Value of sound of loudspeakers versus CIEMs

  1. Nejakabo
    How does sound quality compare for CIEMs and loudspeakers + amplifier in the 1000$ to 1500$ or € range? A pair of Bowers & Wilkins 686 S2 bookshelf speakers costs 900$ for example. Of course, you can buy used for loudspeakers. I am especially eager to compare new to make purchase ease more similar.
  2. JK1
    First of all, almost all stereo music recordings are made with the intention of being played back through speakers, with each ear hearing both the right and left channel, but with a slight delay and a slightly lower volume reaching the ear from the further speaker. Some sources have a crossfeed function which mixes in the opposite channel at a lower volume and with a slight delay to make headphone/earphone listening sound much more like listening with speakers. The parameters for the crossfeed are adjustable, both the decrease for the opposite channel, and the delay. IEMs no matter how open they are, will still not give you the large soundstage that speakers will give you, as with speakers your outer ear is also involved in the hearing process. with IEMs, generally the better the isolation, the worse the soundstage is.

    The potential problems with speakers are bothering others with your music, having a room shape that might not let you give the speakers good placement, having plenty of furniture in the room affecting the sound, and of course that the speakers aren't portable, while with a portable player and headphones or IEMs, you have total portability. With speakers though others can listen to the music.

    You left out two other choices, closed circumaural (around the ears) headphones, and open circumaural headphones. Closed headphones make my ears uncomfortably hot very quickly, while some others can tolerate it for longer. If you don't need to block out ambient noise, open circumaural headphones are great for comfort and for soundstage. Open circumaural headphones don't tend to have as much bass impact as most closed ones though. My choice for home listening is an open circumaural headphone. The Sennheiser ones are nice.

    I am not a fan of custom IEMs. It seems like most are quite fragile, more fragile than off the shelf IEMs costing much less. Some people find all IEMs to be uncomfortable, while others find some of them to be comfortable. My experience is that the most comfortable IEMs are those with the nozzle coming out at a 45 degree angle. My guess is that on average IEMs will cost around half the price of a circumaural headphone with comparable sound quality. The headphone will last much longer than the IEMs though.
    castleofargh likes this.
  3. cossix
    JK1 put it perfectly and I would agree. You are really comparing apples to oranges here. Speakers will generally have better sound than any IEMs but it's all depends on your listening environment. In an ideal world, if somebody had the primary goal of listening to music in a way that sounds most natural and realistic, they would use speakers every time. But obviously, people can't just snap their fingers and teleport into a perfectly engineered room with expensive bookshelf speakers and a heavy-ass speaker amplifier. IEMs and headphones can definitely be considered a compromise. If I had to throw around blanket statements, speakers are the best, headphones are second best, IEMs are the third best. The further you go down that list, the more compromises are being made.

    It's almost like asking "which is better, a movie theater or a cell phone?" you'd have to be more specific in your question.
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2017
  4. Nejakabo
    It was good for the thread to include circumaural, but it is not of interest for me because I have begun wearing spectacles/glasses.
    What I could have included are earbuds.

    My Beyerdynamic headphones lasted about half a year. Afterwards, the padding was too compacted and long wearing hurts the ear. I expect a CIEM shall last longer than that.

    I looked at circumaural/'around the ear' headphones today and if I did buy some, I think I can get very good sound quality for 150€ -- but good padding, I don't know. For me, it is not a good option as long as I wear glasses.

    The input that 'speakers will generally have better sound' is the useful kind of information I am looking for. Thanks for the sound ranking.

    How about earbuds versus IEMs?
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2017
  5. buke9
  6. Nejakabo
    I do not miss crossfeed. -- so that is not an evaluation criteria for preferring loudspeakers to me.
  7. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    I wouldn't really compare them that way, they're designed for totally different situations. You can take the CIEMs anywhere and they have a wider response range within their intended use, ie, in your ears, but they're not exactly going to reproduce recordings as they were recorded for playback with both ears hearing both drivers in-room. And despite a wider response that goes down to 20hz without hitting its -3dB point, they're blowing bass directly into your ear canals. That seems like you'll perceive bass to be louder, but not to most people who, especially if they have a background with speakers, have their perception grounded on feeling the bass drum beating their chest, something even a 6in standmount can do well if you're not sitting much farther than 1m away from both speakers.

    Basically, if you can't have both, choose based on how you'd use them, not on what will be "better" because they're difficult to compare properly.
  8. Nejakabo
    The frequency response of what sounds flat for a CIEM is not going to be the same as for a speaker though.
    For headphones, it looks similar to this.
    For CIEMs, it is a mystery (to me and most people).
  9. castleofargh Contributor
    I have like a dozen pair of IEMs(most are cheap), and couldn't think of living without IEMs. but at the same time it never even crossed my mind to use IEMs in the house. they're my nomad buddies.
    right now to give an idea about my views on the worth of the respective audio tools, I have a pair of not expensive powered speakers like so many exist nowadays, and love using them. at night as not to be a jerk to my neighbors, I stop and move on to using headphones. and it's such a downgrade for me that I can't wait to get the Smyth Realiser A16 that costs more than my headphone and speaker together, just so that I'll be able to try and simulate speakers while using headphones(still missing the tactile bass, but hopefully the rest should be convincing).
    so every gear plays an important part in my life, but if making noise isn't a problem, get a pair a speakers is my sincere advice.
  10. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    Hence my point about perception. A flat response is a flat response, but a listener's perception of what that sounds like for a speaker is helped by in-room bass behaviour, primarily that the air being moved by the speakers will pound the listener's chest and body. This is what you can't get on headphones that makes people think the bass is weak or that bone conduction is still not enough (it's shaking the bones around the ear, not the ribcage). Hence what "sounds" flat to to the listener will be different for each, regardless of measurement, because perception. You either get a response akin to the LCD-2 pre-Fazor for what will seem like it's flat or just accept that it isn't going to pound your chest.

    And again, bottomline, they're for different use cases, so I wouldn't compare their performance, not even in terms of value for money. If you can use speakers then use speakers. If you'll be walking around or at work then spend on the CIEMs. If you can afford having both then get both.
  11. knopi
    Hard to give answer. Everything needs good knowledge and speaker system is not exception, more over there are many speakers and with your budget speaker will be compromise.

    I would say get CIEM, you will get good sound and maybe in terms of enjoying it can be for you as good as much more expensive any audio thing.

    For speaker you would need good place, good recordings, overall good sound from speaker can be much more expensive than you think. But if you have all of this solved why not.
  12. uoods
    Like others have already said, it's an apples to oranges comparison. IEMs, for me and many others, give the best compromise for listening while out and about. Personally I've gotten so used to them that I enjoy them at home as well, alongside my full-sized open cans. It just depends on my mood.

    Before less expensive planars were available, IEMs provided the most analytical sound at $1000 or less that I had heard, and I enjoy that sound signature quite a bit, so IEMs and CIEMs were the natural choice.

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