There have never been so many ways to listen to music - studio headphones, true-wireless earbuds, portable Bluetooth speakers, or just straight out of your cellphone speakers (yikes). These are all fairly standard solutions for your audio needs, so today we want to focus on an audio device that delivers true audiophile-quality sound: In-Ear Monitors.
In-Ear Monitors or IEMs, were originally created for performing musicians who needed to constantly monitor their instrument as they play it live with a band. While it is true that IEMs are still mostly targeted at musicians, this does not mean that they are not suitable for non-musicians. Just like “Studio” headphones are not just for recording engineers, or “gaming keyboards” are not just for gamers. Casual listeners often opt for headphones or true-wireless earbuds for their personal audio needs but a pair of IEMs could really uncover a whole new sonic dimension in your favorite music.
IEMs can have multiple configurations, and it is precisely this that makes them so powerful. So let’s break down the essentials of IEMs so you can be better equipped to get your first pair!
Drivers and Sound Signature
Just like any audio device, the core feature of IEMs are the drivers. There are multiple types of drivers, each with their own distinctive features and different tonalities. What sets IEMs apart from some other earphones, is that they are often equipped with multiple combinations of drivers while maintaining the small in-ear form factor. Let’s explore three of the most common driver types and their sound signature.
Dynamic Drivers are the most common type of drivers found in headphones and earbuds. The reason why most audio devices use dynamic drivers is because they cover the entire frequency range, which makes them great for all casual-listening purposes. They are usually great at delivering a solid bass response, and this is why their sound signature is very comfortable to the ears.
Note that this does not mean that all dynamic drivers are exclusively “bassy” and that’s all you will hear, they just have a clean accentuated low-end. Take for instance the Kinera SIF which features a single 10mm Dynamic Driver per earpiece. The bass in these IEMs is thumpy and deep, and these allow the trebles to be warm and smooth reducing sibilance at louder volumes.
Balanced Armature Drivers
The history of balanced armature drivers is quite interesting as originally, the sole purpose of these drivers was for hearing aids. Because of this, their frequency response was “limited” to the specific range that the hearing-impaired couldn’t pick up. This ability to target the tones of a specific frequency range is precisely what makes balanced armature drivers one of the top options for IEMs. They are also very small, sometimes as small as 5mm, which means that in a single earpiece you can have multiple balanced armature drivers.
IEMs with a hybrid-driver setup are common because each individual driver can be entirely dedicated to one frequency range, resulting in a highly-detailed sound output. The Kinera Freya does this exceptionally well with a unique configuration of three balanced armature drivers plus a dynamic driver. The dynamic driver is focused on the bass, while the balanced armature drivers take care of the mid and high tones, producing a balanced and extended treble with clear vocals.
These drivers are one of the most complex drivers you can find in IEMs. The main process behind electrostatic drivers is static electricity. As short as possible - static electricity is applied to the ultra-thin diaphragm between two metal plates. Both of these plates are perforated and they are negatively and positively charged respectively. When static electricity is applied, the diaphragm vibrates because of the magnetic attraction between the plates, and this is what produces sound waves.
How does this affect the actual sound we hear though? Well, since the diaphragm is uniformly charged by the static electricity, the sound waves produced by this charge travel evenly across the diaphragm resulting in a significant reduction of distortion. With such minimal risk of distortion, each frequency range is naturally pushed to its actual tone, allowing the details of the sounds to shine with clarity.
Although this technology is great, it comes with a high cost as electrostatic drivers are very expensive, and to truly get the best out of them an amp is usually required. However, for experienced audiophiles, IEMs with electrostatic drivers are unquestionably a top choice. Like DMS, who swears by his pair of Kinera Nanna that are equipped with two electrostatic drivers which produce “buttery smooth highs”.
Are IEMs With More Drivers Better?
Knowing that IEMs can have multiple powerful drivers within one earpiece would make anyone think that hybrid-driver IEMs with four, six, or even eight drivers would be better. Interestingly enough, this is a common misconception because, in reality, more drivers do not mean better.
