And when it comes to in-ear monitors for musicians and live sound techs, it is extremely important to consider the key variables that define the ideal in-ear monitor.
Monitor Requirements for Musicians & Sound Techs
Needs for musicians and vocalists will vary slightly from those using in-ear monitors for live sound mixing (like the monitor mix engineer).
Musicians and sound techs alike will benefit from a good fit and accurate sound reproduction, but an audio engineer will likely want extra noise isolation for more defined monitoring. And musicians may prefer more or less stage noise bleed through their monitors.
What musicians need from an in-ear monitor
- Headphones that fit well and are comfortable
- Good noise isolation, especially for drummers
- Accurate sound reproduction
- Minimal occlusion effect for singers
- Ease of use and dependable performance
What live sound techs need from an in-ear monitor
- Excellent noise isolation for loud environments
- Accurate sound reproduction
- Ease of use and dependable performance
Certain musicians, like drummers and bass players, will need greater low frequency reproduction from their in-ear monitors.
Deep bass reproduction is not always easy to achieve, and it is especially difficult to get solid bass performance with cheap and poor fitting earbuds.
Types of In-Ear Monitors
There are several different types of headphones that are useful for in-ear and personal monitoring systems.
There are open-back and closed-back headphone ear cup designs.
Open-back headphones allow for a better soundstage (the dimensional and spacial effect of how “big” the sound reproduction seems). They also tend to be lightweight and don’t provide much noise isolation.
Closed-back headphones offer better noise isolation, but the soundstage can feel narrower or shallower. They can also be heavier and fit rather tight depending on the design.
Over-the-ear headphones can be great for drummers, bass players, or other musicians that don’t mind wearing a pair of traditional headphones.
Drummers playing electronic sets can sometimes get by with an open-back headphone design that allows them to hear what is happening acoustically on stage. Drummers playing traditional acoustic drumsets will definitely benefit from a good set of closed-back headphones.
While some sound engineers like using semi open-back heaphones, many prefer a closed back design to limit outside noise and allow for greater focus on the sound being monitored.
While earbuds can produce a reasonable range of decent sound quality, it can be hard to achieve consistent results when it comes to noise isolation and low frequency performance. This is because earbuds can be hard to fit and keep in the ideal place.
Hard plastic earbuds can also be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. And they can fall out if there is a lot of movement or poor cable management options.
Traditional earbuds are not typically recommended for use with personal monitoring systems since they seldom offer the level of noise isolation and sound quality needed for a good monitoring experience.
Custom in ear monitors can be much larger in size and molded to fit the exact shape of the ear.
In-ear monitors can feature dynamic drivers (like traditional speakers) or they can use small balanced armature drivers.
The advantage of balanced armature drivers is that they can reproduce sound without the need for air displacement ports. This means that they can operate effectively in a completely sealed chamber. This is an important thing if you want maximum noise isolation.
Balanced armature drivers are much smaller than dynamic drivers, but they don’t always have the best range in frequency reproduction. It is common to have in-ear monitors that feature 2, 3, or more balanced armatures to produce a full range of sound.
Learn more about how balanced armature drivers work here.
What makes a “good” in-ear monitor?
The best in-ear monitors are comfortable, stay in place easily, provide good noise isolation, and reproduce dependable sound quality for the musician or audio engineer.
There are several qualities that every musician should consider before purchasing in-ear monitors.
Comfort, Fit & Noise Isolation
In-ear monitors should be comfortable and fit well.
Good noise isolation is important for two reasons:
- Loud stage volumes can cause hearing damage and good in-ear monitors will provide good attenuation of outside noise.
- Good noise isolation allows the musician to monitor sound at lower levels, preventing volume creep that can reach dangerous levels.
Universal fit monitors can deliver good performance at a modest price point. These monitors will often come with a variety of foam or silicone ear tips that can be changed out to fit different ear sizes.
Custom molded in-ear monitors are best for achieving maximum noise isolation and comfort. These monitors also tend to provide the best sound quality and dependable performance, but they do come at a higher price than universal fit models because they are custom built for your ears.
In-ear monitors also need to fit deep enough into the ear canal. This is especially important for vocalists.
A deep fit provides better noise isolation and bass response. It also allows vocalists to sing without experiencing a distracting occlusion effect (the hollow or boomy sensation that happens when you simply plug your ears and talk).
Durability & Features
Headphones and in-ear monitors used on stage or in live production environments can endure a lot of abuse. Cords can be tangled, headphones get dropped, and in-ear monitors are crammed into tight pockets.
