Getting a pair of IEM (In-Ear Monitor) or headphones is the first step in upgrading your audio setup. However, choosing between the two can be difficult if you are unfamiliar with them. People who are new to the hobby tend to ask questions on which to get.
IEMs and Headphones are both great sounding devices. However, they differ in a lot of things, such as use cases. IEMs are portable so they are great when you’re on the go. Headphones, on the other hand, are recommended for indoor use such as in professional and home studios.
In this article, we will talk more about their performance. And elaborate on why one must be used in a certain scenario and why the other is not recommended in that specific scenario. By the end of this article, you will learn the difference between the two and choose which is the best for your use case.
IEMs vs. Headphones (Pros & Cons)
IEMs (In-ear Monitors) are miniature headphones that are directly inserted into the ear canal. As the name indicates, it is a device used for monitoring audio. They were made specifically for artists to hear the music and the beats guiding them on their performance.
This device helps musicians hear the instruments they are playing or voice when singing. Loud noise from the crowd is inevitable, and therefore the need for monitors.
Casual listeners commonly use headphones and earphones as an accessory for their sources. However, In-Ear monitors have recently become popular in the market, thanks to ChiFi. They have made affordable options for those who are quite tight on budget.
Compared to headphones, IEMs have smaller and fewer components installed in them. Therefore sounds produced by both tools are different from each other. However, this does not mean that IEMs are inferior to headphones.
Most IEM manufacturers use Dynamic drivers and Balanced Armature drivers. However, some manufacturers tried using both drivers in a single pair of IEMs, which are now called the Hybrid drivers.
IEMs come in all sorts of forms. The two most common form factors for IEMs are universal IEMs and Custom IEMs (CIEMs).
Universal In-Ear Monitor (UIEM)
Universal IEMs are designed to fit most users’ ears. They utilize an ear tip to achieve the most optimal fit for the user. These kinds of IEMs are readily available.
These IEMs are generally made of materials such as aluminum, titanium, and acrylic. You can check out our IEM reviews to learn more about these models.
Of course, Universal IEMs won’t be for everyone. Some users may not find their fit to be comfortable enough no matter what ear tips they use. If you are not satisfied with your universal IEM, the next IEM form factor is for you.
Custom In-Ear Monitor (CIEM)
Custom In-Ear Monitors (CIEMs) are custom molded to the shape of your ears. These do not use ear tips and are able to achieve maximum isolation and comfort.
CIEMs, are usually seen on professional artists but are now being introduced to regular consumers as well. Popular CIEM brands that are commonly used by artists include Ultimate Ears, JH Audio, Empire Ears, 64 Audio, Fitear, Just Ear (Sony).
The main downsides of CIEMs are their build time and durability. CIEMs generally take at least one month to build, depending on the manufacturer. Some CIEMs, such as the Fitear Titan, can take more than two months.
Additionally, most CIEMs are made of acrylic. And while the material is quite durable, they are still prone to cracks. And if your CIEM ever gets damaged, you would have to send them back to the manufacturer and wait until they fix the shell.
Also, CIEMs are not easily resellable. Since the shells are custom-fitted to your ears, the CIEM is not readily usable. They would have to utilize a third-party re-shell service in order to use it.
And lastly, CIEMs are more expensive than their UIEM counterpart. Overall, CIEMs have their own pros and cons. If you want to learn more, check out our dedicated article about CIEMs.
Headphones are arguably the most common listening device. They have been around ever since 1910. The IEMs, on the other hand, were only introduced during the 1980s.
This is a popular tool used by audiophiles, gamers, audio and video professionals, and casual listeners. Different types of headphones are used depending on the use case.
People tend to choose headphones over in-ear monitors due to the sound that they produce. Professional recording studios prefer using headphones for recording and mixing.
Open Back Headphones are mostly seen on professionals and audiophiles. It is almost impossible to see a casual listener owning one.
Professionals and audiophiles prefer to use open-back headphones for mixing and mastering due to headphone’s sound production. One noticeable difference in sound between these headphones to closed back is its wider sound stage.
