Ultimate Headphone Guide Articles: How to Insert In-Ear Monitors

How to Insert In-Ear Monitors
UHG_InsertingIEM_TipRollingSeriesIn-Ear Monitors, also called in-ear headphones, in-ear earphones, or just IEMs for short, have the potential to offer great sound quality in a compact form factor. The in-ear coupling allows small drivers to deliver full-range sound and provides passive noise isolation, preventing noise from overpowering subtleties in your music, keeping interruptions at bay, and protecting your hearing by making lower volumes practical in noisy environments.

Why a Perfect Is Fit Important
The tuning of in-ear monitors utilizes an acoustic seal between earphone and ear canal achieved with a soft eartip portion typically made of silicone or foam. Most IEMs will not perform at their best without a good seal, which will cause them to sound more tinny and treble-heavy, with poor bass response and improper stereo imaging. Noise isolation is also compromised with a poor seal—some IEMs naturally isolate better than others, but all rely on a good seal. Lastly, improperly worn earphones are less secure in the ear and will become dislodged more easily during activities. Spending the time to achieve the best fit will provide maximum audio quality and comfort with any in-ear monitor.

Ensuring the perfect fit
Manufacturers include multiple sets of eartips to make sure their earphones fit ears of all shapes and sizes. Using an incorrectly sized eartip can have various negative effects on the seal so it is recommended to try every size of included eartips. In some cases, different sizes of tips may need to be used in each ear because ear canals are not necessarily symmetrical.

There are many ways an improper seal can occur but the most common mistake is simply not inserting the earphones deep enough into the ear, which can be remedied by pushing the earphone deeper or switching eartips. Pulling the upper part of the ear upward and back straightens the ear canal and makes achieving a deep seal easier.

When inserting your earphones, move the earpiece around until the ear tip seals in your ear canal. The ear canal is naturally angled slightly towards the front and top of the head and angling the earphone similarly during insertion can help. In the case of foam eartips, it is recommended to compress the eartips before insertion and hold them in place while they expand. When a seal is created, external noises are significantly reduced and the earphones should be stable and secure.

Tips for Wearing IEMs

Most people just plug IEMs into their ears and call it good, but there are a couple of problems with this method. When the cables rub against collars and zippers the mechanical noise will travel up the cable and the noise may interfere with your listening. Also, the weight of the cable will make it more likely that the earphones become dislodged or loose their seal.

An over-the-ear fit is used by many sports earphones for a more secure fit and to reduce cable noise, but actually works with most in-ear earphones. Simply loop the wire around the top of your ear and then insert the earpiece into the ear, maintaining the correct angle. The most common way to use an over-the-ear fit is to have the cables come out in front of your neck, but you can use a behind-the-neck if you want the most secure fit for vigorous activity.

Cable cinch. Many earphones are outfitted with a sliding cable cinch. The cinch can effectively shorten the length of the cable after the Y split to keep the earphones in place more securely, especially with over-the-ear wear. When cables come out in front of your neck, cinch the cable very gently for a comfortable fit; when wearing the cables behind the neck, cinch tightly for a very secure fit.

Altitude changes. During large changes in altitude you will experience pressure changes that will affect the way you hear your earphones. It is recommended to remove and re-insert your earphones when you feel increased pressure to maintain the best sound quality.

Aftermarket Ear-Tips
UHG_InsertingIEM_Tips In addition to the eartips that ship with a set of earphones, aftermarket replacements are available in all shapes and sizes. While most factory-supplied eartips are silicone, memory foam is popular when it comes to aftermarket tips. Foam does a better job of conforming to the shape of the ear, exerts less pressure on the ear canal, and can provide superb noise isolation. (Foam ear-tip maker Comply can provide tips for most IEMs.) However, whereas silicone fittings typically last years, foam will require replacement sooner.

Custom-fit eartips are yet another option. These can be made of acrylic, silicone, or vinyl and are tailored to the wearer's ear. Though typically priced at $100 or more, custom eartips do not require replacement and offer a personalized fit for any ear shape.

georgebush's picture

Did I misunderstand?

I thought this blog loves custom iem's, but little enthusiasm for custom eartips?

ljokerl's picture

Custom tips are mentioned in the final paragraph. They are certainly a good idea if you know you're going to stick with a particular set of earphones for a long time and need the isolation and comfort they offer. The cost can be prohibitive, however, and with earphones that are sensitive to insertion depth it may take more than one attempt to get the custom tips right.

Amclaussen's picture

EXACTLY, well said ljokerl.

My personal experience with the certainly not inexpensive Shure 535's has been mixed.  I was expecting this article was going to help me, but unfortunately, it appears it won't (unless an adventurous fellow user helps me with a modification article on how to solve their -for me- design issues)

Even when they can sound quite good, their geometrical design leaves too much to be desired (for me).  Let me explain: I started using IEM's with the old and now forgotten Shure E-1, which had a terrible appearance but surprisingly good (if not extraordinary) results and outstanding performance/price ratio.

When Shure started to revamp their initial line, I thought: "well, If the single driver E-1 sounds so good, just wonder how their Three driver, top of the line model, would perform.."

After several years, I miss the absolutely superior comfort, easy of insertion, much better seal, and consistent results of my old E-1's... even when I have bought not one, but two 535's! (the first set I lost it because the stupidly designed OVAL shape carrying case is badly designed as it is very susceptible to slide out of one's pocket... incredibly, the ROUND case of the older E-1 model is much better designed since it was made from a coarser denier nylon material that WAS NOT as slippery as the newer material and the oval shape is easier to start slipping and slide out. And now that I remember, the old one had a round spool to quicky and neatly coil the cable on. The "new" one lacks it. So much for "progress").

