Here are nine tips to consider when it comes to selecting the best options for headphones and EIMs:
Sound Quality – As I said earlier in this post, sound quality is subjective to the individual. What sounds great for my style is more than likely different (maybe just a little bit) from yours. The best advice when testing sound quality is to select the music you are most familiar with. Also, choose artists and music styles from various genres, like Classical, Country, Hip Hop, R & B, Rap and even spoken audio files.
Judge the Output Critically – Ask yourself all of the typical questions and make a note of them. It’s too difficult to try to remember specifics of this nature when sampling more than two brands or price points.
- Distortion Level
- Treble and bass balance and at the same frequencies
- What about midrange quality
- Soundstage spectrum (wide or narrow presentation)
- What about voice fade, crescendo distortion or unbalance at start and peak
- Horns and strings produce a wide arrange that can become distorted
- Does the sound bleed from or contained within the device
Will it be Earphones or IEMs – Are IEMs and headphones the same? Technically – Yes, No, Yes, and No. It depends on who you ask. Some music lovers would disagree, stating you can’t get the sound quality out of headphones, while others choose the same statement using IEMs. It’s personal taste (or sound preference if you will). The differentiator is the studio monitor sound – which equates to money.
Isolating Noise – Here’s another Money differentiator. You get what you pay for, but you don’t get what you don’t pay for. Will one brand offer tiny (miniaturized) drivers over another? What about universal vs. custom-fit tips block out the noise of life and deliver a true quality sound? Again, yes and no.
Advertised “Noise Reduction” – Do those headphones and IEMs that advertise as noise reduction models reduce sufficient noise to make the experience the quality you seek? They might minimize the surrounding street traffic or loudspeaker announcements, but is the true sound coming through? Probably one way or the other, but hardly both.
Components – Most good quality headphones will contain many of the same components, albeit size and quality. Some IEMs offer a quality of components so high that they can compete with studio monitors on an equal footing. At various price points you’ll find all or some of these component advantages in both headphones and in-ear monitors, depending on manufacturer and quality level.
Dynamic Drivers – Without getting into the actual engineering, dynamic drivers, they produce more bass sound, but sometimes more is not what you’re after
Planar Magnetic Drivers – This form of driver produces much better sound because of the electromagnetic signal triggering the diaphragm (I thought I wasn’t going to get into the engineering). These drivers will produce detailed sound from both treble and midrange.
Coil Pleats – This type of planar magnetic driver uses air motion. Imagine a bellows pleats squeezing sound out of it
Electrostatic Drivers – Unless you’re at the high end of the spectrum, you won’t see too many models offering electrostatic driven sound. The differentiator is the diaphragm contained within the design process. These are similar in sound production as are planar drivers.
Balanced Armatures & Hybrids – this add-on adds another step in the diaphragm movement. Again, avoiding the engineering, balanced armatures use specially shaped armatures hanging between magnets, which, in turn, vibrates the armature, which the vibration triggers the diaphragm to vibrate and create the output of sound.
Crossover Circuits – We typically see these circuits in speaker systems. These are used to separate sound elements; bass, treble, and midrange
Hybrid IEMs – should you come across a set of headphones or in-ear monitors that offer hybrid circuits, know that they will produce weaker bass because they use balanced armatures and a dynamic driver.
Physical Comfort and Fit – Let’s face it; there are some weird shaped ears and heads out there in the world. If each human is unique, imaging having 6.5 billion different size noggins and sound holes. Fit impacts sound quality, regardless of IEM or Headphones. As noted above, treble and bass, midrange, all that stuff make a huge difference depending on what you decide.
Headphone Adjustment Spectrum – Are they comfortable, well-fitting, and don’t slip? Too big or too small can make a huge difference in the strain level after wearing them for a length of time.
IEM Fit – The variety on these babies are broad in range, so get fitted for the most comfortable and stable pair you can afford.
How Long Can You Wear Them – It’s one thing to try them out in the store, but it’s another using them on a flight from London to San Frisco.
Are Your Ears Sealed – Sound bleed can occur from any set of headphones or IEMs because our heads and ears are all different.
Custom Fit or Universal – In-Ear Monitors can be molded to fit your exact ear canal for a one-of-a-kind fit. Find a local audiologist and have your ears molded or digitally scanned. Typical costs are anywhere from $50 to $150. As for universal, there are a dozen or two sizes offered in most high-end shops, so nearly everyone can get a pretty good fit, but nothing is guaranteed. It’s best to purchase a few sizes that all fit well just in case.
Quality of Manufacture – How the headphones or IEMs are built is of great importance beyond the look and feel. Will they hold up over time? Are the various materials of high enough quality that you will be satisfied a year or two from the day of purchase, or is the intended purchase to get by until you can afford something better?
Design – Does the design of the product make for an easy fit? Is there sufficient movement in the spread sizing and strength of hold work to keep the headphones secure?
What about the finish – If they’re made with metal, is it going to keep its finish, its patina, shape after use? Do the earpads feel good when placed, or can you feel the quality of the covering? Less expensive models use thin vinyl, which often cracks within a few months or a year. Are they leather? What about the padding within? Do the tips of the IEMs fit comfortably because they are rubber, or do they fit and are secure if they are a combination of materials?
Bluetooth or Cable – This is one of those questions that not everyone will agree on. The advantages and disadvantages are fairly well spelled out in the article from xfro.com, but I’m staying out of the fray on at least this part of the discussion.
Bluetooth – We already know that the world has been taken over by Bluetooth, from our cars to our music. However, when it comes to overall quality and output, Bluetooth cannot hold a candle to cable. At 748 kbps vs. 2408 for typical equipment, cable units are the only choice for sound quality. However, the flip side is that you can only go as far as your cable will allow.
Cable – Here’s where we separate the porcupines from the fish. While it’s fairly clear in understanding why some would select Bluetooth over cable because of the mobility and ease of use in any location. But that’s where things end in terms of clarity and understanding. From here on out it’s back to subjective evaluation.