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Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Basic Guide to In-Ear-Canalphones

[Disclaimer] This guide might contain error that I, the writer, don’t know of. This guide is only meant to provide general information for person who newly venture into the canalphones’ world. If you find any error in this guide, please kindly point it out. Also note that some information with in this guide are copied or modified from Etymotic, Shure,, and Wikipedia website. I do not reference all of them with in the article, but links to the original page have all been listed at the end as references. The credit goes to the original writer/companies for providing the information online and free. Those who wish to reference this guide are free to do so on the condition that it will not be used commercially.

*Don't have time to read? I have created a PDF version of this post and you can download it here.

If you read Chinese / 中文, you can find the translated works here, thanks to a few good fellows @

*Having trouble reading the small font? Please use your browser's zoom-in function (Ctrl +).

What is an In-Ear-Canalphone?
In-Ear-Canalphone, also known as canalphone, ear-canalphone, ear-canal headphone, or In-Ear-Monitor (IEM), is a type of Inter Aural headphone that is designed to be used where the user’s ear canal is sealed by the ‘phone. The seal generally serves two functions: 1) blocks noise and 2) forms a sealed acoustic chamber to achieve a fuller sound. To create such as a seal, the earphone’s nozzle along with its tip (or sleeve) is inserted into the front part of the ear canal. Many high end canalphones are custom molded for comfort and perfect seal.

Is it a canalphone or an IEM?
Due to its great portability, high sound quality and noise blocking ability, specially tuned (and often custom molded) canalphones have been used on stage very early on by musicians and audio engineers alike. These canalphones are part of the In-Ear-Monitor-System (IEMS), which can be either wired or wireless. For the ease of naming, canalphones used in such system are referred as IEM. Later, as canalphone manufacturer began to make high quality canalphone available for the general consumer (iPod generation), the word ‘IEM’ becomes popular thus replacing ‘canalphone’ as how we refer to all canalphones. Technically speaking, only canalphones on an IEMS should be called an IEM. However, there is no hard definition on the word ‘IEM’ and it is easier for general consumer to use a simpler terminology. Sometime ‘IEM’ is also used only to refer to high quality canalphone. For the purpose of this article, we will refer to all canalphones as IEM.

[Basic components of an IEM. In picture: Westone UM2]
I thought IEM/canalphone is also called 'earbud'?
No, IEM and earbud each refer to two different kind of Inter Aural headphones.

Inter Aural headphone, or in-the-ear headphone, is sometime known as earphone. It refers to headphone with transducer small enough to be placed/worn in the ear. The two major types of inter aural headphone are earbud and canalphone.

[Picture of various types of earbuds]

Earbuds are worn in the opening of the ear, often just outside of the opening of ear canal. They can have headband or clip-on to increase comfort, but they do not form an air-tight seal to the ear canal as they are not intended to go into the ear canal.

[Picture of various types of IEM]

On the other hand, canalphones/IEM are intended to be partially inserted into the ear canal to create an air-tight seal (reasons see first question).

The reason why so many websites mislabeled IEM as 'earbud' is simply because... they don't know the differences.
Why noise isolation and not Active Noise Cancellation?
Despite their larger size, ANC headphones do not always provide better noise reduction in comparison to IEM. Also, many ANC headphones’ sound quality (SQ) is often found to be ‘second class’ at best (in comparison to the price you pay for them). In contrast, IEM provide better noise reduction with out sacrificing SQ.

Here are some measurements taken from tests done at the Auditory Systems Lab at Virginia Tech University on isolation vs. noise canceling. While all the Shure‘s IEMs in the test provide 29 dB ~ 37 dB of isolation, the result of ANC headphone are not as great as one might believe:
Bose QC2: 20dB (77% of ambient noise)
Sennheiser PXC-250: 11dB (58% of ambient noise)
Sony MDR-NC20: 8 dB (40% of ambient noise)
A more recent market trend is to combine ANC technology with IEM. The upside about this is, ANC is generally more effective at canceling very low freq. noise while IEM is more effecting at isolating mid – treble freq. By combining the two, you can get the best of both worlds. However, we have yet to see any ANC-IEM capable of address their biggest weakness – sound quality. Hopefully we will see more attention being paid on this area.

