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Digital Life

Plug into a new audio experience

Music lovers are embracing in-ear headphones as they sit in the ear canal, offering a better fit and blocking out external noise. SHERWIN LOH reports

Published on Apr 11, 2014 3:03 AM

Dynamic drivers or balanced armatures; wired or wireless; sports, silicone, foam or custom: Welcome to the world of in-ear headphones, also known as in-ear monitors and in-ear earphones.

While regular earphones are often supplied free with smartphones and portable music players, in-ear ones have become more popular with music lovers, because they are a better fit in the ear canal and block out much of the external noise that can interfere with music playback.

Like bulky headphones which offer the noise cancelling feature and often come in a variety of designs and colours, in-ears have their own unique attributes which first-time buyers should be aware of.

Inside each earphone is a speaker, also known as a driver, which reproduces the sound from your music player. Manufacturers tend to use two types of drivers - dynamic and balanced armature.

Dynamic drivers are similar in design to those found in headphones and speakers, and offer more bass. They tend to be available in single-driver in-ears.

Balanced armature drivers are more precise instruments which were originally designed for hearing aids. As they are much smaller than dynamic drivers, manufacturers can pack two, three and even four such drivers into a single earphone. But the drawback is that these lack details in the low-end bass range.

Then there are the eartips. Most in-ear brands offer silicone tips of different sizes, so users can find their best fit. Others may provide foam tips, which offer a better seal, or have tips with rubber hooks that connect to the grooves of their ears.

Some sports versions are sweatproof and can be rinsed in water, while others offer wireless versions that eliminate cable tangle.

Those with money to burn can consider made-to-order in-ear headphones. An audiologist makes moulds of your ears and these moulds are used to make custom shells to house the drivers.

Even students are buying in-ear monitors now and the market has grown in the last three years, according to Jaben, a music store which specialises in earphones and headphones.

Ms Claire Jiang, Jaben's country manager, said it currently offers five brands of made-to-order in-ears, including JH Audio and FitEar. They start at $868 for a pair of custom JH 5 to $2,800 for a pair from FitEar.

Ultimate Ears, a pioneer in custom in-ear monitors, offers a similar customising service via its website.

While Jaben provides reference earpieces for testing, those ordering direct from the United States must base their hardware decisions on information from the website.

A cheaper option is "reshelling" or inserting a universal in-ear headphone into a shell made from a personal mould. This service from Unique Melody is available at local audio retailer Stereo for an additional $300.

Digital Life rounds up nine of the latest in-ears on the market.

Denon Exercise Freak AH-W150

Onkyo IE-HF300

Plantronics BackBeat Go 2

Bose SIE2i

Jabra Sport Wireless+

Monster Inspiration

Klipsch X4i

Sony XBA-H3

Ultimate Ears 11 Pro Custom In-Ear Monitors