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Basic Guide To In Ear Canalphones

  1. ClieOS
    [Disclaimer]This guide may contain error(s) and is only meant to provide general / basic information for new in-ear-canalphones users. Some information within this guide has been copied or modified from the Etymotic, Shure, Headwize, Headroom and Wikipedia websites. Not all are referenced within the article, but links to the original pages have all been listed at the end (reference section). The credit and thanks goes to the original writer/companies for providing the information online and  for free. Thanks.

    This guide is also hosted at: InEarMatters.net. If you read Chinese / 中文, you can find the translated works here, thanks to a few good fellows @ erji.net.

    *Don't have time to read all of this here? A PDF version of this guide can be downloaded here.

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    • What is an In-Ear-Canalphone?
    • I thought IEM/canalphone is also called 'earbud'?
    • Why noise isolation and not Active Noise Cancellation?
    • Transducer types
    • Choosing the right eartips
    • Eartips’ size
    • Eartips: Factors for comfort
    • How to use your IEM
    • Cleaning and maintaining your IEM and eartips
    • Static Electricity Discharge through IEM
    • Is "burn in" or "break in" necessary for your IEM?
    • Is a headphone amp necessary for your IEM?
    • Microphonics and Bone Conduction
    • Hissing and Sibilance
    • Durability and Out-of-Warranty Issue
    • IEMs and Health
    • In regard to IEMs' frequency response
    • Are IEMs worth the money?
    • IEMs' basic Pros and Cons
    • OK, I have a budget now, what class of IEMs should I be looking at?
    • How about Custom Molded IEMs?
    • So I am ready to get some serious IEMs, which companies should I be looking at?
    • Reference
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    1. What is an In-Ear-Canalphone?
    [Basic components of an IEM]
    2. I thought IEM/canalphone is also called 'earbud'?
    4. Transducer types
    [Picture of dynamic transducer]

    Dynamic (moving coil) transducers are often found on low to entry class IEM due to their ease of availability and lower cost (relative to BA transducer). They commonly range from 8mm to 16mm in diameter. Dynamic transducers are 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’ low end bass more than actually hearing it. The downside of using dynamic transducer on IEMs is its larger size. It is also worth noting that many big brand name manufacturers use dynamic transducer of relatively low sound quality in their IEMs; therefore you should avoid most of them as much as possible if sound quality is your priority. Of course, there are also IEM manufacturers who specialize in producing high end dynamic transducer IEMs, most noticeably Future Sonics, one of the very first IEM manufacturers.

    [Pictures of BA transducer]

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

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

    For more info about transducers, please visit wikipedia.
    5. Choosing the right eartips
    [Eartips of various kind]

    Three types of eartips can be commonly found on IEMs: 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 the 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. The user selects the size of the eartips based on the comfort of the seal to their ears.

    Beside custom molds, foam tips are generally 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). Foam tips made by Comply are often considered to be the most comfortable. Comply also manufactures different types of foam tips for different IEMs. Unlike soft plastic tips, foam tips are often specific to the nozzle diameter and cannot be used on IEMs with a different nozzle diameter (unless a modification has been made).

    Shure black foam is one of most popular foam tips on the market as they are quite comfortable and designed to be user cleanable (see section: Cleaning and maintaining your IEMs 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 IEMs (or ‘custom IEMs’) where the transducers are part of the tips. However, custom molded tips can also be ordered to fit universal IEMs (IEMs that are designed to use soft plastic or foam tips). Recently, custom IEMs have become more and more popular in the mid-end IEM market too (like those found on Livewire and FREQ). The biggest advantage of custom molds 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 molds).

    For visual reference of different type of eartips, please visit this link.

    For visual reference of different IEMs' size, please visit this thread.
    6. Eartips’ size
    [Picture shows UE's eartips of various sizes]

    Choosing the correct tip size to use on your IEM ensures a perfect seal, which in turn translates into maximum comfort and high sound quality.

