Beginning The Ultimate Headphone Guide In-Ear Headphones

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In-Ear Headphones (Earphones, IEMs, Ear-buds)
There are two distinct types of earphones in the In-Ear category: Ear-buds, and In-ear monitors (IEMs). Ear-buds rest in the bowl (concha) of your ear and do not acoustically seal you away from outside noise. IEMs have a tip the securely seals in your ear canal, and can provide excellent isolation from outside noise—in most cases they provide much more isolation than noise-canceling headphones.

As a class, ear-buds are the worst sounding of all headphone types. The lack of a seal makes good bass response all but impossible, and ear-buds typically don't have a secure fit, so they tend to move around some making reliable sonic performance pretty sketchy. The most common ear-bud by far is the Apple ear-bud that come bundled with iPods and iPhones, and the performance of the Apple ear-bud is actually quite good compared to many in this category. Apple recently replaced the old ear-bud with a new, similar product called the Ear-Pod; it too is quite good sounding for an earphone of this type.

In-ear monitors are quite another story. The seal in the ear canal of this type of earphone allows for excellent bass response, and the best earphones in this category can deliver sound quality competitive with the very best over-ear headphones. Though the audio image delivered is usually perceived as smaller by the listener--likely due to the sound being delivered directly to the ear drum and bypassing the outer ear (pinna), which adds spatial cues due to reflections of the ear before the sound enters the ear canal—the resolution of very good in-ear monitors can be world class.

In-ear headphones can be further broken into two groups depending on the type of driver used to create the sound: balanced armature, and dynamic driver. Balanced armature drivers are small rectangular boxes which house the driver elements, and have an output orifice for the sound, which commonly has a tube attached that gets routed to the ear tip. Some balanced armature IEMs have multiple drivers just like speakers with separate bass, midrange, and treble drivers and a crossover circuit to separate the bands before going to the drivers. Dynamic driver IEMs use a driver with a voice coil and diaphragm just like a speaker or normal headphones, but much smaller in diameter. Dynamic drivers in regular headphones vary in size roughly between 25mm-50mm, while dynamic drivers for IEMs are usually 5mm-15mm.

Typically, less expensive IEMs are dynamic, while the more expensive IEMs are balanced armature based. There are many exceptions to this rule, however, and lately there have been more and more dynamic IEMs popping up with high prices and sound quality to match.

Custom In-Ear Monitors (CIEMs)
130526_blog_UHG_Photo_InEarCIEMThe very best earphones in the In-Ear category are Custom In-Ear Monitors (CIEMs). These devices typically use balanced armature drivers, and may have up to eight drivers and a crossover network per earpiece. Sound quality in CIEMs can be excellent, rivaling even the best of over-ear headphones. Costs for CIEMs range between $500 and $2000. Custom artwork can often be put on the outside of the earpiece for additional charge.

The first step in obtaining a CIEM is a visit to an audiologist to get impressions made of your ears. The audiologist will push a small, foam dam into your ear canal almost to the eardrum, and then squirt some gelatinous goo into your ear canal filling it and the bowl (concha) of your ear. This mixture will harden to a rubbery consistency slightly softer than an eraser in about 5 minutes. The impressions are then removed and sent to the CIEM maker of your choice. (This procedure usually costs $50 to $80.)

Because these earphones are custom fit to your ears, most people find CIEMs far more comfortable than generic fit IEMs. It's important to note however, that getting a great fit on CIEMs is quite an art, and problems can occur in every step of the process that may result in a poor fitting earphone in the end. Custom IEM makers are well aware of these difficulties and are usually very willing to rework the product should you find them uncomfortable initially.

For Isolation
130526_blog_UHG_Photo_InEarER4In-Ear monitors that seal in the ear canal provide the most isolation of any type of headphone—usually much more than noise canceling headphones. The amount of isolation can vary quite a bit however, for best isolation look for balanced armature IEMs that seal deeply in the ear.

