In-ear monitors for DJing might sound crazy but more and more DJs are seeing the light – in-ear monitors confer some massive advantages for DJs compared to traditional over-ear headphones – it’s time to admit it!
It’s becoming far more common for DJs to use earphones instead of headphones. After all, in-ear monitors are the norm for professional musicians and other music performers so why should it be any different for DJs?
Over-ear headphones have been a DJ icon for decades and have become synonymous with the culture along vinyl records and turntables. Still, trends have changed since the 80s and 90s and DJ equipment is modernizing rapidly. One such area of modernization is in monitoring.
In-ear earphones or in-ear monitors (IEMs) are now louder, they’re clearer, punchier and sound better than ever before. Combine that with their unparalleled ability to block out ambient noise and it’s easy to see why DJs are giving them a go and why, the many, they’re sticking.
In-Ear Monitors: The Benefits
IEMs are used both for recreational listening and as professional monitor earphones in live audio situations, whether in broadcast, film, and TV or music performance. For live music performance, in-ear monitors or IEMs are the monitoring tool of choice. Firstly, they keep a small profile – that isn’t so important for DJs, but secondly, they isolate noise particularly effectively.
Expanding foam ensures a snug fit in the ear canal that is sealed from the outside environment. There’s no doubt about it, in-ear monitors are incredibly well isolated and soundproofed.
A) They protect your hearing: DJs are exposed to tons of loud noise, that goes without saying. Have you ever done a set to realize you’re slowly turning up your headphone volume, though? Experiment with how loud you turn up your headphones in a typical set and listen in a quiet environment, you may be shocked at quite how loud you push it. In a live situation with music coming from the main speaker system and monitor speakers, you simply don’t realize that volumes are reaching dangerous levels.
Your ears become desensitized and you crank your headphones to compensate. What is the result? Hearing loss. There is simply no way to avoid causing some damage to your eyes if you’re constantly whacking up your headphones – it’s inevitable. DJs need their ears – using in-ear headphones helps you protect them.
B) Better monitoring: It can be hard to hear things properly through over-ear headphones for the exact reasons above, they isolate poorly and ambient noise seeps through. This can confuse you, where’s the bassline at? Are those hi-hats coming from the monitors or headphones?
Loud noise can be hard to decipher and poor monitoring leads to mixing mistakes. In-ear monitors quieten everything down and allow you to actually listen to your mix internally as it sounds through the mixer cues. Without outside interference, you can really focus on nailing the mix to your perfection. If you want to listen to the overall mix as your audience hears it then simply switch on the master output cue.
In-Ear Monitors vs Earphones
In-ear monitors are earphones but not all earphones are in-ear monitors! Earphones come in many shapes and sizes ranging from AirPods to bulkier models which hook over the ear. Earphones designed for recreational listening, like AirPods or any other earphones with hard plastic earbuds are not suitable for DJing.
These types of earphones aren’t designed for use in very loud environments and whilst some are reasonably well isolated, they do somewhat undermine the very point of using in-ear monitors. The in-ear monitors you want to look for are those with foam earbuds. Foam earbuds expand in the ear canal to provide the acoustic seal that gives IEMs their advantages over normal headphones.
In-ear Monitors: How to Get Used to Them
In-ear monitors can protect your hearing whilst providing an ideal monitoring environment free from background noise. However, they are markedly different from traditional over-ear headphones and getting used to them can be tricky.
Find your Fit: In-ear monitors may or may not hook over the ear either with their wires or an actual hook. IEMs with this type of fit will stay in your ear as you dance around the stage but they can rub the back of the ear. You also might find it difficult to remove the earphones frequently. That said, ear hooks are useful and you don’t need to hook them over every time you insert and remove the earphone.
Forget about monitoring on just one side: DJs will often have one headphone on the head and the other off the head. This allows them to listen to the monitor speakers and the mix. With earphones, it’s best to just leave them in more the less the whole time you mix. Why? Because this allows you to keep volumes controlled whilst you mix, protecting your hearing and enhancing your monitoring experience.
Yep, we can all probably mix fine on our bog-standard headphones in our bedrooms but try to execute your brilliantly well-planned mix live with blaring monitors and other ambient noise when you can’t hear properly! In-ear monitors will always be the same – you can practice with them and be sure that in the club, everything will sound basically the same as in your home studio or practice room.
With all that out of the way, here are some of the top models you can currently get:
Shure SE Range
These are without a doubt some of the best selling in-ear monitors of all time. Shure is an awesome manufacturer of earphones and the whole SE range are upheld by musicians and performers as some of the best earphones they’ve ever used. There are a few models in the range, each one is pretty much perfect for DJing.
One thing to bear in mind when browsing the SE range is that each model may have two options, one model that is Bluetooth equipped and another that uses normal AUX cables, though the higher-end models are equipped with both Bluetooth and cables. For DJs, AUX cabled earphones are the one-size-fits-all option. Bluetooth is becoming a more popular option for DJ monitoring but at the moment, cabled headphones and earphones are still seen as far more reliable.
These are the cheapest Shure earphones and sit at the bottom of the coveted SE range. They’re simple, powerful and in many ways, they tick all the boxes. Whilst you can’t expect tremendous audio quality from cheap earphones, these give it a good stab and they certainly go loud enough without becoming hard or painful on the ears. Of course, such is the nature of IEMs that you won’t need to turn them up so loud anyway.