Transducer types
There are two major types of transducer being used on IEM: Dynamic and Balanced Armature (BA) transducers.

[Picture of dynamic transducer]

Dynamic (moving coil) transducer is often found on low to entry class IEM due to their easy availability and lower cost (relative to BA transducer). They commonly range from 8mm to 16mm in diameter. Dynamic transducer is known for their ability to create a more powerful bass response since relatively more air is moved during sound reproduction. More air movement means stronger bass sensation as we tend to ‘feel’ more about low end bass than actually hearing it. The downside of using dynamic transducer on IEM is its larger side. Also worth noting, many big brand name manufacturers use dynamic transducer of relatively low sound quality in their IEM, therefore you should avoid most of them as much as possible if sound quality is your priority. Of course, there are also IEM manufacturers specialize in producing high end dynamic transducer IEM, most noticeably Future Sonics, one of the very first IEM manufacturers.

[Pictures of BA transducer]

BA transducer has the benefit of being really small, therefore you can easily find many IEM maker using 2 or 3 BA transducers in each side of their ‘phone. By dedicating at least one of the BA transducer as a woofer, multi-ways IEM tend to perform better on bass than most single-way BA transducer IEM (but not always). The use of multiple BA transducers partially solves the bass problem as BA transducer moves a lot less air than dynamic transducer (and noticeably less low end bass). The downside of BA transducer is its higher price tag.

There are also hybrid IEMs (ie. UE 5 EB) that utilize both dynamic and BA transducer together in order to have the best of both worlds. However, review of such type of IEM often contains mixed opinion.

For more info about transducer, please visit wikipedia.
Choosing the right eartips

[Eartips of various kind]

Three types of eartips that can be commonly found on IEM: soft plastic (also known as ‘flanges’ or ‘sleeves’, often silicone or PVC based), foam, and custom mold with hard acrylic or soft silicone materials (there are also hybrid hard/soft mold, but less common). Soft plastic eartips have two versions: Universal and size-dependent. Universal soft plastic eartips such as Etymotic tri-flanges and bi-flanges allows user to insert the eartips to a suitable and often relatively deeper canal depth to create the seal (which sometime can be seen as too intrusive to the user). Size-dependent soft plastic eartips such as Shure soft flex sleeves have three sizes: small, middle, and large. User selects the size of the eartips based on their comfort of the seal.
Beside custom mold, foam tips are generally being considered to be most comfortable and provide a better seal. The tighter seal means foam tips tend to give a warmer, fuller and often more enjoyable sound than soft plastic tips. Foam tips also have two versions: Universal (i.e. Shure yellow foam) and size-dependent (Shure black foam). Most foam tips are not washable and require replacement after a few weeks of use (see section: Cleaning and maintaining your IEM and eartips, Pg. 13). Foam tips made by Comply are often considered to be the most comfortable. Comply also manufacture different types of foam tips for different IEM. Unlike soft plastic tips, foam tips are often nozzle’s diameter specific and cannot be used on IEM with different nozzle diameter (unless modification has been made).
Shure black foam is one of most popular foam tips in the market as they are quite comfortable and designed to be user cleanable (see section: Cleaning and maintaining your IEM and eartips). They are now made with dots on the bottom of the sleeve. 1 dot = small, 2 dots = medium, 3 dots = large. For real measurement, please read the following PDF file provided by Shure.
Custom mold are commonly found on high-end IEM (or ‘custom IEM’) where the transducers are part of the tips. However, custom molded tips can also be ordered to fit universal IEM (IEM that are designed to use soft plastic or foam tips). Recently, custom IEM has become more and more popular on mid-end IEM market too (like those found on Livewire and Alien Ears). The biggest advantage of custom mold is its fit. Since the mold is custom made to match each user, it ensures a perfect seal while providing the best comfort and SQ (which is why many musicians prefer custom mold).
Note: Eartips often found to have effect on sound quality of the IEM. You should always try different options of eartips to find the most preferable.
For visual reference of different type of eartips, please visit this link to For visual reference of different IEMs' size, please visit this thread on
Eartips’ size

[Picture shows UE's eartips of various sizes]

Choosing the correct tips’ size to use on IEM ensures a perfect seal, which in term translate to comfortable and good sound quality.

