In-Ear Monitors (IEMs), are earphones intended to fit into the ear canal for personal music listening. Although they are easy to use, it can be tricky to achieve a comfortable fit and proper noise isolation. Most of the issues can be traced down to a key component that users mostly overlooked – the ear tips.
IEMs come bundled with a pair of default ear tips. It’s increasingly common to find manufacturers throwing in another set of ear tips of varying sizes (often small, medium, and large-sized round silicone and/or foam ear tips) and styles. Most people will experiment with those ear tips to find out what sound and fits the best.
It can be a daunting (and often painful) process to figure out where to start when selecting ear tips. Not to worry, I’ve got some ‘tips’ later in the article!
The ear tip is a very important element that indirectly impacts your music experience. In this article, we will teach you all the ins-and-outs of picking the perfect ear tips while addressing the fit and comfort issues that many run into while using IEMs.
Quick History Lesson: From Earbuds To IEMs
Most early personal audio devices (cassette players, portable CD players, early MP3 players, etc.) were shipped with earbuds – a miniature speaker driver positioned to sit in the outer ear at the opening of the ear canal. Sound quality was typically marginal and many users (including myself) find earbuds to cause discomfort as they do not conform to the natural shape of the ear.
It wasn’t long before the consumer market recognized that IEMs would be a better match to the growing number of high-fidelity portable electronics (iPod, cell phone, etc). IEMs were an opportunity for manufacturers to improve comfort and sound quality playback from the standard earbud. They provide a universal solution for athletes, audiophiles and commuters alike, by reproducing high-quality music playback in the ultimate package: portable, private, and isolating.
Ironically, there are many people who still call IEMs as earbuds. You will see people asking for help on earbuds tips but actually owns an IEM. Hopefully, we have cleared up some of these misunderstandings. There are also people who call ear tips as earphone tips. For the sake of consistency, we will just use the term – ear tips.
Ok enough of the backstory, let’s get down to the first basic concept of ear tips – understanding the different material types of Ear Tips.
Types of Ear Tip Materials
1) Rubber Ear Tips
Rubber ear tips tend to be the hardest tip material and as such are the least comfortable. Those with skin allergies may also react with contact. Due to these limitations, rubber is seldom used nor recommended as an IEM ear tip material, so we will quickly move on to discuss better options.
2) Silicone Ear Tips
Silicone is chemically inert and unlikely to cause ear irritation. However, some users have reported silicone ear tips as being uncomfortable for long-term use. If using for exercise, sweat can make the silicone surface slippery, causing the IEMs to move or fall out of the ear. On the other hand, because they are less noise-isolating than foam ear tips, silicone ear tips are a safer choice for runners or anyone in a potentially dangerous environment.
On the plus side, silicone can be cleaned and may offer a more sanitary, long-lived option for users.
Silicone ear tips are available in multi-flange choices (single, double, or triple-flange ear tips in a variety of shapes), which can offer better sound isolation, fitment and comfort options. Multiple flange ear tips may work better with some types of IEMs.
Recommended Silicone Ear Tips
- Campfire Audio Silicone Earphone Tips
- JVC Spiral Dots
- Mee Audio Eartips
- RHA Ear Tips
- Shure Audio Sleeves
- SpinFit Premium Silicone Ear Tips
- Westone Replacement Eartips
3) Foam Ear Tips
Foam ear tips are widely considered to be the most comfortable option, as they conform to fit the ear canal. Foam ear tips are essentially earplugs with a hole through the center (typically around a stiff rubber tube to allow sound to pass through the foam, and used to mount the foam ear tip on the IEM nozzle).
They are known for creating a good seal and fit in the ear, with excellent isolation from external sounds, but users on enthusiast sites such as Head-Fi often report increased bass (and decreased highs) due to a ‘funneling’ effect of the sound into the ear canal.
Comply™ Foam Ear TipsComply™ foam tips is one of the most popular foam tips in the market. The memory foam ear tips create an excellent seal that greatly improves the noise isolation of the IEM. Some models of the Comply™ foam tips even comes with “wax guard” to mitigate build up of earwax in the tubes of the IEM.