Fit: These are the only earphones in the SE range to lack any sort of ear hook. This is great for those who find ear hooks uncomfortable but it does mean they’re less stable in the ear. Like all Shure earphones, these come with several options for the earbuds which can be easily removed, changed and replaced. Some earbuds are more rubbery and are probably not ideal for listening and monitoring in loud environments whereas the others are made from thick expandable foam. These are what you want to use for optimal sound isolation!
Audio: These earphones use one micro driver but they still go as loud as you need them to go. The high-end is pretty accurate overall and Shure has put effort into shaping the low-end so it’s nice and punchy. Of course, there are some limitations and compared to Shure’s higher-end IEMs, the SE112s do lack some detail.
The SE215s come in two different versions, Bluetooth or cabled and probably the most popular in-ear monitors ever! They’re awesome for everyone ranging from recreational listeners on commutes, in flights, when jogging, cycling or training in the gym to musicians, live performers and now, DJs. They have an ergonomic design that hooks around the back of the ear.
Fit: These hook around the ear, this enhances sound isolation by keeping the earphone at the right profile. With foam and rubber inserts included of varying sizes, it’ll be easy to find an earbud that feels comfortable for you whilst meeting sound isolation demands.
Audio: The SE215s contain an updated driver compared to the 115s, they’re louder, more accurate, more detailed and above all, more bassy thanks to Shure’s extended bass tuning. The tone is relatively simple overall and whilst it doesn’t really lack anything, it won’t blow you away with 3D richness and superb separation of stereo instruments, etc, that’s for the higher end Shure models!
Moving up a notch, let’s keep this simple because they are virtually the same as the SE215s but with even better dual drivers that crank up almost everything. They sound better in pretty much every way and will really bring the detail to your tracks and allow you to differentiate everything easily, even in loud environments.
Up another bracket, the SE535s add yet another driver to each earphone totaling 3 drivers each side! You guessed it, this improves audio quality drastically and at this stage, we’re moving towards audiophile-level audio quality. Music sounds perfectly balanced, punchy yet warm and detailed. It’s hard to imagine audio quality like this until you experience it, but wait…there is one more model to go!
The Shure SE846s are high-end earphones, there’s no doubt about that. They are the choice of many top-level artists and musicians worldwide and have won numerous awards and accolades for their phenomenal performance. These have 4 ultra-fine tuned drivers in each earphone, precision-engineered to be as crisp, detailed and responsive as possible across the entire frequency spectrum.
These earphones also contain true woofer technology that extends the bass to way beyond what any typical earphones can manage. You have to hear it to believe it! To add to all that, the SE846 box contains numerous accessories including a high-quality headphone adapter, waterproof carry kit and extra wires.
The Shure range of in-ear monitors is formidable but here’s a worthy adversary. MEE audio hasn’t made a huge range of products and they’ve not been around for so long but the products they have created, including these critically-acclaimed IEMs, have pretty much all built excellent reputations. These earphones are the 2nd generation, the 1st was successful but MEE made further improvements to enhance bass and improve build quality.
Fit: The MEE audio M6 Pro’s use a similar format to most other in-ear monitors. They fit ergonomically and make use of memory-foam earbuds which shape themselves to the ear canal. They also use ‘memory wires’ that help users hook the earphone wires behind to ear to keep the fit snug and the wires out of the way.
Audio: These are slightly cheaper than Shure’s very cheapest IEMs but they pack awesome audio quality for the price. Crisp, loud and bassy, there’s no frequency which is severely lacking in these earphones, they’re well-balanced across the board. They may lack some level of detail and you might want more punch in the bass but overall, for the money, these are excellent IEMs.
Ikko aren’t your usual familiar music tech manufacturer but they’ve built an excellent reputation and raft of stellar reviews for their products. Combining modern innovation and amazing aesthetic styling, the Ikki OH10 1BAs are well-built, sound extremely good and they really do look great!
Fit: These earphones have a classic fit, sitting nicely in the ear canal. The rubber earbuds included isolate noise better than the average rubber style earbuds but it may be worth getting some extra foam earbuds to experiment with what works best for you.
Audio: These feature dual titanium drivers that make the most out of new-gen components that enable the earphones to produce a loud, balanced and natural sound. For the money, the audio quality of these earphones is pretty astounding. The custom-built drivers clearly deliver quality a step above the mono drivers of lower end Shure earphones.
In-ear monitors are gaining popularity for numerous reasons. The principle reason for why you should take them seriously is as ear protection. Too many DJs are damaging their ears and headphones contribute to the issue. In loud environments, in-ear monitors just make sense. There’s a reason why they’re used by musicians at live gigs and festivals, after all.
There isn’t a huge selection of IEMs to choose from but to be honest, the earphones in this list have you covered. Shure delivers awesome IEMs in the SE range and there’s something there for every budget. The most expensive earphones in the range cost nearly 20 times that of the cheapest! There’s a big range there, everyone can find something that suits them.
The other two IEMs listed are both nearly-perfect in their own ways. MEE audio has built a great reputation and these cheaper IEMs are superbly reviewed. The Ikkos deliver dual drivers for a cheaper price compared to near-equivalent Shure SE425s.