For Comfort
130526_blog_UHG_Photo_InEarComplyIEMs typically come with a fairly wide variety of different sized tips to insure you find one that fits comfortably in your ears. But users often find the most comfortable tips are made of foam similar to that found on yellow foam ear-plugs. The company "Comply" makes a wide variety of ear tips with models that fit most IEMs and are optimized for isolation and comfort. Heartily recommended.

For Safety
130526_blog_UHG_Photo_InEarKidBudsBecause IEMs dramatically reduce outside noise, users are able to keep the volume at a lower, safer level in loud environments. On the other hand, not being able to hear outside noise encourages inattentional blindness—the condition of being completely unaware of ones surroundings because attention is being placed on the music. You simply wouldn't believe how many people are killed by cars and trains because they're wearing headphones. More isolation is not necessarily better; sometimes a headphone with moderate isolation makes for a safer portable headphone. For this reason, ear-buds may be preferable over IEMs for children.

COMMENTS
Byrnie's picture

Tyll

I hope the phone numbers and emails addresses, listed in those mock-ups, are fake, so the internet trolls don't get their hands on them.  Also I hope theres some attention devoted to some beyerdynamics as I don't see you mention alot of beyerdynamics in reviews, even if you don't like/enjoy them, your perspectrive on the new t70 & t90s would be interesting.  Anyway regardless I love what you and your staff do for the headphone community and will continue reading regardless and I am itching to buy this guide as I'm currently looking at the picking up a pair of closed headphones (currently looking at the MDR-1R, Polk Ultrafocus 8000, and Beyerdynamic t70).  Unfortunately, I don't have smurf ear so the Momentums are out.  For some reason the Philips Fidelio X1 have my eye too but i can't explain but i think they're really neat looking and supposedly sound great too.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

There won't be very much in the way of recommendations in the guide, like I said, it's sort of a yearbook for headphones. It's worth mentioning how this guide came about: Source Interlink Media (SIM) has another special interest publication called "The Ultimate Wheel and Tire Guide", which sold very well at the newsstand, and did very well garnering advertisers. There's also an on-line component to this publication that you can find here.  

What they (SIM management) learned with this publication is (and this should come as no surprise) that people love to look at pretty pictures. Before someone starts to seriously research a product for purchase, they sort of have to dome some preliminary window shopping to see what's out there. Basically, people have to get oriented to what the market looks like. The Ultimate Wheel and Tire Guide, and now the Ulitmate Headphone Guide does that. It exists to give people a broad look at the market, from which they'll gather some first inclings of the stuff they want to look into.

The point is that this guide will not have comparitive buying information. Models won't be called out in particular. The reason for this is that advertisers need to feel very comfortable just showing off all their wares knowing that they're not going to be disected for their faults. So the guide acts purely as a showcase. Headphone makers can submit all their gear for folks to have a look at; consumers get a dandy place to see the gear that's available; advertisers get to place ads in a book where their ads are just as interesting---and maybe more so---as the content of the pages; and SIM gets a property that sells ad space well, and sells well on the newsstand. It's a win-win-win-win situation. A nice little formula.

Byrnie's picture

Yea I guess I didn't understand before but i still plan on buying this :D

Impulse's picture

I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out... I think the initial the amp/DAC section could be expanded tho. From what I've seen this is a subject that's very very confusing for a lot of people, specially if they don't have much experience or exposure to computers, portable players etc. You'd be amazed how many grandpas, fathers etc get handed an iPod or hard drive full of music and that's their first encounter with digital outside of CDs...

Maybe some examples of the form factors DAC can come in or something? Like tiny portable ones vs desk units etc. Dunno, the basic concept is what could be fleshed out a little IMO, maybe cut the 414 history lesson as it serves no practical purpose to the average buyer... It'd sorta leave the Koss bit flailing but I dunno. I think you could add some mention of Bluetooth audio too, and integrated BT vs BT receivers etc.