Recommended Foam Ear Tips
- Alo Audio C-Tips
- Campfire Audio Marshmallow Foam Tips
- Comply Foam Tips
- Dekoni Audio Bulletz
- InAirs Foam Ear Tips
- MandarinES Symbio Tips
- Shure Audio Sleeves
- Westone Replacement Eartips
4) Hybrid Ear Tips
Foam stuffed silicone ‘hybrid’ ear tips do exist, but are relatively rare (bundled with some Sony models) and haven’t caught up in popularity like the other types. There are aftermarket versions available if you are curious to try them.
Custom Ear Tips
For much less than the cost of Custom IEMs (CIEMs), there are companies that specialize in creating custom ear tips for your universal IEMs. Typically this is done by ordering putty from the manufacturer and creating impressions of your ears. Send off the impressions, color choice, and your IEM back to the manufacturer. You will receive a sweat proof, hypoallergenic, antimicrobial tips that fit you (and only you) perfectly in a few weeks time.
Recommended Custom Ear Tips
Comfort and Fit
Achieving the proper seal can be very tricky, if not almost impossible for some folks. Everyone’s ears are unique, and even though they are both on your head, your ear canals are likely not to be exactly the same shape and size; so one size really won’t fit all.
Human ear canals can differ quite a bit, varying in curvature, and in shape of the cylinder, not to mention being asymmetrical (different for each ear). Every pair of IEMs has their own unique structural design. For example, those that are designed to insert more deeply into the ear can put excruciating pressure on the shallower ear canal.
Other factors that impact ergonomics are the weight, length, cable design (over or under ear) and overall size of the IEMs. Unfortunately, some will just be poor matches for particular ears, and you can’t know if they fit you properly until you try them.
Silicone ear tips can last for years, but foam ear tips wear out over time (measurable in weeks or months of usage). Memory foam is somewhat gummy and tacky on the surface and will become contaminated with earwax and dirt with use.
Clean hands and ears will prolong the lifespan, however, the ear tips will inevitably become soiled. Cleaning products tend to disintegrate foam ear tips, and water is generally the only recommended substance to use for cleaning. Consider foam ear tips to be a consumable, and factor in this cost when making purchasing decisions.
Do Ear Tips Affect Sound Quality?
One common perception of foam ear tips is that it affects the playback frequency response of IEMs. A good seal can increase bass response during playback, but often with a perceived corresponding decrease in treble response.
This could have been affected by the shape of the foam ear tip itself. Most are made with a stiff rubber inner tube with foam surrounding the tube. If the foam extends beyond the length of the tube into the ear canal, it is possible that the foam may be deformed and has been partially covered/blocked by the end of the tube.
Careful insertion techniques (squeeze and roll before insertion), or backward installation of the ear tip on the IEM, or even cutting excess foam from the tube may help to eliminate this issue. Interestingly, measurements done by Inner Fidelity contradict this perception. From their measured results, they found that Comply memory foam ear tips do not substantially affect the sound.
The Occlusion Effect
There is one peculiarity of using IEMs that is not often mentioned. The Occlusion Effect is a phenomenon we experience when talking while our ears are plugged: the unnatural low-frequency sound of our voice that we experience due to bone conduction.
As the ear canal is plugged, sound cannot escape and it gets reflected back to the eardrum causing the low-frequency occlusion effect. This is not a major reason to avoid using IEMs though. If you are new to wearing this type of earphone, it is something to keep in mind.
How to DIY Your Own Ear Tips
Durability and cost concerns with foam ear tips can be minimized by trying DIY alternatives; typically by cutting bulk disposable closed-cell earplugs to size and making a center hole.
One option to create the center hole is to try a leather hole punch. Alternatively, flattening and then drilling the earplug can create the hole, but this can be inaccurate. Another solution is by soaking the ear tips in water, freezing them solid and drilling through the solid plug. This method requires more preparation, but will likely yield more consistent results.
