Westone W80 with eight drivers, $1499.
Since the beginning of audio production, engineers have used full-sized headphones and speakers to monitor sound. Then in-ear monitors came along. At first, they were used by musicians on-stage. Now in-ear monitors are so good, many engineers use them for studio monitoring.
Though headphones are a mature category of pro audio product, tremendous advances have taken place in their design in recent years. Some tiny in-ear models have up to eight-drivers, which in itself is one of the marvels of modern technology manufacturing.
Sweetwater Sound, a major pro audio dealer based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, recently wrote an overview of the huge advances in miniature in-ear monitors. The rapid technology evolution opens a new window into advances in audio technology.
In-ear monitors split the audible spectrum into different bands that feed specialized drivers — just as a multi-speaker studio monitor. This results in very accurate sound. The biggest advantage, the company said, is that, unlike portable loudspeakers, your in-ears sound the same no matter where you need to mix.
For engineers who travel and mix on-location, the days of having to carry heavy speakers are now over. With the right ear monitors, mobile engineers always have a consistent, familiar sonic reference wherever they work.
Location engineers, Sweetwater noted, know how critical it is to have speakers or headphones they know and trust. To have in-ear references monitors that will fit in one’s pants pocket is a revolutionary and fundamental game-changer.
The best in-ear monitors use balanced-armature drivers that are more compact and efficient than the moving-coil drivers used in most loudspeakers. This technology allows for greater sonic accuracy in a compact space.
Also, the custom-molded housings on modern in-ear monitors are incredibly robust and will hold up to life on the road. The best in-ears offer durable, removable cables. This means a cable failure can be remedied in short order without sending the phones in for service.
Of course, not all in-ear monitors are created equal. Some models fit better than others, and some barely fit at all. If you wear in-ear monitors more than an hour a day, then having custom-molded monitors is the way to go.
Not only will they fit your ears perfectly, but you can wear them for hours. They’re so comfortable because they are created from a mold of your own ear canal.
Isolation is also a major issue for mixing and monitoring. The days of getting to make all of your critical sonic judgments in a purpose-built control room are fading fast. Now engineers are challenged with mixing and editing in more diverse, noisier, far-from-ideal places. These can include coffee shops, airplanes and live performance venues.
With the custom fit of molded in-ears, the engineer can effectively “turn down” outside noises by 10 to 30dB. This is a major benefit to working on location.
High-quality in-ear monitors are made by Westone, Shure, Etymotic Research, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica and others. Prices vary from $99 to over $1500. This is a case where finding the best fit is essential. Once the right model is chosen, it will change your professional life.
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