Using a tip that is larger than needed often left user with burning sensation or pain in the ear canal with in a very short period of use.

Using a tip that is smaller than needed will result in either a weak seal or air/sound leakage. In such situation, user will notice that bass is weaker than normal or not presented, and the IEM tips will fall out from the ear canal very easily.

One should note that despite the best fit, inserting a foreign object into the ear canal can feel very uncomfortable in the first few times. In order to overcome this issue, choosing the right type of tips of the right size and a bit of patient is often needed.
Eartips: Factors for comfort
We have talk about the importance of a perfect seal in regard of SQ and the basic design of eartips, now we will discuss how other factors will affect comfort, mainly regarding flanges using IEM (Foam tips generally don’t get affected as much by the factors below as they are often very soft and don’t feel as intrusive).

Factor One: Shallow vs. Deep Insertion
Most single flanges IEM, noticeably those like EP-630 and CX300, allow user to fully insert them shallowly (roughly 8~9mm fully inserted). The shallow insertion means less intrusion and isolation, but more comfortable to the user. Most multiple flanges IEM will require user to insert them deeply (>9mm fully inserted). Deep insertion means better seal thus more isolation, but less comfortable.

Factor Two: Flanges’ Material
As the most commonly used eartips, soft plastic eartips can be made from silicone or PVC with various thicknesses. Generally speaking, silicone is softer thus more comfortable than PVC. Note that silicone tips don’t all have the same hardness/sponginess.

Factor Three: Flanges’ Thickness
The rule is, the thinner the eartip the more comfortable it will be. However, thinner eartips will provide less isolation.

Factor Four: Earpiece's Design
The earpiece that houses the transducer plays a role too. Basically, the smaller and lower profiles the earpiece, the more comfortable it will be. This is why UE are often considered to be uncomfortable as their and series all have very large and extrusive earpieces.

Here is how these factors affect comfort:
Example 1: UE single flange – shallow insert, hard/spongy, thick, large earpiece = not so comfortable, but OK isolation.
Example 2: CX300 single flange – shallow insert, soft, thin, small earpiece = comfortable, but less isolation.
Example 3: ER6i tri-flanges – deep insert, soft, thick, small earpiece = not so comfortable, but great isolation.
Example 4: SA6 bi-flanges - deep insert, soft w/ slightly spongy, mid thickness, small earpiece = comfortable with great isolation.
Example 5: RE1 big bi-flanges - deep insert, variable softness, variable thickness, small earpiece = very comfortable with good isolation

Remember: It takes time to get used to certain kind of eartips, therefore don’t rush to judgment. Even though personal preference plays a big role as what constitute comfort, it often will change w/ time. My advice to you is, give both yourself and your IEM sometime before calling it quit – you might even fall in love w/ that you found to be uncomfortable at first.
How to use your IEM
For Insertion and Removal of Soft Plastic Eartips
View Earphone Insertion Video on Etymotic’s website.
  • For best results, moisten the soft plastic eartips before insertion.
  • Using your right hand, grasp the eartip of the right IEM
  • With your left hand, pull up and back on your right ear to straighten your ear canal.
  • Carefully insert the right IEM so that it seals deeply and comfortably in your ear.
  • Repeat procedure for the left ear, using the left IEM..
  • Remove IEM slowly with a twisting motion to gradually break the seal.
Foam Eartips
Make sure the shiny side of the foam tips will be facing your eardrum when inserted.
  • Compress the foam eartip by rolling it between your fingers.
  • With the opposite hand, pull up and back on your ear to straighten your ear canal.
  • Carefully insert the foam tip into the ear canal, holding the IEM in place until the foam expands to produce a seal.
Proper usage:
  • Set the volume control of the audio source to minimum.
  • Insert the 3.5mm IEM plug into the headphone jack.
  • Set the volume control to a comfortable listening level.
  • Using IEM while driving a motorized vehicle, operating machinery, bicycling or jogging is not recommended, because you may not be alerted to potential danger.
  • Do not use the IEM at excessively loud levels (see more at section: IEM and Health).
  • Do not pull on the cord to remove it from the jack or the ear.
  • Avoid bending the barrel of the cord.
Cleaning and maintaining your IEM and eartips
Maintaining a clean set of IEM will keep your eartips lasting longer and provide a better seal. First of all, remember that there is no better way to keep an IEM clean than cleaning your ear canal regularly (more on section: IEM and Health)