If old worn out ear tips can’t be recycled for the inner rubber tube, it is possible to try aquarium tubing and cutting it to size.
Several YouTube videos are available to better illustrate some of the techniques mentioned above.
Recommended Ear Plug Options
- Amazker Sleeping Ear Plugs
- Honeywell Howard Leight Ll1 Laser Lite Foam
- Fents Quiet Please Ear Plugs
- Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam Ear Plugs
- MPow Foam Earplugs
The Radians Custom Molded Earplugs are a custom DIY option, and although they are intended for ear protection from shooting, sporting events, construction, lawn care, etc., some DIYers have modified the installation process to include fitting each IEM into the putty before the material firms.
How to Properly Insert Ear Tips
While silicone ear tips can just be pushed directly into the ear, it may be helpful to try moistening the ear tips before insertion. They are designed to go deeply into the ear canal to achieve the best seal but remove immediately if any pain or discomfort is felt. When inserted properly, the IEMs should feel snug, secure and comfortable.
Foam ear tips must be inserted like an earplug. This attains the maximum seal, isolation and sound quality. The rules for earplugs are applicable to ear tips for IEMs. You can follow the steps laid out by the Center for Disease Control CDC on the insertion of foam earplugs:
Roll the earplug up into a small, thin “snake” with your fingers. You can use one or both hands.
Pull the top of your ear up and back with your opposite hand to straighten out your ear canal. The rolled-up earplug should slide right in.
Hold the earplug in with your finger. Count to 20 or 30 out loud while waiting for the plug to expand and fill the ear canal. Your voice will sound muffled when the plug has made a good seal.
Check the fit when you’re all done. Most of the foam body of the earplug should be within the ear canal. Try cupping your hands tightly over your ears. If sounds are much more muffled with your hands in place, the earplug may not be sealing properly. Take the earplug out and try again.
There are some health concerns to be aware of after extended usage of IEMs. For example, wearing IEMs can increase earwax production for some people, and can be linked to an increase in bacteria production in the ear. In addition, with silicone ear tips, pushing them directly into the ear canal could possibly push earwax deeper into the ear.
Users of IEMs should follow regular, medically approved ear cleaning techniques (earwax removal solutions, removal by a physician, etc. – Not Q-Tips!).
In addition to improved hygiene, clean ears simply hear better; properly cleaning your ears may be the most meaningful audiophile upgrade you ever make.
Due to the naturally warm and moist environment, the ear canal has a higher population of natural bacteria than many other parts of the body. Increased bacteria production in the ear canal is seldom the result of the inserted IEM itself, rather it may be caused by improper cleaning, or by dirty fingers and improper handling of the ear tips.
Another recommended practice is to remove IEMs from the ears for a few minutes after a couple hours of use to allow the ears to rest. Rubber tips are the most likely to cause irritation for listeners with sensitive skin or allergies.
Hearing Damage due to Volume
Any sustained sound over 85 decibels (dB) can cause hearing loss, and many IEMs are capable of delivering in excess of 125 dB inside the ear canal (note: around 130 dB causes pain). At or above 130 dB, damage may be reversed in 1-2 days, however, if the inner-cochlear cells are damaged, damage to the hearing would be permanent. Remember that lower levels (85 dB and up) will cause damage with continuous exposure.
- 85 dB – 8 hours until hearing damage.
- 88 dB – 4 hours.
- 91 dB – 2 hours.
As per above, the time until the damage is done is cut in half with each 3dB increase in volume. This means that 115dB causes damage to the ear in 30 seconds. Sustained loud music is an all too common cause of hearing loss, as we tend to listen for extended periods of time at loud (but not painful) levels, especially to those songs or albums we like the most.
Finding the right ear tips for your IEMs is entirely a matter of personal preference and your own unique fit. There is no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. All too commonly, users literally suffer through using the wrong ear tip, before either abandoning IEMs for headphones or by luck, eventually finding a better match for them.
Follow the “tips” in this article and you should be able to properly (and safely) select and use the ear tip that best fits your ears.