As the name suggests, custom in-ear monitors, or CIEMs, are earphones crafted to fit one, and only one set of ears perfectly: yours.
Originally a niche product used by performing artists and sound engineers in the music industry, they've become an increasingly accessible and affordable product for the everyday music enthusiast.
Clear shells reveal the intricate design found within a Custom In-Ear Monitor
To explain the concept of CIEMs, let's take a quick trek into the realm of fashion. Off-the-rack suits are a common purchase for young men entering college. After finding a likeable product that's about your size, tailoring the suit is the next step; shortening the sleeve length, adjusting the waist size, and hemming the pant legs are all commonly used methods to optimize fit on a mass-produced article of clothing.
For the fashion-minded individuals seeking the best money can buy, a custom suit is the ultimate. By taking exact measurements of your body and allowing you to choose between different fits and styles cut and sewn just for you, the suit will perfectly fit all the parts of your body that are unique to you: slender or bulky shoulders, wiry or muscular arms, slender or thick thighs- a customized suit can handle it all.
Universal IEMs work in much the same way as off-the-rack suits. You can choose the right ear tips that best suit your needs or swap out cables for the right length and flexibility. Some IEMs even offer interesting tuning options in the form of a switch or parts you can add or remove. However, the shell of the product is something that can't be changed- you're stuck with the form factor that is offer
The Shure 846 features nozzle inserts and a removable metal nozzle that allow the listener to adjust the sound signature
CIEMs, on the other hand, start with getting ear impressions done at an audiologist. The impressions are then sent to the manufacturer, whose technicians work on sculpting CIEM shells from the molds you provided them. When it's completed and sent back to you, the custom IEM should fit perfectly into your ears, filling unique nooks and crannies for a comfortable, tight seal and allowing for comfortable sessions of audio bliss.
A mold of a CIEM prior to being filled with the drivers and wires it needs to produce sound
Sounds quite promising so far, right? Hold your horses, as it should be noted that CIEMs are not for everyone. First off, expect to shell out a good amount of money for a top-of-the-line product. Also, those with a tiny ear concha might want to take a pass because the drivers used in CIEMs are sizeable, so your ears have to be big enough to accommodate them. A lead time prior to receiving the product, a difficult replacement process, and low resale value round out the reasons why you'll want to think long and hard before plunking down the cash.
Crafting Custom In-Ear Monitors to fit precisely into human ears is an art
As someone who has heard the best universals and has owned more than a few pairs of custom IEMs, I believe that customs bring something to the table that you just can't get anywhere else.
The unparalleled comfort and fantastic fit, the gorgeous design and artwork, the stories you strike up with curious individuals as you take them with you everywhere, and, of course, the sound quality are all great reasons why you should experience custom IEMs for yourself.
Want to learn more? Luckily for you, I reached out to folks in the CIEM industry to grill them on their CIEM knowledge.
Thank you very much for taking the time today to discuss Custom In-Ear Monitors (CIEMs) with our Massdrop members. Please start by introducing yourself.
Mike:Thank you for having us. We're honored to be a part of Massdrop. As way of an introduction, I'm Mike Dias, the Global Sales Director for Ultimate Ears Pro and I've been working with in-ear monitors for the last 12 years. I've made a career out of working with and interviewing sound engineers, digital pioneers, and musicians. I'm constantly trying to better understand how in-ears are used by professionals and audiophiles and I'm delighted to share some of this knowledge with your members.
Piotr:My name is Piotr (Peter) Granicki and I am the founder of Custom Art - a company specializing in silicone Custom In-Ear Monitors.
Let's start with what has to be the most frequently asked question. What advantages and disadvantages do custom IEMs have compared to their universal counterparts?
Mike:To me, this is like asking what the difference is between buying a suit at Ross versus having your own suit custom-tailored for you. It's about comfort. Fit. Feel. Style. Panache. And most importantly, it's about performance. The better an earphone fits you, the better it will sound. This has to do with how the low-end frequencies are perceived. Since most in-ears work with balanced armatures rather than dynamic coils, the frequency response is dependent upon the seal for low-end resonance. The better the seal, the fuller the sonic experience.
Piotr:The most obvious advantage is fit. Custom molded monitors, provided that the audiologist made good ear impressions, will fit like a glove and will cause no discomfort during long periods of use. Custom IEMs simply "disappear" in your ears. Good fit and comfort result as well in increased isolation, which improves the overall listening experience. The main disadvantage of universal earphones is limited space and limited tuning possibilities. But the real difference in listening experience is always very hard for me to describe. Custom IEMs create soundstage and imaging that can only be matched (but still not completely) by only the most expensive universal earphones.
Because it's a custom product, ear impressions have to be taken to mold the CIEMs. What instructions should I give an audiologist to make sure they do it correctly?
Mike:You'll want to print out and takethis sheet (https://pro.ultimateears.com/media/misc/audiologist-instructions.pdf)with you. It will explain everything.
Piotr:The best advice is to check instructions with the manufacturer of the CIEM you are going to purchase. Each manufacturer has slightly different requirements and only by following those instructions will you get the best fit from your custom molded monitors. We ask our customers for impressions with open mouth stabilized with bite-block, past the second bend of ear canal. It's also necessary to include full concha in the print, as many audiologists are used to making impressions for hearing aids and those two types of impressions are typically different.
We see a lot of musical artists perform while wearing CIEMs on stage. Why do so many people use them, and what are the benefits in doing so while putting on a show?
