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The Ultimate Guide to Selecting the Perfect IEM Ear Tips

Head-Fi tips comparison
Head-Fi tips comparison

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.

1More Triple Driver Packaging
1More Triple Driver with assorted ear tips

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.

Venture Electronics (VE) earbuds
Venture Electronics (VE) Monk earbuds – a modern and well-respected model that I find excruciatingly painful to wear

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.

Campfire Orion
Campfire Orion from Review: Campfire Orion

Mistaken Identity

Ironically, there are many people who still call IEMs as earbuds. You will see people asking for help with 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 but also the least comfortable. Those with skin allergies may also trigger a reaction from 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

Spinfit single-flanged silicone ear tips
Spinfit single-flanged silicone ear tips – image from http://www.spinfiteartip.com/

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 you are using it 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.

Spinfit double-flange silicone ear tips – image from http://www.spinfiteartip.com/

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.

Sennheiser triple-flange silicone ear tips - image from https://soundspares.com
Sennheiser triple-flange silicone ear tips – image from https://soundspares.com

Recommended Silicone Ear Tips

3) Foam Ear Tips

Foam ear tips are widely considered to be the most comfortable option, as they conform to fit the ear canal. They are essentially earplugs with a hole through the center (typically around a stiff rubber tube to allow sound to pass through the foam).

They are known for creating a good seal and fit in the ear, with excellent isolation from external sounds. However, users from 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 tips - image from https://www.complyfoam.com
Comply foam ear tips

Comply™ Foam Ear Tips

The Comply foam tips is one of the most popular foam tips in the market.

These memory foam ear tips create an excellent seal that greatly improves the noise isolation of the IEM. There are certain models of the Comply™ foam tips that even comes with “wax guard” to mitigate build up of earwax in the tubes of the ear tips.

Do Foam Ear Tips Affect Sound Quality?

One common perception of foam ear tips is that it affects the playback frequency response. A good seal can increase bass response during playback, but often with a perceived corresponding decrease in treble response.

This could be affected by the shape of the foam ear tip. 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

Having a good seal with your ear tips is great but there is one peculiarity 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.

Recommended Foam Ear Tips

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.

Sony Hybrid ear tips – image from http://headfi.org/

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.

Statistical 3D shape models of the ear canal – image from https://www.eriksholm.com

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.

Comparison of IEMs - sizes and shapes - image from http://www.thephonograph.net
Comparison of IEMs – sizes and shapes – image from http://www.thephonograph.net


Silicone ear tips can last for years, but foam ear tips wear out over time (measurable in weeks or months of usage). Some memory foam ear tips can get 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.

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.

Leather hold punch
Leather hold punch

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

The Radians Custom Molded Earplugs is 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.

My much loved and used Shure IEMs with DIY ear tips
My much loved and used Shure IEMs with DIY ear tips

How to Properly Insert Ear Tips

Picking the right ear tips is winning half the battle. The other half requires you to wear them correctly.

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.

Remember that you should never quickly remove or insert your IEMs. Always slowly and gently twirl to avoid damaging your eardrums by inadvertently creating air pressure when inserting or suction when removing.

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:

1. Roll

Roll the earplug up into a small, thin “snake” with your fingers. You can use one or both hands.

cdc roll 1

2. Pull

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.

cdc pull 2

3. Hold

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.

cdc hold 3

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.

Health Concerns

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.

Closeup of bacteria - image from https://www.ndsu.edu
Closeup of bacteria – image from https://www.ndsu.edu

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.

You might be interested: 6 Simple Ways To Know That Your Headphones Are Too Loud

Hearing threshold - image from https://www.hearinglink.org
Hearing threshold – image from https://www.hearinglink.org


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.

Infographic: The Ultimate Guide to Selecting the Perfect Ear Tips
Infographic: The Ultimate Guide to Selecting the Perfect Ear Tips


  1. Most early personal audio equipment was shipped with lightweight headphones, not earbuds. Thr first thing that came with earbuds was probably the iPod.

    1. Greetings! I currently using “memory” foam eartip and it always gets dirty with my (sorry) ear liquid. Does someone knows how to clean the memory foam eartip? Or just throw it away? Thanks in advance.

      1. I took my foam sleeves off and put them in my pocket and accidentally washed them in the washer and realized when I put them in but it was too late anyway I dried them out and they’re as good as new and more importantly clean

  2. Does anyone know where you can still buy rubber earbud tips? I know they’re not recommended, but I like them. I have tactile issues and I hate silicone and foam. Rubber are the only ones I find comfortable, but I can’t find anywhere to buy them.

  3. Hey, is there any significant difference between memory foam and sponge? I found one from Moondrop using sponge material. What do you think about it?

  4. All great advice but hardly ever gets a look is the size of the hole that fits the tips to the drivers on the earphones, I bought a 10mm driver true wireless earphones which have great sound but none of my foam buds fit, and the cost of memory foam tips between £5-£20 get a pair that don’t fit the earphones then it’s a waste. It needs to be clear how big the tip holes are so you know your not going to buy a wrong fit.

    1. Very good point! Some consistency or standardization in the Wild West of IEM world would be appreciated for sure!

  5. i hate silicone or foam tips, and also the earphones go deep into my brain. just use standard sony or apple designs till 2015. even 2001 sony Walkman earphones was better. stop trying to do something different. looks cheap, uncomfortable, unhealthy.

  6. I have Final E500 IEM’s and found that the buds wouldn’t stay in, even for a minute. I tried the next size up each time and found they fell out too. I got an e-mail reply from Final Support suggesting trying the smaller tips and I immediately thought how silly, the smaller ones will fall out even easier surely? What a surprise then to find they were right: the smaller silicon tips, pop or lock inside the ear cavity – the larger tips being too big for this to happen. I hope this helps others. Very good sound by the way for budget devices.

    1. Yes, the smaller silicon tips are often a better option for that reason. BUT, it’s very important you get one’s made specifically for your earbuds. Otherwise you could end up leaving a silicon tip in your ear canal.

      This almost happened to me when I thought that they were all basically the same. Now I pay the extra few dollars to make sure that the ear tips I get are designed for the earbuds I have.

    2. ADDENDUM: When I say designed for your earbuds, I don’t just mean the 4-6mm, etc. No, I mean the specific way that the tios lock onto the earbuds.

  7. Absolutely. I fell prey to this when I ordered some Xcessor tips that claimed to fit nozzles between 4 – 6mm. They worked with 5mm nozzles with a bit of perseverance , but no way would they flex enough for 2 pairs of my IEMs with 6mm nozzles.

  8. >In-Ear Monitors (IEMs), are earphones intended to fit into the ear canal for personal music listening.

    Uhm… No.

    In-Ear Monitors are Earphones intended for Monitoring. That is why they are called In-Ear _Monitors_

    They are not designed for personal music listening. What you mean is called In-Ear Earphone.

    Most earphones that people calle IEM can not be used for monitoring, so they are not monitors and hence they are not IEM.

    Rule of thumb, if you can’t use them for monitoring, they are not monitors and not called IEM.

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