For universal IEM: If at any time the eartips does not maintain a grip on the earphone nozzle, discard the tips, clean the IEM nozzle and replace the tips with a new set. If one or both side of the IEM stop working or has reduced volume, change the IEM’s filter (see note 1) or clean the nozzle opening with the provided tool.

For custom IEM, clean the acrylic shell of the IEM with tissue and make sure the nozzle isn’t blocked by earwax after every use.

Clean the tips and cable when needed (at least once a month). If you exercise with your IEM, you should clean the cable and tips more frequently, especially areas of the cable that come in contact with your skin. This will ensure the longevity of the cable and prevent from skin oil interacting with the cable.
Do not use alcohol-based cleaners or those that contain bleach. A damp paper towel with mild soap will suffice.
To clean the tips, remove it from the IEM first. To do this, grasp the tips between your thumb and index finger, and twist and pull the tips from the nozzle. Do not pick at the tips as it may cause it to tear.

Remember, IEM's cable, like any cable, will eventually harden up and crack. The more care you put on your IEM, the longer it will last. However, different manufacturer use cable of different quality - some seems weak but actually strong, some seems strong but crack easily. In the long run, an user replaceable cable is better non-replaceable, and sometime, replaceable cable can actually make a difference in SQ.

Carefully clean the IEM housing and nozzle to remove any wax or oil residue. Be careful not to let any moisture enter the nozzle opening. If moisture does enter the IEM it may not perform properly. If moisture does cause one or both IEM to function at reduced level, leave the IEM out of their carrying case in a dry, well-ventilated area, which should allow the moisture to evaporate in 24 to 48 hours.

Soft plastic tips should be washed in warm soapy water when they become oily or dirty. Un-washable foam tips should be discarded if they become dirty, dry out, or no longer compress and expand fully (see note 1). Shure black foam tips (known as ‘Shure olives’ among head-fi’er, introduced in Spring 2007) can be washed by simply wiping off any debris from the outside of the tips with a warm, damp paper towel.

ALWAYS let the IEM and tips completely dry before placing the tips back on the IEM. Make sure that the tips slides all the way on to the base of the IEM’s nozzle (past the nozzle bump if there is one.)

Note 1: Experiment done by Head-fi’er has shown that by gently dipping the foam in pharmacy’s grade peroxide solution (also know as eardrop, often used for dissolving earwax) for a short period of time (15 minutes or so) can partially clean the foam and extend its lifespan. The same principle applies to user removable filter and earwax clot on nozzle opening.
Static Electricity Discharge through IEM
It is possible to experience a static electricity discharge though IEM.

In a cold climate with low humidity, it is easy to build up a static charge on one's body. The cable that carries the audio signal from the headphone jack to the IEM has metallic wire inside. This wire is also a path to ground through which the static charge can travel. Though one's ears are touching the plastic parts of the IEM, there is metallic wire inside. A static charge often has a high enough voltage to leap from one's ear to the metal inside of the IEM, discharging the static electricity via the cable and into the device playing the audio signal, e.g., CD player or MP3 player. The amount of electrical current in such a static discharge is not harmful, though the discharge itself can startle.