In-ear monitors for the stage should have good strain relief at all connection points.
L-connectors can be useful for plugging into certain devices, and straight connectors are better for other devices.
Consumer-grade earbuds and in-ear monitors will feature in-line volume controls that work with certain mobile electronics, but these are of little use for most live sound monitoring applications.
Audio cables should be flexible, yet durable. Most quality in-ear monitors and headphones will have detachable cables that can be replaced if they get damaged or broken. This allows for a simple and cheap fix instead of a costly monitor replacement.
Cable length is another important consideration depending on where the headphone preamp or mixing device is located.
The average in-ear monitor cable length is about 4 feet (1.2 meters), but some are longer and there are many options for stereo extension cables.
Most in-ear monitors provide cables that can be worn up and over the top of the ear. This provides maximum security and minimizes microphonic noise that can transfer from the cable to the monitor housing when the cable is moved or tapped.
Cable cinches and other length management features can help keep the cables in place and tucked out of the way.
In-ear monitors for live sound don’t need to be audiophile-grade or reference monitor-perfect for the average musician or sound tech. However, they do need to produce a full range of audio frequencies without distorting or coloring the sound too much.
Vocalists like good mid-range frequency reproduction and highs that aren’t too shrill for accurate vocal monitoring.
Guitarists want a monitor that produces clear highs and warm lows, but won’t make the mids too muddy.
Bass players and drummers need full and punchy lows, along with balanced highs for monitoring tones from cymbals, guitars, vocals, and sub-bass notes.
Monitor engineers and sound techs need accurate frequency reproduction that doesn’t over-accentuate the frequency spectrum ranges.
Dynamic drivers can provide good sound quality, but sometimes at the expense of lower noise isolation. Dynamic drivers also have size limitations, so they don’t work well for compact in-ear monitors.
2-way and 3-way balanced armature driver designs offer a good mix of audio performance and value while allowing for maximum noise isolation.
(The following images are examples of the Shure SE215 dynamic driver design and the Shure SE425 balanced armature design.)
Cost vs Performance
Prices and quality of in-ear monitor range from cheap to super expensive and excellent to terrible sounding.
While most audiophile-grade in-ear monitors sound absolutely amazing, their price point puts them out of range as an option for many musicians and audio engineers.
And it is quite possible that the average listener just isn’t going to be able to pick out the nuanced sound characteristics that someone with “golden ears” is going to rave about.
A balance needs to be stuck that factors in price and performance, as well as the intended use and durability requirements for the musician or live sound tech.
Headphones, earbuds, and in-ear monitors in the $10-40 price range are going to be made with the average electronics consumer in mind and not built for the demands of live production environments. Materials are cheaper, performance specs are lower, and overall quality is often less than dependable.
There are several quality options available in the sub-$100 price range. Most in-ear monitors at this price point use dynamic drivers and are built with a few live production features in mind, like detachable cables.
In-ear monitors priced around $100-250 tend to be built with better or more drivers. Dynamic drivers will be higher quality and better tuned. Balanced armature designs will feature more drivers with crossovers for better frequency reproduction.
Consumer-grade headphones in the $250+ range are often marketed as “audiophile-quality” and are geared for the high-end electronics consumer market. However, in-ear monitors designed for professionals often start in this price range and feature custom molded options and components engineered for live production or studio needs.
This is where the bulk of professional and custom in-ear monitors are priced. Extremely compact and high performance universal fit monitors can also be found in this price range. Most professional in-ear monitors in the $500-1,200 price range provide solid performance and excellent sound quality.
Headphones and in-ear monitors exceeding $1,200 are typically engineered for precise audio reference monitoring or they fall into the “boutique” consumer market category. Balanced armature driver designs at this price point can use 6-8 drivers for defined frequency ranges and custom-tuned performance.
Ultimately the decision of in-ear monitor selection and what to pay is up to the individual. It is important to consider all of the variables and demands of a live production in-ear monitor so that the investment is spent wisely.
Some options may be cheaper, but they may not last as long or sound as good.
Some options may have great professional features, but are over-built and over-priced for the weekend-musician on a budget.
With all of the products available today, there is definitely an option that will work for you.
James’ Picks for In-Ear Monitors and Headphones
(with links to Amazon or Manufacturer's website)
For most live production applications, I prefer in-ear monitors with a balanced armature design.
Single balanced armature monitors are cheaper, but can lack deep bass response. Models like the Westone UM Pro 10 are still good for a variety of musicians and vocalists.