the cables removable?


Final-Audio-IEMs
Image Credit: Joshua Valor

A big advantage of in-ear monitors over regular headphones is that they have detachable cables, which means you can separate the cables from the headphones. You might think that’s okay, but detachable cables help solve three main issues.

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  1. If the cables are damaged, you can simply replace them instead of purchasing a new pair of IEMs.

  2. You can store cables and earbuds separately for better organization.

  3. You can buy a third party bluetooth module to make your IEMs wireless.

Related: Why Wired Headphones Are Better Than Wireless Headphones

3. Is there a microphone in line?

It’s not just the songs that sound great on IEMs, but everything you play about them including sound effects and video game calls. High-end IEMs typically don’t have an in-line mic and remote, as they are designed exclusively for studio monitoring and stage performance.


On the other hand, entry-level and mid-range IEMs are more likely to have an in-line mic and remote. So you can enjoy crisp and clear calls as you will be able to hear the other person better and notice nuances in their voice.

4. What are the specifications?


IEM-on-audio system
Image Credit: Joshua Valor

You might not think IEM specs (or any type of headset) matter. But there are still a few important things like frequency response, sensitivity, and impedance that you need to be aware of to avoid making a bad buy.

Of these, the most important specification to know is impedance. It indicates whether your IEMs will work well on your audio system, such as a smartphone, laptop, or dedicated player. An incompatible system will make your IEMs silent and you will not be able to take advantage of it.

Related: Why Are My Headphones Sounding So Quiet? How to make them sound louder


5. What type of pilots do they have? How much?

While regular headphones are limited to dynamic drivers (the most common type), in-ear monitors come with dynamic and balanced armature drivers, alongside other rare types. Some IEMs even have a hybrid of multiple drivers for better sound reproduction.

It’s not uncommon for high-end IEMs to have multiple drivers inside each earbud. However, note that having more drivers doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have better sound quality. It depends more on how well the pilots are designed and tuned.

6. What material is the body made of?


5-IEM in a row
Image Credit: Joshua Valor

In-ear monitors are made with many materials such as metal, resin, carbon fiber, plastic, wood, etc. These materials can have a huge impact on your overall experience. For example, EMPs with a metal body are very durable, but they can tire your ears due to their weight.


Conversely, carbon fiber EMPs are lighter, stronger and will not rust. But they cost a lot more than plastic and resin ones. Also, keep in mind that since in-ear monitors come in many different shapes and sizes, some may not fit your ears well and be irritating.

7. What sound signature do they have?

The sound signature of a pair of IEMs (or any other type of headphones) is what defines the “flavor” of the sound you hear. For example, a “Dark” sound signature is ideal for bass heads who want extra bass for a punchy and powerful sound.

Conversely, audiophiles and professionals generally prefer a “Flat” or “Balanced” sound signature, which is more realistic and reveals the subtle nuances of your songs. Make sure you know which signature your desired IEMs are set to before purchasing.


Related: Types of Headphone Sound Signature and How to Pick Your Favorite

8. What is the quality of the soundstage and imagery?


Person playing a Nord Stage piano live.

While you can sort of determine the sound signature of your desired IEMs via a graph, the soundstage and audio imagery are two things you can’t put on paper. So to know them, you have two options: either trust the word of the evaluators, or try them yourself.

A larger soundstage will make your music more “spaced out” or 3D as if you were in an auditorium. Good imagery will allow you to pinpoint the location of each musical instrument and singer in this imaginary 3D space with precision, making each beat distinct.

9. Do they come with different tips?

Just like their bodies, IEM tips are made of different materials and come in many shapes and sizes. We are talking about silicone, rubber, foam and hybrid tips. Silicone ear tips are the most common, but many report foam tips for better passive noise isolation.


However, your experience may differ depending on the shape and size of your ears. What is comfortable for someone else may get in the way. Make sure to check if the IEMs you buy come with different types of ear tips so that you can compare them.

Choose the right in-ear monitors for you


IEM-in-a-studio
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Even if you’re not an audiophile or a professional, in-ear monitors can be a great first step in elevating your casual listening experience. And thanks to the boom in cheap IEMs, buying a pair has never been easier. You can easily find a good deal for under $ 30 to $ 50 if you don’t want to spend hundreds.


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