“How do I choose good in-ear monitors for drummers and casual music listeners?” “Did I buy the best pair for my money?” If you find yourself asking any of these questions, throughout this article, we’ll share with you how to assess in-ear monitors to get the best sound quality and fit.
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Why Do You Need to Test In-Ear Monitors?
There are currently two main reasons why testing IEMs is necessary:
Reason #1: Defects
Like other products, in-ear monitors could have some type of manufacturing defect or could gradually stop working properly. Testing could help you identify any issues that your in-ear monitor might have and look for the best ways to fix them. Three of the most common issues of in-ear monitors [Common Problems With In-Ear Monitors] are fit and comfort issues, a faulty cable, and channel imbalance.
Reason #2: Sound Signatures
All of us have different tastes in music. In-ear monitors match your musical taste by adopting a specific sound signature. There are currently five sound signatures:
- V-Shaped or Colored – This sound signature accentuates the high and low frequencies. If you love listening to pop or hip-hop music, this sound signature is for you. But if you’re an audio purist, you most probably won’t recommend this because many musical instruments produce mid-range frequencies.
- Flat or Neutral – When all of the frequencies are equal, it means that the sound signature is flat or neutral. Or in layman’s term, you’re listening to what was exactly recorded. This is the sound signature preferred by most artists and audio engineers because it helps them to correctly mix the music they make [How To Mix In-Ear Monitors].
- Bright – For this sound signature, the highs (treble) and upper mids are amazing. The downsides are it’s fatiguing to the ears and annoying to listen to because song imperfections are more pronounced.
- Warm or Smooth – This sound signature slightly emphasizes the low and mid frequencies, without overpowering the higher frequencies. This allows you to listen to songs from different genres (jazz, rock, soul, and R&B) for long periods, without suffering from ear fatigue.
- Bass-Heavy or Dark – The bass-heavy sound signature, as you guessed, puts more emphasis on low frequencies and decreases the highs. The downside is the bass and sub-bass are overpowering, compromising clarity and details.
3 Tips for Testing In-Ear Monitors
There are many things you need to think about when testing in-ear monitors. Consider the following testing tips the next time you’re shopping for a new pair of IEM, or if you just want to know if your old pair is still working properly.
Do a Comparison Test
It’s difficult to quantify the performance of an in-ear monitor by analyzing the specs alone. One of the best things you could do is to compare the in-ear monitor that you want to buy to another in-ear monitor. Your reference model could be in the same price category or higher.
Doing a comparison test in a store is one thing, but it’s a whole different challenge if you’re going to compare IEMs online. How do you perform an online comparison test?
Here a few things to consider when comparing in-ear monitors:
- Don’t depend on specs too much. Impedance, noise attenuation, sensitivity, sound pressure level (SPL), frequency response, and so on serve only as your guides. They don’t tell you everything. For instance, a frequency range of 20Hz to 18,000Hz doesn’t say if it’s boosted or cut, which manufacturers do to varying degrees.
- You could read reviews from audiophile blogs and a range of customers (like Amazon customers and forum members). But not all reviews are created equal. When filtering the good ones from the bad ones, ask yourself these questions:
- Did the reviewer compare the in-ear monitor you want to similar models? (The more reference models, the better.)
- Did the reviewer solicit the opinions of other industry experts or other good IEM reviewers? (Since everyone has different comfort levels and hears in-ear monitors slightly differently, it’s good to get the opinions of others.)
Listen to Songs
Comparison test is just one of the simplest and most basic ways of testing the performance of IEMs. Most audiophiles have a list of songs that they use to test in-ear monitors before buying in order to pick out their flaws and good features.
For this type of test, you’ll use the same song when comparing two or more in-ear monitors. You go back and forth a couple of times in order to identify their differences. Remember: focus on a specific feature, such as the treble (high frequency), mid-range frequency, and bass.
So, what songs should you use to test a new in-ear monitor? You can use songs from different genres, but ideally, they should be acoustic with vocals.
However, the main deciding factor is your personal preferences. The best songs are those that you frequently listen to because you’re familiar with their structure. This makes it easier to assess an in-ear monitor because you already have an expected output.