It's hard to put oneself in the shoes of someone outside the hobby to see figure out what info's needed the most and what may not be so obvious to others... But even in the world of PC gaming (where you'd think people would have a pretty good grasp over some basic tech) I've noticed huge confusion over the concept of a DAC, amp, sound card, optical output, AVR, etc etc. (I realize a lot of that is well beyond the scope of this, but confusion usually stems from a misunderstanding of basic component concepts)

Should add some bit somewhere mentioning that many/most external USB DAC are fairly plug and play affairs too. It's not something that's inherently obvious. Just my 2c.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

It's a tough struggle, I think I've actually already gone over budget with words on that intro page, So, I'll likely have less not more words there. I agree with you though, explaining amps and DACs and their various form factors is a good call. Perhaps I might be able to expand on that subject in an article in the back of the book. I'll think about it.

A page on Bluetooth stuff might be good in the back as well.

I like the 414 spot, is a little break from dry info, maybe gives the reader of a sense of history re: headphones. I'd rather cut the PortaPro stuff instead. Anyway, cutting stuff on that page doesn't make more room on the amp page. Every intro gets a two-page spread, and that's it.

I'm glad you mentioned gaming, I'd certainly like to see a little copy devoted to the subject here and there, I'll try to work something in.

Good point on the USB PnP compatibility, I think I can fit a phrase in on the amp page somewhere.

moose's picture

Skimped through the guide. Only a few minor details:

  • Detachable cables are sometimes a deal breaker for people, maybe that can be included?
  • Different earpad and headband materials, and headband form factors could be added, like the spilt headband from the HD-25-1-II
  • Some (most of us "audiophile" types) people have more than one headphone. Some leave the rest hanging on a stand and let them look pretty, add a few of those too? Those wooden Sieveking omega shaped ones are great for photography.
  • Travel cases are included, but maybe mention that there are after market ones for IEMs and common DJ headphones? I know some folks use Pelican and Otterbox cases for their IEMs

 

So when can those living outside of the states get their hands on this magazine, if ever? An online ordering system would be great (and cheap).

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...detachable cables is in the product spec grids, but I'm not sure if that particular data point will end up on the list for things to display under the product pictures.  That's likely going to be very basic information, stuff like: Sealed or Open (or Noise Canceling); Price;Does it have a mic/remote; connector size. But spare cable is not too far down that list, so maybe. 

I don't know about foreign distribution. I'll let you know sometime this fall, I'll surely post when the guide is released and will give some details about availability then.

mikeaj's picture

I'm not particularly sure where these things would go, but here are some points that could need explaining:

  1. What kind of benefits more-expensive headphones might have; particularly if people haven't used any or are used to seeing and feeling certain celeb cans or maybe some other overpriced brands, it may not be apparent what you can gain in sound quality, comfort, durability, microphonics, etc.
  2. Circumaurals may not really be circumaural for all people, depending on ear size; to be honest, if individual headphone descriptions could include inner/outer dimensions of earpads and headphone weight, that would be something very useful to know.
  3. Okay, not so much of a good marketing point, but differences between speakers and headphones in terms of acoustics—headphones can't rattle the body with bass, and putting the speakers next to your head messes up the imaging of sounds produced and intended to be played back on speakers (where there's natural delayed crosstalk)

Some other initial thoughts:

  1. Yeah, I kind of see who the target audience is and the heritage of SIM, but... really? I guess you're probably not in charge of this, but the fonts, layout, and colors are rather hypermasculine and frankly look a bit ugly and overbearing; the blatant consumerism is unavoidable, but the product pictures spilling all over the place don't really help. Geez. Don't women listen to music too? Isn't this also a guide for moms and others to buy presents?
  2. I would either expand or contract the amps section (the full thing, not just the preview here). I'm only guessing blindly on how many pages you'd actually have covering it, but my guess is either too little or too many. Either give the full rundown or just a brief overview with links to resources. That's not to mention how many people have buying fatigue after getting a good headphone for the first time; then, a whole mob tells them they "have" to get a headphone amp for hundreds of dollars, where in reality it won't really make too much of a difference in their overall experience.
Tyll Hertsens's picture

1. & 3. I think there needs to be a section in the back called something like "Why Headphones" where, among other things, the relative value/cost of headphones vs. speakers is discussed, and something about he price of headphones not being very closely tied to sound quality. Should be able to mention some of the points you make.