It is important to note that such static discharges are "acts of nature" and do not indicate that one's IEM are defective. Nor will the static discharge cause harm to the IEM.
Does "burn in" or "break in" IEM necessary?
There is no definitive scientific answer on whether headphone burn-in exists or not, so don’t bother asking for one. It is often just a case of choose-to-believe.
If you do believe in burn-in, the general consensus is BA based IEM doesn’t benefit (as much) from the burn-in process while some dynamic IEM does show sign of improvement after a period of burn-in. Do a search in various forums regarding individual IEM for more information.
A piece of advice: If you are really considering burn-in you IEM, two days (roughly 50hrs) of random music playback with your normal listening volume is generally good enough for most IEM - that is from the writer's personal experience with multiple IEM.
Is headphone amp necessary for IEM?
Some IEM do need an amp to shine, but not all. Less sensitive IEMs, such as Etymotic ER4S, often require an amp to function at its best. However, most IEM in the market do not need any amp to reach their full potential, even when amping sometime does show sign of slight improvement on SQ.

The easy way of telling which IEM needs amping is contained in the spec. The general guideline is, IEM that have less than 50 ohms impedance and more than 98 dB on sensitivity most certainly doesn't require an amp to sound it best.
Microphonic and Bone Conduction
Two of the most common complaints from new IEM user are microphonic (or ‘cable noise’) and bone conduction. Microphonic is the phenomenon where the IEM user can hear noise (caused by IEM’s cable brushes against clothing or another object) transmitted by the cable into the IEM. Bone conduction is the phenomenon where the IEM user can hear noise (caused by body motion such as eating and walking) transmitted with in the body. Both of these phenomenon are the side effect of sealing the ear canal and forming an acoustic chamber that enhance such noise.

Microphonic can be ‘grounded’ by wearing the IEM in over-the-ear style or using a shirt-clip to stop the sound transmission. Some companies offer better cable that doesn't exhibit microphonic as much. Bone conduction can be limited by stop eating and walking softly (changing shoe). In the end, most user will get used to both and eventually forget about them.
Hissing and Sibilance

Sometime IEM user can hear a background electrical noise from their source when the volume is low, it is know as 'hissing'. Most IEM are very sensitive therefore it is easy for them to pick up electrical noise that generally other headphone will ignore. There is no actual fix for this issue, but sometime adding a inline resistor (to increase the impedance and lowering the sensitivity) seems to work. Also, certain source (such as one type of HDD based iPod) is known to produce more electrical noise.

Sometime, IEM with highlighted 1KHz ~ 10kHz region in sound freq. is also referred as being 'sibilance' or 'harsh'. The problem is, these kind of IEM produce very sharp sounding treble that are often found to be very irritating and uncomfortable for long term listening. This kind of sound is most commonly noticed in female vocal presentation. Due to the fact that every body has a difference hearing freq. resp., some IEM will sound sibilance to many while completely fine to others. There is no real fix on this issue, EQing is perhaps one of the most effective solution, followed by modification on the IEM itself (mostly on filter and nozzle).
 Durability and Out-of-Warranty Issue
Do not assume a $400 IEM will last 4 times (or twice on that matter) longer than a $100 IEM, or a $1500 custom will always outlast $15 earbud. Regardless of the price you paid, the IEM is only warranted by the date stated in the warranty terms and not a day more. Paying more is neither an indicator of durability, nor a binding contract for user to receive above-and-beyond out of warranty (OOW) service. Most companies have a certain set of procedure to deal with out of warranty models. Some companies will repair with cost; some will offer discounted replacement (of same or newer models); some may not been able to do anything at all. Do not assume your IEM will always get OOW repair as some companies simply do not have a repair department nor have the needed parts in stock (because their factory is half a world away). It is more common to find company replacing broken products rather than repairing them because keeping a repair department usually is much more expensive than sending out brand new replacement. As a buyer, it is your responsibility to find out what kind of OOW service a company provides since it is not covered by the warranty terms. This information is usually easily to find online or can be obtained by emailing / calling the manufacturer’s customer service department.

