A Guide to In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)

in-ear monitors

In-ear monitors (or IEMs, as they are often referred to) are a popular choice for professional singers performing onstage. IEMs offer several advantages compared to using a wedge monitor speaker, which is why, when you watch top bands performing at concerts and festivals, you’ll often see them being used. In this article, we look at how IEMS work, the pros and cons of using them, and some of the best options available on the market for different budgets.

What Are IEMs?

In-Ear Monitors, or IEMs, are personal audio devices used by musicians and audio engineers to hear a customised mix of vocals and instruments during live performances or studio recordings. They provide superior sound isolation, clarity, and minimise stage noise, offering a more precise listening experience compared to traditional stage monitors.

How do IEMs work?

The purpose of in-ear monitors is similar to that of onstage wedge monitors (the speakers you see on the floor at the front of the stage) – namely, to allow the performers onstage to hear a different mix of the song they’re playing. A singer may, for example, be more comfortable giving their performance if they can hear more of the guitar and less of the drums – so both IEMs and wedge monitors can output this mix of the song without affecting the mix that the audience hears.

The main difference with IEMs is that instead of the feed being sent from the mixer to the wedge monitors, it’s sent to your personal receiver, which you can then listen to via the inner earpieces you connect to your receiver. The earpieces themselves are similar in many ways to regular earphones, but whereas regular earphones tend to contain just one speaker each, your IEMs will contain multiple speakers, giving you a much higher quality sound, which you also have far more control over.

Can I just use regular iPhone earphones?

Well, yes and no. Although you could technically do this, properly designed in-ear monitors offer far better sound isolation than you find on most domestic earphones. Also, they tend to have a more forward sound with a focused mid-range, meaning you can hear your vocals clearer in the mix.

Advantages of In-Ear Monitors

Reduce Feedback Issues

Unlike traditional wedge monitors, which can cause feedback when the volume is too high, In-Ear Monitors are designed to eliminate this problem.

Hearing Protection On Stage

In-Ear Monitors offer the benefit of shielding your ears from the loud sounds of instruments like drums and guitar amplifiers while you’re performing.

Personalised Monitor Mix

You can get your own personalised monitor mix that only you can hear – and everyone else in the band can also potentially have their own monitor mix too.

Click or Cue Tracks

In-Ear Monitors are crucial for performances involving click or cue tracks, as they enable you to hear these guides without projecting them to the audience.

Self-Adjustable Monitor Mix On Stage

Certain In-Ear Monitor systems come with the feature that allows you to tweak your own monitor mix during a live performance, giving you real-time control over what you hear.

Disadvantages of In-Ear Monitors

Hearing Pitch Challenges

The use of In-Ear Monitors can sometimes make it difficult for singers to maintain accurate pitch, particularly for those new to using them. This is because volume levels can affect our ear’s frequency response, altering how we perceive pitch. Combined with the absence of your voice’s natural resonance, getting the volume just right becomes crucial for pitch accuracy.

Feeling of Isolation

IEMs do a great job of sound isolation, but that can be a double-edged sword. It’s easy to feel disconnected from your bandmates when you’re cocooned in your own audio world, potentially affecting your group’s overall vibe and performance chemistry.

Risk of Over-Amplification

While In-Ear Monitors are designed to offer some level of hearing protection from loud stage noise, there’s a risk involved if the volume is turned up too high. Increasing the volume excessively can lead to hearing damage, undermining one of the key benefits of using IEMs.

Top In-Ear Monitor Picks to Suit Your Budget

Shure SE215

Shure SE215

These are a great choice if money is limited. They are well-built and offer a crisp, clear sound. Bass is a little light compared to some other options, but this may not be an issue for most singers.

Pros and Cons:

Good sound isolation

Strong bass and mids

Sound lacks in treble

Only one driver

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Sennheiser IE40 Pro

Sennheiser IE40 Pro

If Shure’s budget options aren’t a great fit for your ears, then you may find Sennheiser’s IE 40 Pro a better fit.

Pros and Cons:

Detachable cable

Clear, balanced sound

Some sibilance (splashy hiss)

Over-ear fit may not suit all users

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Mackie MP-220

Mackie MP-240

These have two drivers to give you extra bass than the single-driver setup found on other budget options.

Pros and Cons:

Second driver for boosted bass

Solidly built

Bass can be overwhelming to some ears

Sound isolation struggles in a live music environment

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Audio Technica ATH-E50

Audio Technica ATH-E50

These offer a slightly brighter sound than some other options on the market, which can bring out some extra detail in the mix and often particularly suit female singers.