2. It's a good point, but probably too fine for this guide. I agree makers should publish ear cup size.  I'll keep it in mind and maybe I can do something to influence makers.

Other:

1. Ha! Funny. Um...I reckon there's probably a pretty strong filter for this type of publication to be attractive primarily to males. How many females do you see at Head-Fi? And yes, SIM publishes for the "male enthusiast."  For thier "About SIM" page:

Source Interlink Companies, Inc., is a leading, integrated media, publishing, merchandising and logistics company, whose principal businesses are producing content for enthusiast audiences, primarily in the prized male 18 – 34 demographics, and effectively distributing magazine content of all kinds to retail locations in the United States and abroad.

And true, I have no control over the graphic look...and thank goodness for that, my graphic abilities suck. I agree it's bold and masculine, but I have to believe the SIM folks know way better than I what will jump off the newsstand.

2.I talked a bit about amps in a reply above, but I tend to agree that it's really tricky. I also agree that it's more important to tell people about how to buy a headphone than how to buy an amp. But you comment has me seeing the issue a bit differently now, thanks for that. I reckon all that info will end up in the back of the book.

veggieboy2001's picture

I think you nailed it! The only thing I can think of would be including one potential problem with IEM’s, namely earwax buildup. The use of filters and ear cleaning is essential to protect your investment. You did a great job with a ton of info! Thanks for all you do!!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I will definately have a section on headphone saftey in the back.  The two main issues are music too loud and inattentional blindness. I might be able to include a section on ear-care there as well.

I've also though of having a section on how to insert and fit IEMs, and ear-care could go in with that as well. 

It's a good point, there should be something about it in the guide.

lafaard's picture

I really hope this guide will cover budget headphones in more detail. Many "budget" guides online strongly recommend dated headphones which underperform for the price like the koss portapro. I would buy them in a heartbeat if they were 20$ but for 50$ there is more competition than you think. Just look at the new philips downtown. On the other hand nobody mentions the criminally underrated JVCs such as the s400, s500 and the fx40. 

And about the font: Yeah, it looks very masculine. But whatever, tech magazines are pretty macho anyway. Just look at T3, Stuff and whathifi. It's just as irritating as the girly-ness of celebrity gossip, fashion or cooking magazines. Men like these things too.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

We want to include as many headphones as possible. I think 265 pages is going to fill up pretty quickly, however. What headphones go in the guide will in part be determined by the advertisers and headphone makers themselves. It's already been discussed in previous comments, but this is essentially a mens publication and the products that go in it will likely reflect that demographics needs. Presents for kids is a need for that demographic, so we'll see.

I'll mention that I'll likely have only minor influence on what headphones get included. 

Impulse's picture

I'm sure your contact with the sales/PR department is limited but I think if Tyll Hertsens emails a manufacturer and tells them they should get involved in a project like this then they'd at the very least consider it. For instance, it seems a company like Philips with some excellent low budget and mid range offerings would do well to get as much of their lineup represented as they can... Specially with their shelf space at retail seemingly shrinking as of late.

Big Al's picture

Awesome project to be a part of. I don't envy the great responsibility it brings. I hope to see my all time favorite in there...drum roll....the Sony MDR-V6. Maybe not the most stylish, but hard to beat for the money wouldn't you say?

Speaking of style, how do you think the magazine will deal with the new crop of "fashion headphones?" If I had to choose a pair of headphones based on looks alone, I suppose I would choose these: http://www.beatsbydrereview.net

Good luck and keep us posted of the progress!

Cami's picture

I have to say I was expecting the typical buyers guide that's more like a long list of ads to repeat and quote the slogans and hype of the manufacturers financing the publication. I'm positively surprised! Let's hope editing let's it stay that way.

I like the general and reader friendly tone, and the yet sufficiently clear and informing text, which manages to grab ones attention and shed some light. There is a good overall picture that manages to organize things without confusing anyone, and the eye-candy sure helps rub it in.