If you do not find such business practice to be acceptable, the best advice is not to buy expensive IEM. Please realize that it is often the same reason that makes an IEM expensive that also makes it susceptible to break down. You can find the same logic behind expensive high-end sport car which required much more maintenance than your average-joe’s Honda / Toyota. Remember, most manufacturers do not claim their more expensive models will last longer than their cheaper models, and thus you should not assume that as well.

IEM and Health
IEM is often mistaken as a kind of health hazard which responsible for hearing loss and ear infection. The fact is, IEM is very safe when properly used.

First, you need to understand that listening music at loud volume over time can damage your hearing, regardless of what kind of headphone (or speaker) you used. The advantage of using an IEM is that you can turn your volume down since you do not need excess volume to overcome ambient noise. The lower volume used in IEM means IEM is actually much safer than using earbuds or headphones in a noisy environment. Do not think that IEM will cause damage to your hearing as it is closer to your eardrum. As long as the volume is low, IEM is just as safe as any headphone on the same volume (scientific references 1, 2)

Second, your body will respond to any object inserted into your ear canal by producing more ear wax. It is a way for body to defend itself against foreign object and the increase of bacterial population due to the sealed moist environment. Therefore it is recommended that you occasionally remove your IEM during use to allow air circulation and canal well relaxation (and for your middle/inner-ear to catch a break from the constant sound wave bombardment). Cleaning your ear canal out of wax in regular interval is also recommended. However, please ask your doctor on how to safely cleaning your earwax before attending to do it yourself. Accidentally pushing earwax into the inside of your canal may result in clotting or even infection (if the clot break you eardrum). In a case of ear infection, do not use any kind of headphone. Visit a doctor immediately.

On extra note: human don't naturally expose ourselves to long period of noise, even in low sound pressure level. Recent study done by WHO has suggested that although low noise environment (as low as 45 ~ 55dB SPL) doesn't cause hearing loss, it does have negative impact on human health. People who constantly expose themselves to low noise environment are much easier to develop serious illness, both physically and mentally. It is my advise, though might not based on any hard finding, that you should be caution when you decide to listen to your music for a long period of time, even in low volume. We all love music, but it doesn't mean we'll have to listen to it 24/7.

In short, please listen to your music at the minimum volume you need, keep your ear canal and IEM clean, and don’t listen music continuously for too long. Remember: hearing loss is irreversible, so please use common sense and take care of yourself.

For more info on hearing protection, visit Etymotic.
In regard to IEMs' frequency response
Wonder why so many people tell you that IEM are very reveling and full of detail, yet most IEM don't seem to go pass 16kHz when you look at their frequency response? Here is the reason:
Although human hearing range are listed at 20 Hz to 20000 Hz, most adult can't actually (or at least have difficulty) hear sound above 16kHz, especially once a person pass his/her twenty. Don't worry about losing treble/detail over 16kHz, as human tend to interpret sound b/w 5kHz to 16kHz as 'high' and most detail are actually on the lower region.
Some of you might have read from elsewhere that human, although can't hear sound beyond 20KHz, can still feel the present of ultrasound (and the harmonic distortion caused by ultrasound) and it does have a positive effect on SQ (*the involving studies are in controversy, but let’s assume the conclusion is real). However, giving that almost all CD, lossy and lossless music produced these days have a cap on 20KHz in recording / encoding, we can safely conclude that most music we listen these days doesn't come with any meaningful sound beyond 20KHz that can be reproduced by your headphone or IEM. If you want to listen to a recording that does include sound beyond 20KHz, you'll have to go back to analog record (LP) or get SACD or DVD-A, but mind you, you'll still need equipments that capable of playing those sound back.
For a better understanding of which IEM is more detail, the best way is to read its review (or better yet, an audition). Note that, although freq. resp. does tell us a bit about how headphone (including IEM) might sound, it doesn't tell us how good it will sound. When it comes to picking up a pair of headphone, your ears are much more trust worthy than your eyes.
Why do headphone manufacturers highlight frequency response for over 20kHz or 30kHz when they know it has little or no direct impact on SQ? Because general consumer doesn’t know the fact and often believe 'more is better' without realizing it is often no more than a marketing trick.

