IEMs, why should I care? How to choose some?

more_vert
I discovered the existence of IEMs with MD, but never cared to look into them until then, so here we are! And I have plenty of questions! I did a bit of research before posting, but I only came out with more questions... So I thought here would be the right place to ask, in the hope that the answers can be useful to other people as confused as me.
  1. I have read a lot that "IEMs provide better quality than regular earphones". What does that mean? How does it compare? Would average IEMs provide better sound than high-end earphones or than over-ear headphones for example? Why do audiophiles love them so much?
  2. IEMs seem mostly used by musicians on stage, but are also used by some audiophiles. If I enjoy good sound quality, but I also use my headphones a lot while on the go, would IEMs work for me? Are they more suited for people who listen to music in the quietness of their homes?
  3. A lot of IEMs are wired, what are wireless IEMs worth? Are wireless ones less common because they imply a loss of sound quality? For other reasons?
  4. Is a DAC/AMP required to get good sound out of IEMs?
  5. At what price point do IEMs start to hit the law of diminishing returns?
  6. It looks like plenty of factors make IEMs perform worse or better in different fields, if I wanted good all-around IEMs without going into super expensive products (see previous question), what should I be looking for?
  7. Additionally to the previous question, if you could own only one pair of IEMs, which ones would it be? Why?
A huge thanks to anyone who will read all of this, and even more to anyone who will take the time to answer part or all of this!
3
13
remove_red_eye
78
mdeous
229

search
close
phoenixsong
977
Nov 20, 2020
I don't have time, so will only answer 1. It is easier to control the sound of iems and tune it to a standard due to the nature of how its worn, sealing and isolation etc. Different ear shape and structure also has less of an impact than say over ear headphones. Hence, iems generally sound better than regular earphones at least (the seal also gives them extra bass extension in comparison), and dirt cheap (under $10) iems like the xiaomi pistons for example sound better than dirt cheap headphones due to material costs
toniidesu
247
Oct 29, 2020
@mdeous I'll put my answers in bold.
  1. I have read a lot that "IEMs provide better quality than regular earphones". What does that mean? How does it compare? Would average IEMs provide better sound than high-end earphones or than over-ear headphones for example? Why do audiophiles love them so much? I would be skeptical of any sweeping claim like that. I've listened to a lot of IEMs and over-ears and IEMs aren't better OR worse. They sound different because they reproduce sound differently. Instead of basically cupping a miniature speaker over your ear, IEMs use an even tinier speaker (or sometimes a whole array of microspeakers) to pipe sound through a tube into your ear canal. If you leave out cost, then average IEMs absolutely do not outperform high-end headphones. High-end headphones win every time. Average IEMs probably do outperform average headphones, though, and you can get more for your money with a high-end IEM than a high-end headphone. The high end of the headphone market is absurdly expensive, though IEMs have started to catch up, which I don't think is a positive development. The explosion of low-cost Chinese enthusiast brands (often called Chi-Fi) in the last ~10 years has brought real competition to the IEM market, which for a long time was dominated by a bunch of US/European dinosaurs coasting on brand recognition alone. That competition has taken place in the IEM world because IEMs are cheaper and simpler to manufacture, so the full-size headphone market is still dominated by western brands. Audiophiles love IEMs because audiophiles love novelty, and it seems like a new IEM model comes out every week.
  2. IEMs seem mostly used by musicians on stage, but are also used by some audiophiles. If I enjoy good sound quality, but I also use my headphones a lot while on the go, would IEMs work for me? Are they more suited for people who listen to music in the quietness of their homes? IEMs beat over-ears for on-the-go listening hands down. Most of them are small and light and easy to squeeze into a pocket. This is also why true wireless buds are the fastest-growing segment in the headphone market. "IEM" is a somewhat technical name. The most popular headphones in the world are almost certainly cheap in-ears, of the sort included with smartphones or sold at small shops for $5-15, so they're by no means primarily for stage musicians. If you're talking about custom IEMs (abbreviated CIEM), then you're right, the only people buying those are serious musicians and affluent audiophiles. If you can only afford one set of headphones, I think it should be an IEM because they're just more versatile. You can use them in quiet and loud environments, when exercising, when sleeping, and even in bad weather (though I wouldn't recommend wearing expensive ones in the rain). They're great for travel/commuting because they block out the noise of trains, planes, and buses.
  3. A lot of IEMs are wired, what are wireless IEMs worth? Are wireless ones less common because they imply a loss of sound quality? For other reasons? Wireless IEMs are actually MORE common in the wider world, just not on Drop. Drop is by no means representative of the overall audio market. Drop is a niche site selling to a niche audience, and because Drop makes a fair bit of money off amps and DACs and cables, they can't afford to embrace wireless audio fully. How many people do you see wearing [IEMs by unpronounceable Chinese brand] vs Apple AirPods? Exactly. :) That said, wired audio will always sound better, for the same reason wired Internet always works better. That's just the physics of signal loss and interference.
  4. Is a DAC/AMP required to get good sound out of IEMs? Depends on the model, just like any headphones. In most cases, no. This is probably another reason IEMs are so popular, because most of them sound just fine without a DAC/amp, whereas a lot of full-size headphones need an amp. To be clear, an external DAC is NEVER needed. Every output device (laptops, phones, etc.) with a headphone jack on it already has a DAC inside.
  5. At what price point do IEMs start to hit the law of diminishing returns? This depends on who you ask. Some people are going to say $50, some people are going to say $1500. I would say at around $300. To give a recent example, I bought two ~$100 IEMs (Moondrop Starfield and Etymotic ER2XR) and while both are good, they're not even close to the JVC HA-FDX1 for $250.
  6. It looks like plenty of factors make IEMs perform worse or better in different fields, if I wanted good all-around IEMs without going into super expensive products (see previous question), what should I be looking for? This may sound counterintuitive, but "all-around" means different things to different people. To me it means they're not so expensive you're afraid to use them, that they have a sound you like (V-shaped, Harman target, DF target, bright, neutral, etc.), and that they have low power requirements so they'll sound good plugged into anything.
  7. Additionally to the previous question, if you could own only one pair of IEMs, which ones would it be? Why? As of right now, I'd say the JVC HA-FDX1 because they sound amazing from any source I've tried (with the exception of a PS4 controller but whatever), they're comfortable, and the cable is replaceable. Before I got these, my "one pair" (I've never actually had the discipline for just one pair) was the Etymotic ER3SE, which I still think is fantastic. The Etymotic is also much lighter and more portable than the JVC and does a better job blocking outside sound. Really the only thing I don't like about them is that you can't swap in a microphone cable.

