IEMs vs. Earbuds: What Are IEMs? Are They Better Than Earbuds?

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Listening is a very personal experience. Whether you’re jamming to your favorite playlist, watching movies, or immersing yourself in some gameplay, audio plays a massive role in elevating the overall experience.

While most of us aren’t audio engineers and don’t understand its technicalities, we can still distinguish between different sound qualities via how they make us feel. This article will compare IEMs and earbuds to find out which gives the best audio quality and listening experience.

Who Are They Made For?

In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) are earphones used by audiophiles, composers, audio engineers, and live performers. They are made of premium materials such as acrylic, metal, and resin alongside plastic. As the name suggests, they are tucked inside your ear canal and allow audio monitoring to mix and master tracks in a professional studio, hear music with exceptional clarity, and more.

IEMs-in-a-studio

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Earbuds, like the AirPods, are made for the masses and hence used by pretty much everybody. They sit on your outer ear and have an all-plastic body, making them lightweight and ideal for long listening sessions. Since they are made for the general public, earbuds usually come in standardized shapes and sound configurations.

Which Has Better Noise Isolation?

Since the IEM tips go inside your ear, they offer better passive noise isolation and are less likely to fall out from your ear (assuming you find a good fit). Along with regular silicon ear tips, they also come with memory foam ear tips and specialized two or three-pronged ear tips that help form a proper seal and a tighter grip.

5-IEMs-in-a-row

Image Credit: Joshua Valour

All this effort to block ambient noise is necessary for live performers because stages are really loud, and prolonged exposure to that noise level can cause chronic ear-ringing. In fact, IEMs were invented specifically for band members because they couldn’t hear what they were playing due to all the cheering from the crowd.

For performers, a pair of reliable IEMs is an investment for their career. After all, you can’t afford to have your show ruined just because your earphones suck. That’s why IEMs are built to have significantly better passive noise isolation compared to most earbuds.

Which Has Better Sound Quality?

Since IEMs are made for audio monitoring purposes, they have more clarity, detail, depth, and definition than most earbuds. And because they have better noise isolation, they feel louder too. Often, we increase the volume on our earbuds not because they aren’t loud enough but to drown out ambient noise.

AirPods Pro close-up

Many audiophiles and reviewers recommend IEMs over earbuds because they allow them to listen to songs the way the artist intended, i.e., without any sort of ‘coloring’ or over-the-top manipulation.

You see, earbuds usually have a V-shaped sound signature, meaning they are designed to sound playful and upbeat but not necessarily detailed and pure. Think Beats by Dre, Skullcandy, Galaxy Buds, and AirPods.

Related: Headphone Sound Signatures and How to Pick Your Favorite

But when you’re up on the stage performing or in a studio recording tracks, it’s crucial to have all aspects of a track available for you to judge. Every beat, every nuance, and every texture in the song has to be represented accurately to avoid any misinterpretation or fumbling. Earbuds simply don’t offer this level of detail.

IEMs-on-a-table

Image Credit: Joshua Valour

Another big difference between IEMs and earbuds is that the latter only comes with dynamic drivers, whereas IEMs come with various drivers. The most common of which are dynamic and balanced armature drivers or a combination of both.

Related: Types of Headphone Drivers and How They Differ

You see, in earbuds, the dynamic drivers are forced to handle all the frequencies (lows, mids, and highs) on their own, which is not efficient. Dynamic drivers tend to handle lower frequencies (bass and sub-bass) well, but they fall apart quickly when handling higher frequencies (treble).

But by using a combination of dynamic and balanced armature drivers (and other, more rare kinds), IEMs distribute the workload. This allows assigning of particular frequencies to their appropriate driver—resulting in cleaner and more accurate sound.

So Should I Just Buy a Pair of IEMs Then?

three TWS earbuds on display

Well, not necessarily. It depends entirely on you and your listening preferences, budget, and lifestyle. For most people, earbuds get the job done really well and are really easy to use and convenient to carry.

Plus, a good pair of IEMs cost more than your average $20 earbuds. Unless you know what you’re doing, buying IEMs can prove to be a bad purchase decision. In comparison, earbuds are an easy pick if you don’t want to bother with all the technicalities and want something that works well enough.

Related: The Best Wireless Earbuds for Android

That said, if you are interested in audio and open to trying out new things at the cost of losing a bit of convenience, IEMs can be a great purchase. They usually sound better in terms of detail, last longer, fit more comfortably, and come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations.

In fact, you can even get IEMs tailor-made to your ears, like artists do. They are called CIEMs or Custom In-Ear Monitors. They are made by scanning your ears to create a 3D image of all the folds and ridges. This data is then used to mold your CIEMs to fit your ears like no other pair of earphones in the world can.

Of course, CIEMs are costly, ranging anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, as every pair is one of a kind. Hence, they are only used by people who work with audio for a living.

But My Phone Has No Jack. I Can’t Use IEMs.

Final-Audio-IEMs

Image Credit: Joshua Valour

Yes, you can. The great thing about IEMs is that although they are wired earphones, they have detachable cables. So you can unplug the standard 3.5mm cables they come with and plug in an external third-party Bluetooth module. That way, you can enjoy high-quality sound from your IEMs without the hassle of fumbling with the cables.

Also, an added benefit of having detachable cables is that if they ever get damaged or lost (or you simply want a new color), you can just buy new cables instead of a whole new pair of IEMs, saving money. TWS earbuds, on the other hand, need to be replaced if any one component malfunctions—making them obsolete quickly.

Related: What Is Planned Obsolescence? How Brands Keep You Buying

Are IEMs Worth the Money?

IEMs-on-audio-system

Image Credit: Joshua Valour

If you’re considering buying a pair of IEMs after reading all the above comparisons, we have good news for you. IEMs used to be pretty expensive because they were never intended for the general public in the first place but only artists, professionals, and engineers.

However, in recent times, IEMs have become ridiculously cheap thanks to the entry of Chinese manufacturers. Today, you can find a decent pair of IEMs for under $30. And for the price of AirPods, you can get professional IEMs that are far better in sound quality and built to last you a long time.


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