    Using a tip that is larger than needed often leaves the user with aburning sensation or pain in the ear canal within 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, the 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 having found the best fit, inserting a foreign object into the ear canal can feel very uncomfortable the first few times. In order to overcome this issue, a bit of patience is often needed in addition to choosing the correct type of tips of the right size.
    7. Eartips: Factors for comfort
    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 to what constitute comfort, it often will change with time. My advice to you is, give both yourself and your IEM some time before calling it quits – you might even fall in love with what you found to be uncomfortable at first.
    8. How to use your IEM
    1. For best results, moisten the soft plastic eartips before insertion.
    2. Using your right hand, grasp the eartip of the right IEM
    3. With your left hand, pull up and back on your right ear to straighten your ear canal.
    4. Carefully insert the right IEM so that it seals deeply and comfortably in your ear.
    5. Repeat procedure for the left ear, using the left IEM..
    6. 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.
    1. Compress the foam eartip by rolling it between your fingers.
    2. With the opposite hand, pull up and back on your ear to straighten your ear canal.
    3. Carefully insert the foam tip into the ear canal, holding the IEM in place until the foam expands to produce a seal.
    9. Cleaning and maintaining your IEM and eartips
    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.
    10. Static Electricity Discharge through IEM
    11. Is IEM "burn in" or "break in" necessary?
    12. Is a headphone amp necessary for IEMs?
    13. Microphonics and Bone Conduction
    14. Hissing and Sibilance
    16. IEMs and Health

    18. Are IEMs worth the money?
    19. IEM's basic Pros and Cons
    20. OK, I have a budget now, what class of IEM should I be looking at?
    [UE11 Pro, costing over US$1000]

    Generally speaking, custom molded IEMs are very high quality, but come with a high price tag. If you are not one of those who has an unlimited budget, budget customs like LiveWires or HearYourSelf.com are among some of the best budget custom IEM makers out there, providing quality products with the advantage of custom while costing 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 kits are very simple to use, but often the impression isn't as good as those from a professional. Trying to save money and time by using a DIY kit will sometimes end up costing you more time and money as you will need to redo the impression again and again to get a good fit. It has been long regarded that soft mold is superior for making earmolds, even among professionals. However, scientific researches back in 2001 and 2003 points out that as long as the impression is taken correctly and the ear mold manufacturer is competent, there is no distinct advantage (at least not to what was commonly believed) between soft and hard mold regarding seal and comfort. More than often, the process and technique of taking the impression play a large part in getting the custom ear mold right in the first time.

    2) Unlike universal IEMs, the product life cycle (how long you are expected to use the product) of custom IEMSs is quite short, often estimated to be less than 4 yrs. The reason is, your ears will keep growing / changing till you kick the dust, therefore your ears will change in a couple of years rendering your customs useless as they will no longer fit your ears. 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 life. Note, many IEM companies do not re-shell / remold old IEM, thus you should ask the corresponding company about details of remolding service before ordering. There are companies in the market that do provide reshelling service for custom IEMs from another company, or even turning universal IEMs into customs.

    Of course, there are exceptions, and there are people who are able to use their custom for more than 4 years. The experience varies from person to person in different age groups, thus there is no definite answer to how long your custom will fit your ears.
    22. So I am ready to get some serious IEMs, which companies should I be looking at?
    1. AIAIAI
    2. AKG
    3. Apple
    4. Atomic Floyd
    5. Audio-Technica
    6. BeyerDynamics
    7. Bose
    8. Brainwavz by MP4Nation
    9. Creative
    10. Cresyn (Korea)
    11. CrossRoads (Singapore)
    12. Denon
    13. DUNU (China)
    14. EarSonics (France)
    15. ECCI (China)
    16. Etymotic
    17. Final Audio Design (Japan)
    18. Fischer Audio (Russia)
    19. Future Sonics
    20. Grado
    21. Head-Direct / HiFiMAN
    22. Hippo (Singapore)
    23. j-phonic (Japan)
    24. JAYS
    25. JVC
    26. Kenwood
    27. Klipsch
    28. Maximo
    29. MEElectronics
    30. Microsonic Music
    31. Monster
    32. NuForce
    33. Ortofon (Japan)
    34. OVC (China)
    35. Phiaton
    36. Phonak (Swiss)
    37. Radius (Japan)
    38. Sennheiser
    39. Shure
    40. Sleek Audio
    41. SonoCore (Korea)
    42. Sony
    43. SoundMAGIC (China)
    44. Spider
    45. SunRise-Audio (Vietnam)
    46. Thinksound
    47. Ultimate Ears
    48. V-moda
    49. ViSang (China)
    50. Vsonic (China)
    51. Westone
    52. Woodees
    53. Xears (Germany)

