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Review: Ear Monitor Australia Custom Triple Driver In-Ear Monitors

In-ear monitoring is drawing quite a crowd on stage… and one local manufacturer is getting a standing ovation.

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31 August 2007

Review: Andy Stewart

Anyone who plays music to an audience knows that one of the most fundamental needs during a performance, no matter whether you’re a singer, a drummer, guitarist or trombone player is surely the ability to hear yourself. Nothing makes a greater mess of a vocalist’s pitch or a drummer’s timing, for example, than bad monitoring (apart from a dearth of skill) and I’m yet to hear anyone sing in tune that can’t hear themselves – you’ve only got to listen to someone singing in the street wearing their iPod to know that.

In recent years, of course, since we first puzzled over why Michael Stipe (from REM) seemed to be wearing a hearing aid on stage, the delivery of foldback has been revolutionised – turned on its ear, as it were. In-ear monitoring has swept through the concert scene like a stiff breeze and quickly grown into a viable and reliable (and vastly lighter!) alternative to foldback wedges. The benefits of in-ear monitoring systems (IEMs) include vastly improved monitoring for individual performers who, crucially, can monitor at their own level rather than that of the loudest player on stage. Keyboard players no longer need to endure painfully loud vocal levels, drummers can avoid 120dB guitar amps thrust in their face, feedback from vocal mics (the bane of most house engineers’ existence) can be virtually eliminated and overall stage volumes can be dramatically reduced. This of course has massive spin-off effects at front of house, where the engineer can finally focus on the tone and volume of the PA and the instruments amplified through it, rather than spend half the time fighting with the compromises that arise from system feedback, phase and volume anomalies that inevitably occur when the on-stage foldback system gets too loud. What’s more, IEM foldback systems can be taken with you wherever you go… in a briefcase rather than the back of a truck.

So great has been this swing to in-ear monitoring in the last few years that it’s virtually accepted now that any singer on stage will be wearing ‘hearing aids’ and any lingering prejudice or embarrassment caused by wearing them (from either side of the punter barrier) has been swept away. I remember many years ago the Australia cricketer Dean Jones (who was never easily embarrassed) walking out onto the international cricketing arena wearing sunglasses for the fist time, and for a brief period he was a laughing stock. Now virtually every cricketer right down to the under 12s wears them – and sunglasses are now as fundamental to a cricketer’s kit as the ‘box’. A similar movement is now occurring with in-ear monitors.

But custom-fitted in-ears aren’t something you can simply walk into a shop and buy (like a box), for the obvious reason that they have to be fitted by an expert (unlike a box), and they’re not something you can ‘try before you buy’ either – for the same reason. Taking the plunge into the world of custom in-ears is therefore, in some ways, a leap of faith and reviewing Ear Monitors Australia’s new custom three-way Triple Driver in-ears has had to take this into account. I can’t suggest you go and try them for yourselves and make up your own mind whether they’re for you before you buy them, like I’ve been able to with other gear in the past. Nor can I tell you that they’re sonically superior to the company’s cheaper two-way systems like the ones Gary Davis reviewed in Issue 38 because I can’t try his on. I can only tell you what I’ve experienced with the triple-driver system that’s been custom-fitted to my ears by Ear Monitors Australia and endeavour to offer those who haven’t had the experience of wearing them what it feels like to be ‘in the world of in-ears’. This is an unfortunate state of affairs perhaps, and I guess the main reason why many people buy ‘off-the-shelf’ earbuds – after all, no one likes to buy expensive equipment like this on spec – but make no mistake, these custom moulded in-ears are miles ahead of ‘generics’ in terms of fit and fidelity.

LIGHT EARS AHEAD

I’ve been wearing my custom three-way in-ears everywhere for the last couple of months. I’ve used them during rehearsal, worn them in place of standard headphones during backing vocal tracking, as playback headphones during mixing and even worn them around as my new (very expensive) iPod headphones. And I can tell you I’ve had some funny looks around the place in that situation, particularly from old ladies in the supermarket, who have seen the skin-toned plastic moulds in my ears and clearly thought: “the poor chap; it’s very sad to see someone so young having to wear two hearing aids.” What I’ve discovered since Ear Monitors Australia first asked me what colour I’d like my in-ear moulds to be (basically you can get them made in any colour you fancy – I chose ‘skin tone’ rather than ‘gold sparkle’) is that any use of the skin-toned variety off stage is met with that same empathetic glance… everywhere you go… maybe I should have ordered the sparkly ones!

HOW THEY SOUND

What I can say with great confidence is that these sealed three-way in-ears sound fantastic. They’re superbly clear and articulate and offer a truly balanced tone right across the audio spectrum. They’re certainly not ‘subby’ by any stretch but nor are they ‘thin’ sounding – they’re ‘just right’ in my opinion, especially live on stage where stray subs can leak through in-ear moulds anyway… They’re not harsh or brutal sounding like some other ear-bud generics I’ve endured that also rarely fit properly – or wedges for that matter – but rather, sound more like an expensive nearfield monitor. The midrange is vivid yet smooth and wearing them for extended periods is a breeze both physically and sonically. They’re actually incredibly comfortable once you get used to wearing them – in fact, I’m wearing them right now as I write this, listening to Daniel Lanois’ Belladonna album – sounds amazing.