This is a conversation that mostly comes down to personal preference and context, but can always be backed up by the actual specs. Certain hybrid-driver IEMs can cover a wider range of frequencies really well, but not accentuate a specific frequency, whereas some single-driver or dual-driver IEMs can have the smoothest mid-range response producing extremely detailed sounds within those frequencies. So it comes down to taste, if you listen to music that is mainly mid-range heavy, then a single/dual-driver IEM with a mid-range focus might suit you better than a multi-driver IEM that delivers a smooth sound across the whole spectrum.
To put this into context, we can take vocals, which are heavy on the mids and highs. A four-driver IEM with three drivers for low end, and one balancing the trebles, would likely make the vocals sound flat when compared to a dual-driver IEM where one driver handles the bass and the other handles the high-end. Like the Kinera BD005, which has a dual-driver configuration with a dynamic driver for bass and a high-frequency balanced armature driver that produces truly rich vocals.
There is no right or wrong answer here, but the one fact is that no one configuration is better than the other, and the number of drivers is less important than what those drivers are doing.
Fit and Comfort
Although IEMs have standard sizes that fit everyone’s ears, fit and comfort are two key factors that can make or break the experience of IEMs. For professional musicians, these two features are just as important as the sound, the prolonged use of wrong-fitting IEMs can cause hearing fatigue, ear pain, and instrument monitoring issues.
For casual users, this is not as big of a problem, but regardless it is important to consider. Fortunately, fit and comfort issues can be easily reduced by using the right silicone ear-tips. Most IEM ear-tips are modular and allow for multiple sizes, shapes, and even materials. Some IEMs even include this in their packages, such as the Kinera NORN, which comes with six sets of silicone ear tips and one set of foam ear tips. Additionally, IEMs are also known for their ergonomic shapes that apart from looking really unique, provide a comfortable fit around the auricle.
Hopefully, this gives you an overview of the key features of IEMs and how understanding your personal audio needs is key when choosing a pair of IEMs. Now comes the fun part - finding the IEMs that will elevate your audio game! To give you a head start you, here are some of our suggestions for Kinera IEMs:
Sound Signature: The dynamic driver delivers a punchy bass that complements the vocals and the BA driver produces a super smooth treble for a non-fatiguing experience.
Great For: Beginner audiophiles who listen to music daily for long hours. The bass adds a “cushion” to the sound, and the BA driver ensures the trebles don’t get annoying after a while. Ideal for those who have never tried audio devices with more than one standard dynamic driver.
Sound Signature: The two BA drivers deliver a truly high-detailed sound with lots of clarity and resolution on the treble and upper-mids, while the dynamic driver complements this with a controlled bass.
Great For: Those who want to experience the power of dual Balanced Armature drivers. Listeners who have an ear for detail and sharpness, and can appreciate separation between the highs and lows will surely enjoy these ones.
- Sound Signature: The 7mm dynamic driver produces a rich, deep bass, the two Knowles BA drivers deliver incredible midrange & vocal clarity, and Kinera’s customized BA 30095 driver produces a well extended, balanced treble.
Great For: Experienced audiophiles who can appreciate a clear separation in frequencies and instruments. Each driver here is doing a specific job for each frequency range, which will be more appreciated by users who have experienced other IEM’s sound signatures.
Sound Signature: The 7mm dynamic driver delivers a precise, detailed bass vs. an overall bassy feel. The unique combination of the BA drivers and electrostatic drivers produce extremely smooth highs with natural yet alive mids, mostly noticeable in the vocals.
- Great For: Veteran audiophiles who are familiar with multiple audio devices and have a solid understanding of their preferred sound signature in IEMs.
If you would like some more insights into the world of IEMs, check out some of our favorite audiophile channels below, or take a peek at our full selection of Kinera IEMs and shoot us a message if you have any questions.