As the guide is intended to be more an introduction to the wide universe of headphones, v/s a what to buy or how to buy guide, I like the balanced tone, that on one hand informs the reader at a basic yet significant level, and that manages to stay relatively neutral regarding manufacturers and sponsors. Certainly a good dose of Tyll's diplomatic and cavalier character - a major plus I would say.

I think having it concise and clear is good, that's the right amount of info to make it a provocation for the reader to start digging a little deeper on his own. A list of references to websites and blogs like Innnerfidelity, The well Tempered Computer, Golden Ears or NwAvGuy are of course a good clues as to where to start digging (and show of the good and democratic will of the sponsors).

The only thing I would add to the Amp section - or perhaps introduce the Amp section with -, is a brief comment to pairing cans with Amps, and in one or max three sentences refer to impedance, sensitivity and efficiency. Not take the subject into depth or technically define the concepts, but nevertheless give the hint to these parameters when it comes to chosing an Amp for a pair of cans, and relate them to Ohms, output power and voltage. Finally these aspects are not just part of engineering headphone Amps, but also the reasons why Amps are needed.

Further on the - non-intrusive - technical aspect, regarding the "lush", "yummy" and "romantic" sound of tubes v/s the "tight", "clear" and "black-between-the-notes" sound of solid state, perhaps incorporating the reference to frequency response (which is already present in the noise-cancelling section) could be a good clue to be left there for the reader's further exploration.

I agree with making the classic reference to the comparative value of headphones v/s speakers, and that certainly makes a good and catchy starter. I think people largely underestimate headphones as gadgets that don't quite make it to hifi grade, but for those that are willing to give cans a try, there's certainly a surpise heading their way.

Gaming is of course a popular application one could include, but I would add it to the TV & movies section, and reserve an aditional section for innovative technologies that offer further niceties, like HRFT, DSP, Dolby surround or binaural recordings, etc.

That would be just about it.

Cheers!

atothex's picture

Good stuff as always, Tyll!

I realize your word limits probably feel a bit restrictive at the point, but when you think about the target demographic, I feel that putting a lot more emphasis on gaming applications would be very helpful. The people getting into quality headphones are often college kids and renters, and they're often male. These guys who are just getting into fancy headphones are the same ones getting the mechanical keyboards, expensive mousing surfaces, that kinda "nerdy" stuff. I was gonna write about all this stuff earlier, then I had to go out to a social function, and a bunch of guys beat me too the punch haha.

Impulse's picture

In the last year or two I've bought two mechanical keywords (one was a gift, I swear), about half a dozen pair of headphones (tho half of them were gifts, pinky swear!), and I replaced a fUnc mouse pad and Logitech mouse with identical models... Guess I'm a total nerd. :p Does a growing interest in micro 4/3 camera/lenses make me even more of a nerd or does that hobby straddle another line? I need to find some manly hobbies...

In all seriousness, gamers are usually hugely undeserved by gaming peripheral companies pushing a ton of underwhelming headsets at them, I gotta think this is one market some of the traditional or even mainstream headphone companies would love to reach. Even budget headphones tend to stomp headsets by Logitech, Razr, and other gaming/PC peripheral companies.

flatmap's picture

Nice idea to do this overall and might expand awareness that there are more than just one or two brands on the market.

Although aimed at an audience that buys on paper, you might consider links  to some of your existing videos -- or make some specifically for this project.  For example that explication about how to insert IEMs could be a short video.  There could be one that makes plain the difference in how circumaural and supraural 'phones fit on the ears.  Etc.

Another thought:  Could each manufacture put a little symbol on their spec sheet that clarifies "amp required" or "just fine out of your iPod".  Lot's of people are going to be thinking about these as extension of their portable music players -- and would be nice to sort that out for them.  Another thing in the spec sheet to highlight would be length of the cord.  And I'm sure this will be on the spec sheet, but many consumers new to the topic will not be tuned in to look for it.  The average iPod user will be surprised when ordering one these and finding that the cord is 2 meters...