Pros and Cons:

Strong build quality

Smooth, balanced sound

Connectors don’t fit third-party cables

Less response to extreme upper frequencies

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Shure SE846

Shure SE846

These may cost 8 times more than Shure’s entry-level IEMs, but if you want top-quality sound on stage, look no further!

Pros and Cons:

Clear, punchy bass

Four separate drivers for each earphone

High cost

Understated treble

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Custom Moulded Earphones

If you want the ultimate in sound quality, isolation and comfort, then the best option is to go for custom moulded earphones. These are made for your ears by a specialist taking a mould of your ear canals and then sending them to a company to design the earphones to fit perfectly. This is obviously more expensive than buying “off the shelf” IEMs; however, it tends to be the option that many top musicians go for – especially if they are being used for lots of shows. 

If you already have a set of earphones, such as the ones mentioned above, there are also companies that can make custom moulded tips for your existing headphones – which can be a more cost-effective solution than buying a completely new set. 

Wired and Wireless Systems

Should I choose a wired or wireless system?

To make your in-ear monitors work on stage, you’ll need a portable headphone amplifier (ideally with level control). These are often sold separately to your earphones and come in two main versions: wired and wireless.

Most singers tend to go for wireless options, which can be attached to a belt and worn, allowing them to move about on stage. On the other hand, you might want to consider wired options if you perform while sitting down (such as if you are a drummer or pianist).

The main advantage of going wireless is the freedom it gives you on stage to move around while you perform. On the other hand, wireless systems are more expensive than wired options – plus, you have to be careful to check the battery level before each gig. If you perform seated, in one position, you may be able to get away with saving yourself the cost by using a wired headphone amplifier set up next to your chair, which you can clip on before each set. Many of these also offer mains power options as well as battery, giving you one less thing to worry about on stage.

Wireless frequency choice

When choosing your wireless system, you’ll need to consider the frequency spectrum that it can operate on. The allowed frequency ranges for systems to operate on can vary between countries, and some even require a licence to use (although this is typically for systems designed for use at large festivals and concert halls when you have a large number of wireless packs in use; these are unlikely to be of interest to singers and bands doing their own sound). If you’re buying your wireless system from a shop in your own country, this shouldn’t be something to worry about too much; however, if you are, for example, a UK based band planning to play over Europe, you may want to do a bit of research into what frequency bands are allowed in all the territories that you are playing in. 

One final thing to consider when choosing the wireless frequency is to make sure that, if other band members are using wireless packs, they can work on different channels to each other. Most wireless systems offer a range of frequencies in which you can select to operate at, although some only offer one frequency of operation so you may need to check with the rest of your group before making your purchase. 

Behringer P2

Behringer P2 (Wired)

If you want the cheapest wired option for monitoring on stage you can’t go too far wrong with the Behringer P2. It has decent battery life and is a compact size. It only offers mono operation and you can get better sound quality if you spend more.

Pros and Cons:

Very affordable price

Takes up very little space – ideal for a small stage

Battery only – can’t be powered by mains

No stereo

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Behringer P1

Behringer P1 (Wired)

The P1 has the advantage over the P2 of stereo operation and the ability to power it via a mains power adaptor (not included). That said, if you don’t need stereo, the P2 is more compact and has better battery life.

Pros and Cons:

Great quality sound at low cost

Solid, durable build

Larger, heavier unit 

Shorter battery life (though can be connected to mains)

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Shure PSM200

Shure PSM200 (Wireless)

Shure’s entry-level wireless system is perfectly designed for smaller groups or solo singers who do their own sound. You can use up to 4 systems on stage at once and it comes with some basic earphones to get you started.

Pros and Cons:

Portable and lightweight

Offers better low end than its peers – great for bassists and drummers

Mono only

Lower quality stock earphones

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Shure PSM300

Shure PSM300 (Wireless)

The PSM300 features improved converters and sound quality compared to the PSM200 and is capable of operating up to a 90m range. It has stereo operation, which can also be used to create a custom 2-channel mix, and up to 15 units can be used simultaneously.

Pros and Cons:

Superior sound quality

LCD display to allow easy mixing on the go

Transmitter’s small antenna can attract interference

Rechargeable battery not included

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Sennheiser EW IEM G4

Sennheiser EW IEM G4 (Wireless)

This offers 1680 selectable frequencies, making it potentially a great option if you are performing in a range of countries or with musicians with other wireless equipment. 

Pros and Cons:

Wireless freedom without losing sound quality

Can operate up to 100m range

Twice as expensive as Shure’s entry-level wireless system

Earphones included don’t complement the system’s high quality

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