Mike:IEMs were originally designed for stage use. Audiophiles were simply a clever bunch who realized just how good IEMs sound and figured that if they were good enough for musicians making music, then they'd certainly be good enough for listening to music. But first and foremost, they are tools of the trade. IEMs replaced traditional wedge speakers and now, musicians even use them in the recording studio and when mixing albums. The fidelity, consistency, and reliability have become industry standards.
Piotr:Custom monitors are the perfect solution for stage. Without them, musicians are exposed to high sound pressure levels during their performance and are in danger of substantial hearing loss after some time. Custom monitors also allow you to achieve a desirable mix for each individual person on stage, something you cannot do with speakers or at least not that easily.
Tell me about the materials that can be used to create the shell of the CIEM. What is considered the optimal material?
Mike:We use a nonreactive / non-allergenic acrylic that was pioneered in the hearing-aid world. And we form the shells with our proprietary 3D printing process so that it fits perfectly into your ear for maximum comfort and durability.
Piotr:In the industry, the most popular material is acrylic, which is basically plastic cured under UV light. Acrylic creates hard shells and allows for high volume production with the same shell properties, such as wall thickness or color. The second most popular material is silicone, which is much softer than acrylic, but it is harder to post-process and much more complicated for designing monitors. Both material used by professional manufacturers are bio-compatible medical grade and are designed for safe direct contact with skin.
Will the same CIEM sound different to people based on their ear shape and depth? How is the product engineered and tuned to ensure consistency?
Mike:That's a great question. Thank you for asking. We actually tune each and every earpiece based on peoples' ear shape. This is part of the handcrafted process. Not only are the earphones built to fit your own unique anatomy, they are also tuned for you. By understanding where your eardrum is and how all the different sound frequencies will interact, we adjust the internal components to always meet our golden curves.
Piotr:In theory, yes that can happen. People have different ear canals, which can alter sound waves, or they perceive sound slightly different. However, typically those differences are not extreme. We measure each unit we make using certified ear simulators to ensure that our monitors hit target frequency response. This way we know that at least in non-subjective categories, each monitor we ship is the same.
Can you explain what drivers are, and how they are used in CIEMs?
Mike:Another great question. Drivers are just another term for speakers. The speakers that we use are precision balanced armatures and these are very different than the speakers that are in your car or home. These act much more like piano strings vibrating at variable frequencies. And just like woofers and tweeters, we split the frequency range up and have different armatures focus on different parts of the spectrum. But here's the slippery slope. Many manufactures have gone down the rabbit hole of simply cramming more and more drivers into a finite space. But in truth, the driver count is irrelevant. Drivers are simply the tools that we manufactures use to sculpt the sonic nuances that we want you to hear. It's about the music - what you feel and experience - not about the number of speakers per ear.
Piotr:Drivers are speakers that are put inside the shell of custom monitors. Drivers create the sound you hear from your earpiece.
How important is the number of drivers in determining sound quality? Can a 3 driver CIEM really sound as good as an 8 or 10 driver CIEM?
Mike:Ask a painter if the number of pigments they use makes a difference. Or if you prefer a more technical answer, once you reach a certain threshold in any emergent technology, the rest is diminishing returns.
Piotr:This is a tricky question and to answer, it is both "yes and no".
Yes, the number of drivers matters because more drivers means you can create more detailed sound. More drivers also allows you to control sound better - e.g. you get separate receivers for lows, separate for mid-lows, another for mids, upper mids, highs, etc.. With say two drivers you can only control two parts of the spectrum. Typically for higher number of speakers, manufacturers use dual drivers, which are two single drivers stuck together with one sound outlet. Dual drivers have two basic advantages 1. higher SPL (they are louder than a single unit), 2. they offer lower vibration, which translates into lower distortion and thus clearer, more detailed sound.
No, it doesn't matter, because good sounding 3 or 4 drivers will always outperform poorly designed 10 driver IEMs. It all comes down to tuning and how accurate the engineer behind the monitor was able to tune each driver. Tuning monitors with a high driver count is much more difficult because it creates more potential problems such as phase or delay issues. Careful selection of drivers is also crucial here.
What is the average life expectancy of a CIEM? What can I do to increase the lifespan of mine?
Mike:We see IEM's out in the field from over 12 years ago. Our warranty is one of the best in the business and if you ever need anything after the 1 year warranty period expires, we have a flat rate repair fee. For everything. Anything you need is only $99. No questions asked.
Piotr:Typically 4-5 years. After that time it would be advised to do a refit for the sake of comfort as the ear can change slightly. Drivers should work for 10 years or more if they are taken care of. We advise our customers to store monitors in a closed case with a drying pellet (supplied with our products). For customers living in humid areas or using monitors in stage conditions, we advise getting hearing aid dryers, which use warm air to get rid of any moisture gathering inside of the monitor.
As a fun question to end on, can you share a picture of your own personal CIEM and any story or background behind it?
Mike:I have the UERMs. I actually just got them a few weeks ago. I've been the Sales Director since January but I wanted to wait until we got our turnaround time down to 5 business days before I put my own order in. I didn't want to jam up the lab queue. The wait was worth it! Say, if anyone reading this piece gets as excited as I hope they do and wants to keep talking shop or asking more questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The best part about having custom IEM's is talking about them.
Piotr:I can share a picture of my Music Two. The story behind it? Well I just wanted to make something unique looking and so I made the Music Two to be able to hear what my customers were hearing. The rest of my CIEMs are prototypes and other early versions of final products so I would not be sharing them.
"The Benefits of Custom In-Ear Monitors" was written by community member Daniel Lui (https://www.massdrop.com/profile/Danny_Liu).