Oct 1, 2018307 views

How do you find good IEMs?

My problem: I love the theory of IEMs. They are small and easy to carry with you. They don't leave band marks on your head when you listen to them at work. They isolate background noise very well. I'm confident that they can sound good.
I HATE IEMs... I have been seemingly on a never ending journey trying to find some that sound good for a very long time.

Cause of my woes: I have a firm (not solid, I do make exceptions at times) rule that I will not spend more than $200 on an audio product without having heard it first. I will not try them out if they are on display in a store since, let's face it, that's kind of icky, so that option is out if it was an option in the first place. Similarly, there's really no way to try out custom IEMs without buying them, so trying to find someone to tune them to my taste is out. This has led me on a journey of disappointment and an ever increasing wallet set-back.
With full sized cans I can easily pick up a set that either sounds great and I'll love forevermore, or that I can easily mod into being great. Based on that, I'm sure good IEMs must exist in my price range. However, with IEMs, there are no mods per se, and I have never found any that I can get along with despite having, no kidding, multiple shoe boxes packed full of nothing but bad sounding IEMs and my own tears.

Surely I'm not the only person in this boat... I'm not looking for recommendations for IEMs. I'm well aware of the recommendations out there. What I am looking for is advice on how you can get a good set without having tried them out to make sure they aren't terrible or maybe advice on how to try them out without the ick factor.