If you are interesting in learning more about frequency response, here is an article that might provide you with more information.
Is IEM worth the money?
This is a question you need to answer yourself.

It is often found that, when paying the same amount of money, headphone provides better SQ than IEM of the same price. However, IEM has certain advantage over headphone such as noise isolation and portability that should also be considered. You need to get your priority straight: Do you want the best in SQ, portability, or a bit of both? What, when, why, where, how do you going to use your 'phone will determine whether an IEM is best for you or not. Once the decision is being made, you need to figure out your budget limit. Do some research in the forum, don't rush in and post a thread asking for recommendation - more than often the question has been asked and those who have answered previously might not be in the mood to answer the same question twice (or the tenth times).

One does not venture lightly into the land of IEM and hope to survive unharmed.
IEM's basic Pros and Cons
[+] Noise isolation = safer listening volume
[+] Portability with great SQ
[-] Maintenance Required
[-] Narrow soundstage
[-] Price/Performance ratio is lower than large size headphone.
OK, I have a budget now, what class of IEM should I be looking of?
It is very difficult to divide IEM of different SQ (and sometime, their price) into different classes. Here is my point of view:
For US$50 or less, you are looking at the Low Budget Class. Low budget class contents dynamic IEMs that provide relatively small noise isolation (which often found to use single flanges tips) and SQ slightly better (or on par) of iBud. Such class of IEM generally are found to have very colored sound signature, bloated bass, harsh or no treble at all. In all, one can define them as a pair of acceptably good earbud, but with isolation.

For $50 to $100, you are looking at Entry Class IEM. In this class, you will find mostly dynamic IEM with better SQ and one-way BA transducer IEM. In such class, the SQ is generally considered to be better than your average earbud and able to compete with sub-$100 headphone.

For $100 to $300, you are looking for Middle Class IEM. In this class, you will find dynamic and two-way BA transducers IEM worthy of being classified as audiophile's grade. You will also find budget custom IEM in this class, and often they are found to be very good for their price.

Beyond $300, you are looking at High End IEM. Many IEM in this class are two-ways or above, offering SQ that can rival most big size headphones. If you really have that much money to spend, a custom IEM in this class can easily costs over $1000.

Be warn of two things: First, many Low Budget and Entry Class IEM are often overpriced by their manufacturers (to appear as a higher class), therefore judging them by price only will not suffice. Second, price are often determined by demand, therefore you should not use it as an absolute guide when buying an IEM. Sometime great IEM is undervalued, and sometime it is overvalued. The best way of determine IEM's price/performance ratio is to read reviews, and ask those who has more experience for advise. It would be most perfect if you can audition your targeted IEM before paying for them, but unfortunately it is rather difficult to find such a place.
IEM is one of the most active sections of the headphone market, so reading pass review often isn’t enough to determine the actual value of an IEM. The simplest way to find you ideal IEM actually does require some works and it is ‘research, research, and more research.’

Reminder: All of the above is just my point of view.
How about Custom Molded IEM?

[UE11 Pro: costing over US$1000]

Generally speaking, custom molded IEM are very good in quality, but with a high price tag. If you are not those who have an unlimited budget, budget custom like LiveWires or are among some of the best budget custom IEM makers out there, providing quality products with the advantage of custom yet cost much less than products from big name companies like UE.

