Custom In-Ear Monitors – Advice from an Experienced Musician

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Once you go with custom in-ear monitors (IEMs), you’ll never want to go back to using universal monitors again. In this article, we take you through everything you need to know.

I’ve personally used a pair of UE5-Pros over the last few years when drumming. They are on the cheaper end of custom IEMs, but the sound isolation you get from them is absolutely fantastic, and protecting my hearing health is what matters most to me.

In-ear monitors (IEMs) revolutionized the way music was played in every possible situation, from stadium concerts to club gigs.

Since their arrival at the beginning of the 80s, in-ear monitors have become a standard addition to every musician serious about their job.

They are essentially small headphones that go into your ear, blocking the outside noise and giving you the direct sound from monitors while on stage without the need to use on-stage monitor speakers in all that noise.

If you are looking to buy a cheaper, generic set of in-ear monitors (that do not require custom impressions), then check out this article.

Differences between universal and custom in-ear monitors

If you get into the topic of in-ear monitors, you’re instantly going to see that there are two main types – universal and custom IEM. The main difference is that custom are customized for each person’s ears, whereas universal ones are generic.

To get custom monitors created, you’ll need either an ear impression or a laser scan of your ears (more about that later in the article).

This makes for a bunch of other differences as well. Firstly, universal monitors, because they don’t have to be personalized are much cheaper and there are many more options for them on the market. If the price is your decisive factor than universal monitors are your pick.

Custom IEM’s, on the other hand, provides a much better sound and noise isolation than universal ones. Because they are custom-molded to fit your ears, it’s only sensible that they are a much better fit than universal IEM’s.

Also, you can personalize custom monitors, as they are already being handmade for you personally, whilst you can’t (usually) do that with universal IEM’s.

How much do custom in-ear monitors cost?

Usually the price range starts at around $500 (plus the cost of the ear impression depending on what approach you are going for – this can cost between $50 to $100).

From there, the sky is the limit, but some IEM’s with great sound quality go for around $1000, and the top models will cost you from $2000 upwards.

Some examples of great IEMs are below. Please note, these are only a selection of the options available, and I am not claiming that these are the best options for you or the best in the industry. I just have experience with using Ultimate Ears and thought they did a great job. Do some research about the different brands available and pick something which will suit your budget and needs.

1. UE 5 PRO

For everyday gigging situations, the Ultimate Ears UE 5 PRO model are a great affordable pair of custom in-ear monitors. This simple, rugged model is made for club settings, with simplicity, good sound quality, and sturdiness in mind before everything.

The UE 5 PRO is a versatile IEM, with two drivers, one high and one low, and a canceling noise power of -26 dB. It’s equipped with 1/8” jack and is compatible with all sound systems out there.

Because it’s meant for gig use, everything is built to be sturdy and live through every-night use you’re going to put it through. Also, the price is on the low-end of custom IEMs.

2. UE 11 PRO

This is one of the most used models out there, with people from all over the music world using it in their live settings. UE 11 PRO was made with drummers and bassists in mind.

This means that these IEM’s will give you a lot of the lower end tones, as well as the feel of the kick bass tones usually have with them. This can be irreplaceable, as many musicians depend on feeling that kick of the bass more than just hearing the sound of it.

UE 11 PRO is made with 3D printing technology and consists of 4 proprietary balanced armatures with a 3-way crossover inside. This ensures you will have a great sound quality wherever you play and whatever music genre you play.

3. UE LIVE

UE Live is the ultimate custom in-ear monitor out there. It comes with 6 balanced armatures, 1 True Tone Plus driver & 1 6mm neodymium dynamic speaker, giving you the best sound it is right to your ear.

These bad boys are made for the biggest stages like stadiums and concert halls, meaning that they have all they could put inside of them.

They are made, as all of them are, with UE ED scanning of your ears or classic molding of your inner ear. Anyway, you’re going to have the perfect fit for your ears.

With the top of the line, quality comes top of the line price, but if you’re interested in only the best, then you should expect to spend a bit more than usual for that.

How much do universal in-ear monitors cost?

Since we’ve already written an article about universal IEMs (which you can read about right here) we’re going to keep this one short. The short answer is that universal IEMs generally cost much less than the custom in-ear monitors do.

Low-end ones can go for around $50 and if you want good quality sound, you’ll need something between 150-200$. That’s a LOT less than custom IEMs.

Benefits of custom in-ear monitors

There are several benefits to the custom IEM’s. First off, they are made for your ears only. This means that they will sit perfectly in your ear, giving you the best comfort possible together with the best sound.

Universal monitors will never fit as well as IEM’s can.

Also, because they fit so well, they give you unprecedented noise isolation.

Air-tight around your ears, they will block about 26dB of sounds, which is great to bring you down to healthy listening levels when on stage.

However, that can sometimes even be a downside, especially for singers, as they need some natural feedback from their mouths, which they can’t get when they’re wearing custom IEM’s.

Ultimate Ears also offer the ‘Ambient Noise’ feature which allows you to bleed some of the outside noise in if you want through a filter. When in loud situations, you can still block this.

Overall, the vast majority of musicians prefer to have custom made IEM’s when on stage because positives outnumber the negatives that much.

How to fit in-ear monitors

There are two ways – either you need a physical ear impression using a custom mold, or you can get a laser scan in some situations.

Until pretty recently, the only option was to have a physical impression of your ear lobe taken so that the IEMs can be molded by that.

That means that an audiologist comes in and essentially pours some rubber into your ear for 5 minutes, which in that time solidifies and when is taken out can be used for later work. This can feel like a VERY strange experience at first, but it’s worth it!

In the last couple of years however, there’s been a real breakthrough through several different laser techniques, like Ultimate Ear’s ED scanning.

These techniques don’t require you to do anything but sit still for a couple of minutes while a technician scans your ears and gets an instant 3D model of your ears.

The laser scanning option can result in much quicker manufacturing and delivery of your custom IEMs, because the scans can be sent digitally to the manufacturer.

Are IEMs bad for your ears?

I’m not a medical professional, but based on research in this area and experience of using them, custom in-ear monitors can be very good for your ears if you stay disciplined and keep the volume relatively low. There is a reason that IEMs have been adopted by the pros in the industry for many years.

Custom IEMs give you a lot of noise isolation, which allows you to listen at a much lower level. This is particularly prevalent when playing with a band on stage while playing with a metronome or live mix in your ears.

However, if you monitor at a loud level when wearing custom IEMs, they are still going to do damage to your ears, similar to using universal IEMS, ear buds, or wedge monitors.

Buying a second pair of IEMs

If for whatever reason you need to buy a second pair of IEMS (such as a pair getting stolen or lost – or perhaps even getting a second pair as a backup), then check with the manufacturer of your previous ones to check if they have your impression on file.

If you were happy with your previous set of earphones, then they could possibly create a second pair for you right away based on the previous impression.

If you’re a pro musician that’s looking to get a backup for a tour or set of important shows, you could consider buying a cheaper set of custom IEMs, rather than splashing out thousands of dollars on a second set.

Summary

We hope that this article has helped you to better understand the differences between universal and custom in-ear monitors as well as to find all of the information you might need on custom in-ear monitors.

Even though they cost more, they really make for money well spent. With custom IEM’s you’ll get unprecedented comfort and sound quality, as well as the noise-isolation while playing.

And whatever role you have in the bend, you’ll be grateful that you invested your money into something this good for your hearing and experience on stage.

Featured image by 1964ears / CC BY-SA

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