In-ears, as the name suggests, are headphones that sit in your ears. They are commonly known as IEM’s, which stands for In-Ear Monitors. They are the professional version of the standard ear-buds we might get with our phones, used for live perofrmance.
Singers will use these to listen to the sound mix during their performance so that they don’t get distracted by the sound from front-of-house. Firstly, there can be a slight delay in hearing the sound when you’re on stage. Secondly, a singer will want to hear an altered mix in their ears that allows them to hear themselves and anyone else in the band that they need to hear.
Basically, it’s an upgrade to having the old fold-back speaker sitting in front of you on stage.
I recommend the KZ ZST inears (link to amazon.com). I use these myself when on stage and they also come highly recommended by our sound technician. They’re a great price and deliver good sound quality due to a the hybrid drivers (dynamic and balanced armature). Their shape is also well-suited to live performance.
When looking for the perfect in-ears these are the things you should consider:
- Drivers (type and number)
- Cable configuration
- Noise cancellation and size
In-ear drivers are the speakers that ‘drive’ sound into your ear. There are two main types: dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers. The main difference is the sound quality at different frequencies.
Dynamic drivers are larger than balanced armature drivers and therefore produce better quality bass sounds. They also perform better overall when comparing one driver to the other (but having multiple balanced armature drivers will overcome this). As well as producing a better bass, dynamic drivers are also cheaper.
Balanced Armature Drivers
Balanced armature drivers can be tuned to specific frequencies and are more clear than dynamic drivers. They are smaller, allowing for multiple drivers to be used in one earphone and producing better quality high-frequency sound. This is the same technology used in hearing aids.
How Many Drivers Do I Need?
The more drivers you have in your in-ears, the better quality the sound. Each driver is tuned to a certain frequency range, so if you have only one, the balance will not be as good. With multiple drivers, each sound can be isolated and blended to get a richer, balanced sound. However, more drivers means more money.
Even though the KZ ZST only has two drivers, it is a hybrid of both dynamic balance armature drivers. This means that the bass sounds are isolated from the mid-high frequencies, giving a nice balance of sound for a good price.
The cable is a small yet important feature on in-ears. It is something that will annoy you if you get the wrong one.
At the head-end of the in-ears, there will be those that have a straight cable, like the earphones that come with any iPhone. Then there are those that come with an over-ear design, where the cable is shaped so that it comes out the top of the earbud and around the top of your ear.
This is personal preference, but most singers will opt for the over-ear design as this hides the cable from the audience and also helps to keep the in-ears in place when moving around.
As for the tail-end of the cable (the jack), you will have either the straight cable or an ‘L’ shape. I personally prefer the ‘L’ shape as this makes it harder to accidentally pull the cable out of the plug. This is common if you have thread the cable through your clothes to conceal it.
The KZ ZST in-ears have an over-ear cable with the ‘L’-shape at the jack.
Noise Cancellation and Size
Noise cancellation is an important feature for in-ears. If you’re focusing on getting a good mix through the drivers, you really don’t want to ruin that with external noise. There are two things that affect this: the ear-tip material and the shape of the in-ear.
The ear-tip is usually made of either silicon or foam. Silicon is less likely to move once it has been suctioned into the ear canal, but foam will do a better job of drowning out the sound. If the foam wriggles free of your ear though, you will lodse thodse benefits.
The most important thing is that they are the right size. Whether they are too big or too small, having the wrong size of ear-tip will not properly reduce the outside noise and and fall out easily. Most in-ears will come with a few different sizes.
This leads to the shape of the in-ear. some are shaped into a tiny ball to make them less visible, others are shaped to match the shape of the ear to keep them in place. Those that are shaped to the ear will have an added level of noise-cancellation.
My in-ears fit snug in my ears and I can’t hear any of the outside world when they’re in. Even when some poor soul comes up and tries to talk to me!