An accurate analogy for earbuds is that they’re like mini speakers positioned right next to your ears. And because earbuds sit on your outer ear, they don’t seal off the ear canal, so they let a lot of outside noise in. In a noisy environment, the only way you’ll be able to hear the sound well with earbuds is to raise the volume. So, if you’re using earbuds on, let’s say, public transportation or at the gym, raising the volume is your only option to hear well. Even then, chances are you won’t be able to eliminate all the unwanted background noise.
Since IEMS can be placed deeper into the ear canal, sitting within the ear structure, they offer superior noise isolation, which is paramount for musicians and live performers. IEMs can cut approximately 26 dB of outside noise on average. They also provide users with a more immersive listening experience. However, with IEMs, you must create a proper seal inside your ears with the right ear tip to reap the full benefits of noise isolation. In-ear monitors often come with several ear tip shapes and materials so that you can find the right fit. Once you do, you don’t need to pump up the volume to hear your music.
IEMs can sound louder without necessarily exposing your ears to more decibels. This, in turn, allows for listening at levels that can prevent hearing damage. The reason we often raise the volume has nothing to do with the music itself but that we’re trying to drown out the ambient noise.
Many IEMs offer customization options where a mold of your ear is created for an even more accurate ear-fit. It’s another level of personalization and comfort.
Another reason you might turn up the volume with earbuds is that the sound quality is lacking. Earbuds often only feature a single dynamic driver, while IEMs can have several drivers. A dynamic driver is usually there to handle the bass, but the mids and highs often get their own balanced armature drivers, sometimes several of them.
Some IEMs might boast upwards of five drivers. L-Acoustics Contour XO, for example, boasts ten balanced armature drivers: four low-frequency drivers, two mid, and four high frequency. As you can imagine, the clarity and precision that these drivers can achieve will always outshine the single driver found in most earbuds.
However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t IEMs with a single driver. Some budget in-ear monitors feature fewer drivers, and sometimes just one—similar to earbuds. Usually, more drivers are found in high-end, audiophile-grade, and professional in-ear monitors.