Hope that was helpful!
(Edited)
toniidesu
247
Oct 30, 2020
Which earphones do you have now? Using an equalizer can absolutely work, and there are a lot of people who swear by EQ (as it's also called). Digital signal processing has gotten really good, and I've messed around with software from a company called Sonarworks that was quite impressive. That said, I think if you have to rely on an EQ, I'd go back to my comment about making excuses for something with a fundamental problem. You're covering up what you don't like about the sound with a software trick, but as soon as you plug in to a new device and lose your EQ settings, you're in trouble. I listen on multiple devices and can't be bothered to set up an EQ solution on all of them, not to mention that I'm not aware of any cross-platform, cloud-synced option. So I wouldn't personally rely on EQ. It's a poor substitute for getting something that sounds right to begin with. I tried Bluetooth for a bit, but like you, I lost patience with the connectivity issues. I actually ditched Bluetooth for Etymotic, which do a phenomenal job of blocking outside noise and were great when commuting on the train was still part of my life. As for the sound of the FDX1 vs the Starfield, I think the Starfield provides a more relaxing listen that still sounds impressive because of the boost in the upper mids and slight bass boost. It's a pretty unique sound that clearly came about through R&D rather than chance, and I think most people would find it easy to like. The JVC, on the other hand, has a much more intense, in-your-face sound. I think some people would probably find it harsh, but I find it engaging and articulate. In the interest of not repeating myself, you can read my reviews for the JVC, the Moondrop, and the Etymotic if you'd like. Let me know if you have other questions. I believe very strongly in sharing such knowledge and opinions as I have rather than keeping them to myself. :)
mdeous
229
Oct 30, 2020
Mu current earbuds are a pair of BeoPlay E8, I like their sound but they lack a little depth in bass with their default settings (to my taste), and they're a pain to connect to devices. Thank you again for all the advices and insights, I'll read your reviews before I ask more questions! :)
jaxtrauma
1578
Oct 14, 2020
Do you own headphones? What are you driving them with? The answer to most of your questions comes down to experience. Try a mid-priced set and see if you like them. That's what I did and built a collection of over a dozen iems. I only have three headphones. They tend to be costlier, depending. There are dozens just here on MD, plus Amazon, Linsoul and countless others. One caveat if you're getting into the audiophile scene: it won't be cheap, depending ;-) Welcome aboard!
(Edited)
jaxtrauma
1578
Oct 15, 2020
Ok bud, good luck! Hope you find what you're looking for. I haven't tried the shuoers, heard good things. I got an iem for $60 here, its called the Tin Hifi T3. Overachiever at that price point. You can click on the Dolphin by my name to see what gear I use.
mdeous
229
Oct 15, 2020
I'll check this out too, thanks!