What’s unusual about in-ears like these custom three-ways (which emit sound directly into the ear canal, is that your ears don’t perceive the stereo image in quite same way. By this I mean, you’re not being presented with a stereo image as such, as is the case with ‘off-ear’ headphones or free-standing speakers, you are the stereo image. What this creates is an extraordinary sense of depth and space. To that end, these in-ears make wedges seem very old-school indeed and offer so much more distortion-free fidelity, stereo imaging and improved tonal balance that once you’re used to the feeling of wearing them (they can seem slightly odd at first, but wearing them quickly becomes second nature) it’s hard to imagine monitoring with wedges again. The only concern I have would be to note that these types of monitoring systems can initially make you feel a little ‘cut off’ from the people around you [although Ear Monitors Australia does offer a ‘talk through’ in-ear system if that’s your preference] and if you’re a singer who opens his or her mouth wide, the movement of your jaw can break the seal against your ear and thus lessen the bass response in strange fits and starts as you open and close your mouth.

IF THE EARPIECE FITS…

The earpieces themselves fit snugly and securely in your ears and Ear Monitors Australia uses a very neat little trick of moulding them so that the shape of your outer ears holds the units in place. There’s also a fairly rigid plastic capping on the first inch or so of the headphone lead which allows you to bend and ‘fix’ the cable around the top of your ear, not only keeping the leads largely out of sight, but also increasing your sense of confidence that the earpieces will never fall out. If you’re the type of singer who likes to dance about, there’s virtually no hope of them dislodging during that leap off the bass drum, as I’ve experienced happening countless times with ‘generic’ in-ear systems – not that I’m suggesting I’ve been leaping off any bass drums lately. While on the topic of the headphone lead, I should mention the cables are the skin-toned bifurcated (‘twisted’) variety, which prevents them from developing a ‘memory’ of being coiled up in their box – once they’re uncoiled they’re supple and straight and ready for action. Moreover, the cable connects to each earpiece with a two-pin socket that allows it to be replaced easily at any time, should it become faulty for whatever reason.

The crucial element which makes these in-ear monitors sound as good as they do (and provide the even and controlled bass response) is their ability to seal tightly over your ear canal. This is only achieved, of course, if the impressions of your ears are skilfully taken in the first place. To that end Ear Monitors Australia’s audiometrist Anthony Plumb (who has for many years been building hearing aids) did a great job on my customs – they fit perfectly, unlike a previous set of moulded earplugs I had made at the Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne years ago. The point being that getting a set of customised earpieces off these guys not only includes a guarantee that the earpieces will fit correctly, there’s genuine after sales service as well… and what’s more it comes with a smile! Amazing…

Ear Monitors Australia offers a unique service in that they will come to you (wherever you are in Australia) and take impressions of your ears, in the same way a dentist might of your teeth, and then return to the lab where the monitors are custom manufactured and tested. What’s also great about this process is that once your impressions are taken (which involves the somewhat uncomfortable experience of having a quick-setting soft acrylic polymer syringed into your ears), extra sets can be made from the original impressions, which are kept at the lab so that further ‘house calls’ aren’t required. And when your finished units arrive in the mail a few days later you’ll also find a pair of ‘solids’ that act as glamorous and very effective earplugs – that I’ve been using everywhere from setting up drum recording sessions to mowing the lawns.

They’re great!

Interestingly, when Gary Davis offered us his impressions of his new set of custom two-way in-ears in Issue 38 of AT, he was clearly impressed by his newly fitted earpieces and sung the praises of both the sound of the units and the professionalism and service that the Ear Monitors Australia offers. (I’ve since spoken to several other people who have had ‘customs’ built by the company, and this fact has come up a lot, quite unprompted.) What Gary also said of his two-ways, however, was that they didn’t have great extension in the bottom end. What’s different about the in-ears I’ve had made are that they’re a three-way system, and the sonic focus on the design of this model has been balance and bass extension. To that end, my units sound quite remarkable – and not just for an in-ear either. Most iPod-style earbuds typically only produce a significant amount of extra bass when you press them against your ears, but you can’t be expected to walk around like that all day to gain this extra bass response… particularly if you’re in front of an audience. There’s certainly been none of that required of the units I’ve had made.

WELL WITHIN EAR SHOT

Although there’s still some apprehension amongst some musicians about the ‘vibe’, effectiveness and expense of in-ear monitoring, particularly at the small gigging professional level, there’s nevertheless a large swell of interest growing around custom in-ear systems right across the board. It’s definitely something you have to get used to but it’s certainly not the massive shift that some people make it out to be. What’s more, there are so many benefits to wearing in-ears: fidelity, volume, consistency from venue to venue, long-term ear safety and improved front of house clarity, that it seems almost negligent to not investigate the idea if you’re a gigging professional. As for the three way in-ears designed by Ear Monitors Australia, I can’t imagine there could be a better solution on offer anywhere in the world. But if the substantial cash outlay scares you off, perhaps you could start with the less expensive custom single-driver moulds at $975…

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