Impulse's picture

You could encourage the editors to just include some QR codes for a lot of those situations that are better illustrated by video. I'm surprised print mags in general (specially those that already have an online presence) aren't making more use of this as a way to directly link and enhance content without resorting to truncated URLs etc.

Long time listener's picture

Speaking of attractive graphics, a headphone guide of this kind has been published for some years now in the Hong Kong/Taiwan region. One very helpful item it included to accompany text descriptions was a visual breakdown of headphone characteristics such as bass extension, treble clarity, midrange quality, comfort, isolation, ease of drive, etc. Rather than a bar graph, these were presented as pentagrams or star shapes within a circle. You could easily compare phones at a glance. The phones with the best bass response (or whatever) had arms on the pentagram that reached out the farthest toward the outer rim of the circle. You could save time by looking at this first and then delving further into the text for ones that interested you.

larsjunge's picture

Hello, this looks great! Will the magazine also be sold through amazon.com so that overseas (European) readers also can get it? Or maybe through the zinio magazine app on the ipads, or ebook store?

ednaz's picture

One thing missing from most categorizations in headphone guides that are trying to help us shop is open versus closed.  Yes, all will reference it in the long text, but when looking to treat myself with new 'phones, my thought process is open, closed, in-ear.  Ear pad versus over ear tells me less about really basic sound characteristics, isolation, and application appropriateness than open vs closed vs in ear.

I need to replace a pair of open travel headphones (for room listening) and shopping site after site, there's no way to see the terrain of my open choices.

melvin's picture

I saw the ESW9 on the on-ear's section (I know it doesn't mean anything much) but is ESW9 not good enough to merit a review here on InnerFidelity? I thought they're lovely both on appearance and sound quality (they're musical in a sense I thought) but not much mentioned in the headphone forums.

As for the magazine, I live in Asia and still I'd love a copy. Even if it's a kindle version, I would still like it. :-)

GNagus's picture

They resemble the discontinued Sennheiser HD485

jr's picture

Tyll,

Not a specific response to the copy you've included (although I think you mean "losing--not loosing--track of their surroundings"); but a general appeal for how the information is acquired.  I believe it was after the demise of Audio magazine that Stereophile (and The Absolute Sound) began publishing equipment directories.  Whereas Audio's directories were heroically complete, Stereophile's was--and I imagine is if it still publishes one--incomplete to the point of uselessness.  Major and minor players were excluded.  Nothing nefarious: as I understand it, appeals were sent for information that many companies just didn't or couldn't find the time to return.  But Stereophile should have pursued the companies more ardently.  It would be a terrific surprise if your publication was significantly more complete than, say, Jude's Christmas recommendations at Head-Fi.  (I'd hate, for instance, to miss off the wall phones like Aedle's.)

Good luck on the project, and thanks for what you do for the hobby.  Oh, and great idea above about some indication of amp/headphone compatibility: just a recommendation from the amp manufacturer of the impedance range the amp serves.

HK_sends's picture

Looking forward to checking this out when it releases!

 

Cheers!

-HK sends

ScaryFatKidGT's picture

I trust that you will do a good job, your pretty good at realizing when a headphone is good but just not for you and when they just sound like shit like the beats pro vs. solos

RobertErickson's picture

 

Speaking of style, how do you think the magazine will deal with the new crop of "sports headphones?" If I had to choose a pair of headphones based on looks alone, I suppose I would choose these:http://www.ebestheadphonesforrunning.com/

Good luck and keep us posted of the progress!

TimD's picture

     Hey Tyll, being that the magazine will not offer recommendations; can you give me any recommendations for good gaming headsets? or give me any links to sites that you trust in reviewing gaming headsets? Im currently not aware of any site that reviews gaming headsets as thoroughly as review headsets. Any help would be greatly appreciated. : )

Rabbit's picture

Tyll, when it's published, is it going to be available only in the USA or is there a way to get copies over to UK?

Rgds

Ian

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