Trying them out is best, but if I can't try them out, I refer to measurements and reviews as well as cross comparisons of the measurements and reviews (using different iems as reference and across different sites if data is lacking). It is important to use familiar references, be it iems, measurements or reviews to anchor you to the sound you like (something like intel gathering and navigation). Usually the final result won't stray too far
There are some IEMs that allows you to mod them via filters but the ear tips make the most difference soundwise.
To test out demos, carry a wet wipe and use it on the IEM. My local headphone shop does this for every IEM if a customer wants a demo.
Also try a headphone meet if you can with sponsors that makes Custom IEMs. I was able to test all of Nobles lineup, they provided tips so you don't have to share or use others.
Good point on wiping things down.
I was considering just buying a bunch of extra comply tips to drag around with me, but the tips make such a difference in sound that I would still likely not pick the right set doing that.
Yeah I usually use antiseptic wet wipes as well, unless alcohol swabs are available :p
Not to sound condescending but learn to read IEM response graphs and understand how they respond to output impedance. Due to how IEMs engage our inner ears, their graphs aren't 1:1 when compared to a typical headphone. That's a big caveat people always forget about when comparing charts. An "ugly" IEM chart looks quite different than one for headphones. They're also much harder to measure so their graphs should be taken with a larger grain of salt due to how they fit with most couplers. IEMs are incredibly fit dependent so if you don't have a proper seal, you will never get close to how they were engineered to sound. Insertion depth also plays a large part into aspects such as bass and impact, sound stage and treble extension. This is where CIEMs come into play and show superiority as you will get a perfect, consistent fit every time since they are molded to your ear canals. This will be the closest match to true IEM measurements since it's specific to your ear molds and they adjust them to fit their designated target response.
IEMs also tend to have very different 2nd and 3rd order distortion characteristics. You also tend to not need to worry about CDSs with IEMs but it can come in handy to understand if a set has any "ringing" issues.
In regards to impedance, depending on if it's a balanced armature and its crossover design, a hybrid system with crossovers, planar, or dynamic driver, the source can drastically change the sound and presentation. For example, the Campfire Andromeda is notorious for this. They are incredibly sensitive so unless your source is well under 1 ohm, you'll get some hiss. They also change drastically under a low OI (brighter, more resolving) or a higher OI around 3 ohms (warmer, more bass). Go too high and they start to sound odd and introduce odd harmonics and distortions.
I even forgot to bring up tip rolling which can have a significant impact on catering the sound to your liking (silicone vs foam). When it comes to cables, I have had very few instances in where this actually mattered. The one time it caught my attention was with the Andromeda. I went with a pure copper cable or its SPC Litz cable due to its impedance changes. This allowed me to use the Andro on less sensitive sources without hiss and added the right amount of warmth I wanted from them. This isn't common but is something that should be kept in mind as you try to nail down the sound you're looking for from your IEMs.
And honestly, for $200, you have a wealth of great sets to sample. Nowadays, this is the primo range for most and technology has really pushed what an entry level IEM can sound like. IEMs have so much more variation than headphones so it can be a bit daunting finding something you love but when you do, its much easier moving forward to know what speaks to you. Personally, I would go for comfort first and sound second. Even if their sound quality isn't summit-fi, having a comfortable, smooth, well-rounded IEM will benefit you more than something polarizing and niche that just reviews well. At least as you get started to find your preference.
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That's fair. I only meant preferences in regards to IEMs as I prefer a different signature for them compared to headphones due to how they interact with different parts of ear. Just thought it was a caveat worth pursuing for you.
As far as budget CIEMs go, Custom Art gets mentioned a lot and people have a lot of good things to say about them: https://thecustomart.com/fibae-1/. There are a few others too should you want to do some more research and inquire further: Alclair Reference, Alclair Dual, UE 4 Pro, Cleartune CTM-200, and 1964 Audio A2e.
If you'd like recommendations for universals just let me know.
I've been considering 64 A3 for a while. I might finally do it.
Could you point out the most common flaw (or flaws) you've found with your "boxes of iems?"
Maybe if we had some reference point for what you found objectionable most often we could figure out a baseline set of vocabulary.
If I had to name the most typical flaw, it's too much bass energy. They generally have bloated bass that drowns out everything else.
Those that don't are either poorly controlled, or have no high end.
Cases of the second variety: Shure SE 315, has no high end, but at least is fluid and smooth. MEE A151P is a little too grainy and unrefined across the audio band. UE 600 is similar to A151. UE 700 is screechy and sharp. The bass is reasonable on these, but they all fail to meet my demands for highs if nothing else.
Cases of too much bass: Shure SE 215, which also doesn't have a high end and generally just sounds bad. Ultimate Ears UE500, which is slightly better controlled than the Shures, but is even softer and has even more exaggerated bass. And many many others.
All dated examples, I know, but I've basically given up the hunt for a few years and have wanted to get back to it in a more informed manner.
check out campfire audio’s newest entry level: comet. I demoed all their products recently, and although I ended up getting the andromeda, the comet surprisingly shocked me with its total package: build, comfort, sound, value
That's one I've almost pulled the trigger on if I weren't so hesitant to try yet another set without hearing it or having any assurance that I won't just throw them in a box with the others.
Campfire's higher end models are all getting universally good reviews seemingly. Not sure if that translates into better results from the lower end offering though. It would be nice if I could hear it first!
You have to find a reviewer who’s ears you trust. If they have described a headphone you own exactly as you hear it, it‘s a beautiful thing. Even more so if they reviewed two or three items you have experience with. Bass, midrange and treble preferences are so subjective I’ve gone wrong many times trusting the wrong people’s opinion, especially on forums like Headfi.
I'm in the market on that. Tyll Hertsens (emeritus innerfidelity reviewer) was objective and fair in his reviews and could accurately describe what I hear. He's retired now though. The new guy doesn't have the chops or objectivity that he had seemingly. It's hard to say though, since he hasn't actually posted a review since taking over. It also seems that he's bent on only reviewing high end and ignoring the concept of value when he gets around to it.
I agree on head-fi though. It's not a good source of information, IMO. I've been bitten too many times.
Try Joshua Valour on YouTube. A young reviewer, but he has my ears you might say.
IMR R1 , despite the controversy. I got my bstock for about half the price. And boy they sound great.
No idea what controversy you're talking about, not looking for recommendations on IEMs to try.
From my experience, IEMs can be a love and hate relationship. It really can't be compared to headphones. Seriously, it is comparing a bike to a car. Both can be really fast, expensive and well... great !
However, perhaps this is worth the mention: LZ A4 or similar iems that have filters which allows you to "mod" (not really), the sound. This may be the closest thing to what you are asking.
hope this helped
Love/Hate indeed...
I don't expect them to take the place of my full sized cans. I am really only interested for the sake of mobility/travel. I just have minimum expectations for sound quality for my money, and at the respective price points, none of them have met my demands so far. I will still always have, use, and love my full sized cans where they are appropriate/usable.
I find that the filters all come with extra noise/distortion if they make any difference at all.
I can get VE Monk + for $5 and they sound great (apart from bass extension, but they're $5). Nowadays you can get members of the Sennheiser HD family (not to mention other headphones) for under $200 . I've got multiple sets of good sounding sealed full sized headphones for prices ranging from $50 up. Why is this so hard to accomplish in a form factor that gives you good isolation?
I think a lot of it can be subjective, and unfortunately I don't have an answer for you. If you figure it out though, I'd love to hear your findings, I have the same issue.
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Actually, something mildly useful came to mind. I'm an tea lover, but given that tea (like any food/drink) is entirely subjective it can be difficult to communicate what you like, and how you like it. This is why the the Australian Tea Masters Flavor Wheel was invented (https://www.australianteamasters.com.au/tea-flavour-wheel/). This wheel is useful because it provides a common ground for everyone to communicate on. I think what you need to find would be the a communication standard that allows you to read what a headset may sound like. As for whether or not such a standard currently exists, or whether this information can be found my studying and understanding tech specs, frequency response curves, and etc. I am not certain but I'd love to hear your findings if you look into it.
Great point. Descriptive language used by most reviewers is not uniform and varies to the degree that reviewers vary. I have my doubts that trying to get reviewers to align to any such uniformity is a worthwhile endeavor though. People will still tend to favor their pet reviewers, even if we could get them to speak the same language, since that's subjective too...
I've given up on IEM's altogether. It's over-ears or nothing. Even for running I can't live without good sounds, so I suffer the discomfort or go without.
That's basically where I'm at, but full sized cans just don't work in some circumstances. At those times I'm either disappointedly using my Shures or going without.
There is a spark of hope that is still alive that I'll find a decent set some day.