But rants about the case apart, it is the SHORTER sound output tube, and it's improper angle PLUS the slick (slippier) and much fatter earphone body what causes this model to be MUCH LESS comfortable to my ear canals. By contrast, the funny, flesh colored, squarish body of the E-1's was VERY easy to grasp, a huge aid in getting them deeply inserted inside my ear canals, quickly getting a terrific seal and even avoiding touching my pinnae at all! (requiring to wear the left side in the right ear and viceversa, that gets them pointed away from the pinna). A case of style over function, I guess. Another consequence of the larger bodyof the 535's, is that they function this body style appears to act as a larger diaphragm, so that it picks up MORE of the outside noise, getting notably less isolation than the old E-1's!  Whether this is a result of sub-optimal sealing or the body acting as a diapragm, I'm still undecided, but the effect is easily confirmed when traveling in a passenger aircraft,  thus the "top of the line" model is not that good when one considers this.

In the end, I got tired of the short periods of time that I can bear the lack of comfort, and the difficulty of getting (and maintaining) a proper seal with the Shure 535. Thus, I resorted to ordering a pair of custom tips made by my local audiologist, believing that that SHOULD and would solve the difficult to get seal and to extend the useful time before my ear canals star to distract me too harchly from the music.

But it appears that my efforts had only partial sucess. Be aware that the silicon used by most audiologists is not that much dimensionally stable in the long run, as my pair of custom molded tips have lost a tiny (but critical) size or volume after less than a year of use (two to three sessions a week), as there is some unavoidable shrinkage in the material.  As you properly said, it is a matter of chance and dexterity from the person casting the ear molds in order to get them properly made and translated to the final custom tips, taking more than one attempt to get them right.  As a final note, the audiologist made the comment that the 535's appeared to have a too short output tube compared to the old E-1's, and that the angle is NOT the best possible (She tried them without any tip mounted on several persons, to see if the angle was favorable or not really). The much more bulky body doesn't help too, as it presses against the lower-rear part of the pinnae, a consecuence of making the body too large for someone with smaller than average ears, in order to "fit" more drivers. If the 535's fit comfortably in YOUR ears, congratulations, they are higly recommended, but try them first for at least half an hour before laying out their heavy price. As most dealers would argue that you cannot try them on "for sanitary reasons", buying a bag of foam ear tips is a cheap insurance. I regret not didn't do that. Amclaussen.

AstralStorm's picture

You could:

- Get Comply P-100 or P-100 Slim - these are long foam tips, fit SE-535 and could help with the issue.

- Convert SE-535 into a fully custom IEM mold. Expensive, time consuming and needs a great technician to keep tonal qualities. I think Kozee could do this?

- Sell SE-535 and get something better. Yes, there are better IEMs at half the price.

andyj34's picture

Two years ago my beloved Shure SE530 became damaged and fortuantely the earphones were still within the two-year warranty period Shure sent me a replacement being the newer SE535 free of charge. Nice.

And that's where my problems began.

Owing to the new design - which is perfectly understandable as the previous model had a common fault of the cable becoming easily detached - I'm always having problems getting a perfect seal so much so that my other spare Shure SE-110 is preferrable for my daily commute and gym use.

Somehow the design of the (new) Shure SE535 results in the earphone not fit inside my ear correctly and even with comply tips, the sound quality is quite poor.

The treble and mid-range is good but the bass is very lacking almost as if the sub-woofer contained in these earphones is not working.

Should I get a custom mould or would I better getting a new Shure earphone or IEM from a different manufacturer?

ljokerl's picture

It sounds like you'd be better off getting something else. There are many great, low-priced options out there these days (in contast to four or even two years ago) that can hold or almost hold their own against the SE530/SE535. The new HiFiMan RE-400 (review coming soon) is one such earphone. The Philips Fidelio S1 from the wall of fame is another. The VSonic GR07 is yet another. In any case, you could sell your SE535 and still end up ahead after picking up a replacement. 

ljokerl's picture

Thanks for relaying your experience. I, too, am not a fan of the way the new Shures fit - for me it's the combination of "fat" cable connectors and the nozzle angle that causes discomfort over time. Unfortunately custom tips won't fix the sound tube angle issue.

I agree with  AstralStorm - have you thought of just giving up on the Shures and trying something else? Due to the fit issues you've had, even a poorer-performing earphone may still work better for you on the whole. 

castleofargh's picture

I wish I had bought 2 or 3 more of those q-jays when they were still availlable. b2 and stuff are nothing like them (sound and confort).

I was a little puzzled to discover that joker is tyll's secret twin ;)

ljokerl's picture

When Tyll said he would illustrate the article for me, I definitely imagined drawings.

skris88's picture

I have a Sennheiser HD600 and they are my reference for all other loudspeaker systems and head and earphones I listen to, and so far I've not hear a pair of IEMs with anything like even half the bass of the 600s; I am mindful the 600s are a touch warm sounding, but gosh they're nice!

I've just ordered a set of Comply foam eartips and hopefully that'll be the solution to this 'problem'.  Or perhaps my ears simply cannot get a reasonable sound balance with in ear monitors.  Stay tuned...  

fabiobueno's picture

Now I know why my SE535 was sounded muffled...

I've been using this method of push the tip for some days, and the sound is always clear now!

Mikerae's picture

I like the guide. :) Thank you for the information.