June 11, 2018
This question comes up a lot in conversation in worship ministry circles, and fairly frequently I see musicians that really ought to know better show up to a worship rehearsal or event with the ubiquitous el cheapo white iPod headphones to plug into their In Ear Monitor System.
I’m just going to say it right now, based on the professional input from several trusted audiologists:
STOP IT!! IT’S BAD FOR YOU!!!
But as the question goes, “Why can’t I use my generic white earbuds for IEMs?”
Let’s get into that briefly and save your hearing.
You see, regular earbuds, like the ever-present white Apple units, sit on your ears and do not make a complete seal with your ear canal. They do not isolate you from ambient sound levels, requiring that in order to clearly hear the sound source they are playing, their volume level has to be significantly higher than all ambient sound sources in comparison.
That’s probably fine in some situations: listening in a quiet library, for example.
In many normal everyday situations, audiologists are warning us that many people are turning these common non-isolating type earbuds up too loud to compete with ambient sound levels, to the point that they are drastically exceeding OSHA recommended sustained sound pressure levels at mid to high frequencies and causing hearing loss.
Causing. Hearing. Loss.
That’s with normal everyday situations, like walking down the street, sitting on a bus, riding in a car, listening in a crowded shopping mall or restaurant.
What sort of ambient sound pressure levels do you think your simple white earbuds have to compete with in order for you to clearly hear your IEM mix above the stage volume of a drum set, guitar amps, and possibly even the singing of your church (if you’re blessed with a vociferous congregation)? In other words, how loud do you have to turn your non-isolating white earbuds?
Don’t think on this one too hard. The answer is WAY TOO LOUD.
Unsafe. Unhealthy. Even for brief periods of time.
So what makes your dedicated IEM earset different? Isolation.
Isolation is the magic word that makes them safe for your hearing.
Earsets that make a complete seal with your ear canal, even cheap ones, have isolating characteristics based on their design. Some isolate more than others, but generally the rated isolation ranges from 25db to 29db. That means whatever your ambient volume level is, you can start nearly 30 decibels quieter to dial in your mix. Audiologists will tell you that is a MASSIVE factor in the direction of safety.
Of course, it’s possible to dial your IEM mix up to the point of hurting your ears with isolating headphones as well, but with isolating ear sets, you at least have the option of not doing that. If you are indeed using isolating ear phones, and you’re finding that you need to turn them crazy loud in order to hear a particular instrument, start by turning things down in the mix to highlight what you want to hear rather than turning things up. You’ll find that you can create a pleasant mix that gives you what you need to hear at a safe listening level.
So now when someone asks you why they can’t use their el cheapo white earphones, you’ll know how to answer them. And for the love of your precious hearing, don’t use them yourselves.
You know it’s possible to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on custom fit IEM earsets, but that’s not necessary. Thanks to world market accessibility on the internet, there are plenty of inexpensive options: KZ makes a line of various universal fit isolating IEMs (ZS3 single drivers, ZST dual drivers, ZSR triple drivers, ZS10 quintuple drivers, etc), there’s the MEE M6 series, and of course the venerable Shure SE215’s. Personally I recommend the KZ ZSR universal fit 3-driver isolating IEM earsets as the current best bang for the buck. However you choose, get isolating ear sets, and invest in the matching foam tips to get a really good seal in your ear canal and help them stay in place better, over the too-flexible silicon tips that usually come with ear sets.
Your ears will thank you immediately as well as again 20 years down the road.
Brendan Prout is a husband, dad, pastor and worship leader. He loves training and equipping others to do the work of ministry they are called to, all things geeky, good food, cars, coffee, and not driving off cliffs anymore.