A few things you might want to know before investing into Custom:
1) A good impression is essential for a good fit. DIY impression kit is very simple to use, but often the impression isn't as good as those from professional. Trying to save cost and time by using DIY kit sometime will cost more time and money as you will need to redo the impression again and again to get a good fit.
2) Unlike universal IEM, the product life cycle (how long you are expected to use the product) of custom is quite short, often estimated to be less than 4 yrs. The reason is, your ears will keep growing till you kick the dust, therefore your ears will change in a couple of years thus render your custom useless as it isn't custom to your ear anymore.You should expect to get a new custom (or at least a remold of your old custom IEM) every few years in order to prolong its shell life. Note, many IEM companies do not re-shell / remold old IEM, thus you should ask the corresponding company about detail of remolding service before ordering. There are companies in the market that do provide reshelling service for custom IEM from another company, or even turning universal IEM into custom.
Of course, there are exception that people are able to use their custom for more than 4 yrs. The experience very from person to person on different age group thus there is no definite answer to how long your custom will fit your ears.
So I am ready to get some serious IEM, which companies should I be looking at?
If you believe you are ready to get into the serious (and often more expensive) part of the IEM games, there are a few IEM manufacturers that you might want to pay more attention to. Just read the column on the right side of this post and you will  find two list of IEM companies - one for universal fit IEM and one for custom fit IEM.
The lists are not exclusive. There will always be new and better IEM and manufacturers waiting for us to discover, so check back regularly. If you wish to see a company being added to the list, please don't hesitate to contact me.
*The original LiveWires team is now separated into two companies. EarPeace Technologies (CA) is holding the original LiveWires brand name while In Ear Systems (TN) operates under new brand name "Fidelity Custom Earphones" but producing what seem to be the same dual driver IEM (plus new models).

• Berge B, Pirzanski C, 2005. Ear canal dynamics: Facts versus perception. The Hearing Journal 58(10):50-8.
• Dean MS, Martin FN, 2000. Insert earphone depth and the occlusion effect. American Journal of Audiology 9: 131-4.
• Federman J, Picou E, 2009. Music and hearing protection: A call to action. Perspectives on Audiology 5(1): 3-9.
• Federman J, Ricketts T, 2008. Preferred and minimum acceptable listening levels for musicians while using floor and in-ear monitors. J Speech Lang Hear Res. 51(1):147-59.
• Fligor BJ, 2007. Hearing loss and iPods:What happens when you turn them to 11? The Hearing Journal 60(10):10-6.
• Fligor BJ, 2009. Risk for noise-Induced hearing loss from use of portable media players: A summary of evidence through 2008. Perspectives on Audiology 5(1): 10-20.
• Palmer CV, 2009. Affecting life-long habits of school-age musicians. Perspectives on Audiology 5(1): 21-7.

Etymotic - ER•4 Instructions For Use
Headroom - Ear Canal Headphones
Headwize - A Quick Guide To Headphones
Headwize - Judging Headphones For Accuracy
Shure - Isolation of Shure earphones and NRR rating
Shure - Diminished sound in one ear
Shure - Static Electricity Discharge through Headphones / Earphones?
Shure - Shure earphones and headphone amp?
Shure - "burning in" earphones or "breaking in" earphones
Shure - Cleaning and maintaining Earphones and Sleeves
Shure - How can I tell which sleeve size I am using?
Wikipedia -headphones
Wikipedia -Psychoacoustics

Disclaimer: All trademarks and logos in the website belong to their respective owners. Beside getting free review samples, I don't work for or get paid by anyone to write anything on this website, or anywhere else in that matter. Also, free review samples are never sold for any financial gain. I do buy gears and review them, but for simplicity you (the reader) should always assume what I review is free sample in nature (and thus comes with all the bias). The website does have Google Ads and Amazon Associates enabled (which I have no direct control over their content) - though I don't write review for a living, nor does the ads generates enough money to cover my breakfast (in fact, not even one breakfast per week). Listening to music and playing with audio gears are purely hobby for me. In short, I am just an audiophiles who happens to have his own blog. Not a journalist who happens to be an audiophile. Oh, and excuse my writing as I am not a native English speaker and can't afford a proofreader. Also, just because I don't write in a negative tone doesn't mean I don't write down the negative aspect of a gear. Please read them carefully. Last but not least, please note that this site uses cookies to track visitors' number and page view.

Important: All postings are my own personal opinion only and should not be treated as absolute truth. I do get things wrong just like everyone else. Always do your own research!

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