They also have better imaging and more accurate or natural sound. Details are also much emphasized on this kind of headphone. Due to its open-back design, isolation on this headphone is lesser. Therefore, the bass, which is loud on the most closed-back, is less emphasized on the open back to achieve the natural sounding.
Higher-end models of open-back headphones have higher impedance. This means that it needs an amp capable enough to power it properly. You can read more about this in our article about open back and closed-back headphones.
The closed-back headphones, on the other hand, easier to find. Most audiophiles, professionals, and even casual listeners own closed-back headphones. They can be used both for professional and casual use.
Although the open-back is generally better when it comes to sound performance, the closed-back is really close to catching up to them. Additionally, they are more flexible to use compared to open-back headphones. There are more things you can do with closed-back headphones.
This headphone is recommended when recording. Since they are closed-back, the isolation is better, and therefore the sound coming from the headphone will not leak on the microphone.
A noticeable difference between the closed-back to the open-back headphones regarding the sound is the bass. Emphasis on the bass is prominent due to a better seal in the closed-back. As a result, the sound produces on this kind of headphone also tends to become tighter.
Differences of IEM and Headphones (Which is Better For You?)
Both devices have the same primary function: to produce a sound and be used as a tool for professional work and even for leisure. However, there a lot of things that these two differ from each other.
From the looks themselves, you can already differentiate the two. The headphones are larger compared to the IEM. And with this information, you can tell that the headphones have more and bigger components inside.
Also, headphones and IEMs are completely different when it comes to sound. There isn’t a better sounding option since both are great sounding their own unique ways.
The reason why IEMs are small is that they were made as portable tools. Headphones can also be used outside. In fact, when headphones started producing wireless pairs, people were encouraged to get one. However, IEMs are easier to carry and use.
The build quality and comfort on these two devices also differ. Headphones are bigger and heavier. And since they are bigger and are placed over the head, they tend to cause fatigue for a longer usage time. IEMs, on the other hand, are more comfortable to wear, especially if they fit perfectly on your ears.
In terms of build quality, headphones tend to be more durable compared to In-Ear Monitors. They can generally last longer than IEMs. Most headphones use plastic, while most IEMs are made with silicone and acrylic. Once the IEM breaks, it will need to be re-shelled while headphones have replaceable parts, which can be found in some stores, especially online.
When it comes to the drivers, headphones usually have more and bigger ones installed in them. IEMs usually have Balanced Armature and Dynamic drivers installed in them. However, this is not always the case. IEMs such as the TinHiFi P1 utilizes a planar magnetic driver similar to the ones used on headphones.
High-end headphones require the use of headphone amplifiers. While most IEMs do not recommend the use of an amp.
Another difference between the two devices is their price. Generally, headphones are quite more expensive than IEMs.
IEMs vs Headphones For Gaming – Which is Better?
When it comes to gaming, both IEMs and headphones are capable performers. However, when it comes to the price to performance ratio, headphones are generally a better buy. This is because you generally need to spend more in an IEM to get similar performance to headphones.
The best example is the Sennheiser HD800S. This headphone is generally considered an exceptional pair for gaming due to its wide soundstage and accurate imaging.
In order to get similar performance, you generally need to shell at least $1000 for a pair of IEMs.
IEMs vs Headphones For Electric Guitar?
The standard tools for professionals are In-ear Monitors and headphones. Both IEMs and headphones can be used for electric guitar. IEMs are used by stage musicians, while headphones are more commonly used in home and professional studios.
However, if you have to choose one, we would recommend IEMs. IEMs are lighter and more portable, meaning you can use them both during practice and live shows.
Closed-back headphones such as the M50X are more commonly used in professional and home studios.
Also, IEMs, especially custom IEM is more comfortable than most closed-back headphones.
And lastly, both UIEM and CIEM will have better sound isolation than headphones. Just make sure to pick IEMs that are tuned for guitar or professional use.