    Custom IEM brand list:
    1. 1964 Ears (with reshell service, U.S.)
    2. Advanced Communication Solutions (UK)
    3. Alien Ears (with reshell service, U.S.)
    4. Ambient Acoustics (Ukraine)
    5. Canal Works (Japan)
    6. Clear Tune Monitors
    7. Compact Monitors (Germany)
    8. DRM Earz
    9. E.A.R. inc.
    10. EarPower (Italy)
    11. EarSonics (France)
    12. EarSound Customs
    13. Fabulous Earphones (Germany)
    14. Fidelity Custom Earphones
    15. Fisher Hearing (with reshell service, U.S.)
    16. FitEar (Japan)
    17. Future Sonics
    18. Insono (France)
    19. JH Audio
    20. Kozee Solution (with reshell service, U.S.)
    21. LiveWires
    22. Microsonic Music
    23. Minerva Hearing Protection (UK)
    24. Puretone Music
    25. Rooth (with resehll service, China, via Japan distributor)
    26. Sensaphonics
    27. Sleek Audio (with custom artwork service)
    28. Spiral Ear (Poland)
    29. StarKey
    30. Thousand Sound (China)
    31. Ultimate Ears
    32. Unique Melody (with reshell service, China)
    33. WanXuan (Hong Kong)
    34. Westone
    35. Xtreme Ears (Brazil)

    The above list is not exclusive. There will always be new and better IEM and manufacturers waiting for us to discover, so check out the forum and our sponsor's website regularly. If you wish to see a company tadded to the list, please don't hesitate to reply and request.
    ***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 the new brand name "Fidelity Custom Earphones" while producing what seems to be the same dual driver IEMs (plus new models as well).

    23. Reference:
    1. Dean MS, Martin FN, 2000. Insert earphone depth and the occlusion effect. American Journal of Audiology 9: 131-4.
    2. Federman J, Picou E, 2009. Music and hearing protection: A call to action. Perspectives on Audiology 5(1): 3-9.
    3. 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.
    4. Fligor BJ, 2007. Hearing loss and iPods:What happens when you turn them to 11? The Hearing Journal 60(10): 10-6.
    5. 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.
    6. Oliviera R, Babcock M, Venem M, Hoeker G, Parish B, Vasant K. 2005. The dynamic ear canal and its implications. Hearing Review: 12(2): 18-19,82.
    7. Palmer CV, 2009. Affecting life-long habits of school-age musicians. Perspectives on Audiology 5(1): 21-7.
    8. Pirzanski C, 2001. Earmolds: Are soft materials superior?. The Hearing Journal 54(7): 36-42.
    9. Pirzanski C, Berge B. 2003. An ear impression technique that works. Hearing Review.10(4):18-20,80.
    10. Pirzanski C, Berge B, 2005. Ear canal dynamics: Facts versus perception. The Hearing Journal 58(10): 50-8.
    11. Wikipedia -headphones
    12. Wikipedia -Psychoacoustics

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  1. ballaz
    Very helpful indeed.
    Another newbie here, to say thanks very much for this article. A great starting point, and plenty of links on where to get more information.
  3. r0msk1
    an article worth reading to enlighten newbies like me. thanks!
  4. shksa
    Many thanks
  5. Bboy500
    Great guide :) Thanks.
  6. haomru
    Wow man! really great tuto!
  7. ipush
    awesome job!
  8. kamoteFX
     thanks nice thread
  9. Tallulah
  10. Stradivarius
    Much appreciated!