We’ve put together some of the best tracks from different genres to help you identify the highlights of your in-ear monitor:
- Gnarls Barkley – Crazy
- Evanescence – My Immortal
- Train – She’s on Fire
- Vaughan Williams – Tallis Fantasia
- Sarah McLachlan – Time
- Kenji Kawai – Making of Cyborg (Ghost in the Shell Soundtrack)
- James Taylor – Something in the Way She Moves
- Rufus Wainwright – Hallelujah
- David Guetta feat. Sia – Titanium
- Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now
- The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army
- Lucinda Williams – Fruits of My Labor
- Johnny Cash – Hurt
- London Symphony Orchestra – Pachelbel Canon
- Moby – James Bond Theme
- Florida Georgia Line – Can’t Say I Ain’t Country
- Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 2
- Dallas Wind Symphony – Lord, Save Thy People
- Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name
While listening to your preferred audio tracks for testing your IEM, ask yourself, “Does the treble in this audio track make you want to lower the volume?” If yes, this is a bad sign. Do the bass notes have a distinct tone and great thumping? Is the vocal quality clear and intelligible? If yes, it’s a good thing.
Use IEM Test Apps and Tools
If you want to be more accurate and get a more detailed picture of your IEM’s features and performance, try using a full suite of test apps. What are the benefits of using these test applications?
They allow you to test your in-ear monitor equipment more than once during a normal, slow day.
They make it easier to check frequencies, network connections, and signal flows (analog or digital), among others.
You can also use these apps to check IEMs for damage before forwarding them to repair.
They might be beneficial for you if you find it difficult to test custom in-ear monitors.
Or, if you want a faster way to compare different sets of IEMs, these apps could do that for you.
There are plenty of test apps for IEMs out there, and they’ll work better if paired with other tools. One of these tools is MiEMi (pronounced as Mimi).
It’s a small adapter (25 millimeters wide and 35 millimeters high) that’s designed to measure the frequency traces of custom and universal in-ear monitors at a given point in time where they work perfectly. You can use the data as a reference in case there are changes or errors to your IEM. If you’re an audio engineer, you can use it to compare in-ear monitors of the same brand and model and determine how close they are.
Note: A frequency trace refers to the shape of the signal strength over a predetermined frequency range in accordance with a set of predefined rules.
Things you’ll need to use the MiEMi adapter include:
- Standard size measurement mic (used for equally detecting sound from all directions and deliver flat and uncolored response to sound waves)
- Sound card (converts analog sound, such as from a microphone, to digital data)
- Measurement system
How to use it:
- Make sure your in-ear monitor is clean to avoid affecting your measurements.
- Insert it all the way, so it sits on top of your measurement mic.
- Push your in-ear monitor as far as possible into the rubber coupler. If your MiEMi adapter and in-ear monitor are too far apart, it affects the effective length of the adapter.
- Turn on your software to start getting a trace.
- Compare the measurement to your reference.
Driver Matching Test
Think of drivers as mini speakers. Although it doesn’t happen often, it’s still possible for in-ear monitors to have one or more faulty drivers, which could lead to channel imbalance. A channel imbalance happens when the defective earpiece has a lower or hollow sound.
In some cases, one of the earpieces of an IEM is unable to produce certain frequencies. This issue happens because the drivers are not matched properly from the factory or fail as time goes by.
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to diagnose this issue. There are resources online, such as AudioCheck.net, which offer free driver matching test. This type of IEM test delivers an equal level of frequency on both IEM earpieces. If they work properly, their drivers should have a uniform response to each frequency in the audible spectrum.
Frequency Response Test
Is your IEM unable to reproduce certain frequencies? If yes, you can use a tool that has frequency response or sweep feature.
A frequency response test creates sounds across a range of frequencies that the human ear can interpret. In some frequency response tests, different sound files test the bass extension and treble extension of your in-ear monitors. After hearing the underlying sweep tone, a voice over will tell you the frequency you’ve reached.
Shopping for the best in-ear monitors isn’t always as easy as analyzing the specs and clicking ‘Add to Cart.’ And if you want a more precise way of testing them, prepare to spend more.
We recommend starting with expert and consumer reviews. Don’t forget to download reference songs and sound test files to your smart phone or any portable audio player, so you can compare different in-ear monitors the next time you shop for a new pair.