It’s impressive how good can IEMs (in-ear monitors) sound. But to perfectly transfer the sound from the drivers to your eardrum, you need a perfect seal from the outside world. And for that, you need quality ear tips.
Many people often find in-ear headphones or earbuds uncomfortable or sounding worse than full-sized headphones. However, most of these problems occur due to improper fit and seal.
People have different ear canals, with different lengths, shapes, and openings. From an evolutionary standpoint, our ear canals amplify frequency regions usually associated with human speech.
But not all people amplify the same frequencies. That is why some find particular headphones peaky and sibilant, while others find them sounding perfectly fine. Picking the right ear tips for you is essential.
There is an extensive test of different types and brands of ear tips and their characteristics found here.
Signs of a Bad Fit
You purchased brand new in-ear headphones, but they don’t sound the way other people describe them. While there is a small chance the product is defective, it’s most often the case of ear tips not fitting properly.
Signs that the seal is improper:
- Earbuds keep falling out even though you’re not moving or working out
- The overall sound is very thin, with a low bass response or lack of it
- Everything sounds distant and unclear
- There is no noise isolation
These are all the signs that you haven’t picked the right ear tips. Everybody’s ear canals are unique, so finding the perfect eartips is extremely important. Slight deviations in angle or depth of insertion can completely change the sound signature and overall audio quality.
Types of Ear Tips
Silicone Ear Tips
Silicone tips are the most common and usually come bundled with even the cheapest earbuds.
Their main strength is their durability since they can last for years without any noticeable quality degradation. They’re easy to clean since you can wash them with water and soap to make them as good as new.
While silicone ear tips are comfortable to wear, they can provide a slightly worse fit: especially if you use them for a workout since sweat makes them slippery. Also, if your ears aren’t perfectly clean of earwax, they might start slipping out.
Isolation is good, but not great since they’re not meant for deep insertion. Overall, they provide the cleanest transition of the sound from the driver to the eardrum.
Multi-flanged Ear Tip
The best option when you need perfect noise isolation. Sometimes they come with accessories, but you usually have to buy them separately.
There are bi-flanged and triple-flanged ear tips, both provide better sound isolation. They can even prevent water from coming inside your ear canal, so they often come with waterproof headphones for swimming.
The biggest problem is that you need to push them deeper inside your ear canal, especially the triple-flange ones. For beginners, the insertion procedure can be uncomfortable. It creates an airtight environment inside your ears that feels like a suction.
Don’t pull them out of your ear too quickly, since the pressure can damage your eardrums. While the weird sensation is something that you get used to, you still have to be careful.
Foam Ear Tips
Foam ear tips have either regular or memory foam. Memory foam is more common and comfortable since it perfectly conforms to the shape of your ear canal.
It takes a bit more time to insert since the memory foam has to expand, but the comfort, stability, and isolation are well-worth the wait.
Foam tips also most noticeably change how your earbuds sound. Sometimes for the worst, sometimes for the better. In general, they increase the bass and the sound’s warmth while also smoothing out the treble. They are the perfect pick for harsh and sibilant in-ear monitors.
Users call this phenomenon “funneling”, and it happens because of the excess foam at the end of the tip. When inserted, that excess foam bends and covers the opening in the middle of the nozzle. Some say that slightly trimming the end of the foam tip helps.
They’re not the most durable. From our experience, foam tips can last at least a few months, although it depends on how often you use them and how they’re made. Some are coated with a special film to prevent earwax from building up on the tip’s surface.
It makes sense that if you continuously squeeze a specific material, it will eventually lose its shape. Therefore, if you decide to go with foam tips, you need to consider replacing them regularly.
Hybrid Ear Tips
These are not very common, and they usually don’t come in a box.
There are many different types of hybrids. In most cases, the nozzle and the outside of the ear tip are made from different materials. Or they’re stiffer/softer.
Some of the hybrid ear tips even have foam underneath the silicone cape. That ensures the sound characteristic of the silicone tip with the isolation properties of the foam ear tip.
Custom Ear Tips
Custom tips are the best way to ensure ultimate comfort and fit since every ear canal is unique. Custom tips require you to make a cast of your inner ear. That is usually done by a hearing aid professional (yes, you can order a custom tip at the medical shop).
Some audio companies allow you to create a cast on your own, as they send you the putty to make an impression of your ear.
But there is a catch: you also need to give them your IEMs. In a matter of weeks, they will make personalized ear tips just for you, with your IEMs inside the custom tip.
Foamy covers for better comfort and stability, compared to bare plastic found in many classic earbuds. These foam covers are still popular today.
Usually, they cover the whole earphone, while others have a hole in the middle of the bud. Apart from providing a comfortable fit, they can also change the sound quality, primarily reducing treble peaks.
These covers are usually very fragile and can tear up quickly. That is why you need to handle them with care, especially during installation process.
How to Properly Use Ear Tips
Using in-ear headphones isn’t as straightforward as it seems. If you want to squeeze the best user experience out of them, you should follow these directions.
Lots of earbuds have slightly angled nozzles, and for a good reason. Our ear canal is not a straight hole but is instead somewhat curved up. Therefore, an angled nozzle projects the sound directly into the eardrum.
While wired earbuds are easier to insert properly, true wireless earbuds aren’t. In many cases, when inserting TWS buds, you need to place them flat in your ear, and then slightly tilt the earbuds upwards. The difference in sound can be huge, especially in treble and overall clarity.
Insert foam tips properly
Foam tips are usually made from memory foam. Like those plugs you use when working in loud environments or during concerts, you can squeeze foam tips into an elongated shape that is slowly expanding.
There are 3 steps to follow when inserting foam ear tips.
- First, squeeze the tips with your fingers, or roll them.
- Insert them into your ear canal into a comfortable position.
- Wait a few seconds for the foam to fully expand.
To test if the insertion was successful, place your palm across your ear. If you notice that isolation got better when doing so, you should redo the insertion.
Know how to wear your earbuds
You can wear the majority of wired in-ear monitors (IEMs) with a cable straight down. But in some cases, the housing design requires you to wear them with the wire behind your ear. If you use those IEMs in the wrong position, they can sound terrible and make your listening experience uncomfortable. If you’re not sure, check the manual to see how to wear them.
Choose the Correct Size
The most important thing is finding the correct size for your ear canal. Usually, you get 3 pairs of ear tips inside the box, but some might offer even more variants. Make sure you try all sizes before picking the winners. You’re looking for a good seal, that also provides optimal sound quality and comfort.
Ear tip sizes can vary between manufacturers. Some earbuds require you to push them deeper inside, while others sound best with a shallow fit. If you need them to go deep, then pick smaller size tips. If the fit is supposed to be shallow, bigger tips are a better choice.
Check the size of the nozzle
If you have multiple IEMs at home, try removing their ear tips and compare the nozzle size between them. There is a good chance the diameters are slightly different. There is no universal standard for the nozzle size, so you need to make sure new tips are compatible with your earbuds.
Some ear tips have narrower nozzles than the others, so it might happen that you won’t be able to fit them on your earbuds. They can also be too big, meaning that they can get stuck inside your ear canal, which can be dangerous.
Check the ear tip’s specifications on the manufacturer’s website before purchasing it. Comply has a dedicated list where you can find which of their replacement tips are compatible with your IEM model.
Hygiene of Your Ears
Even if you do everything right, you find fantastic IEMs, get the best ear tips, and insert them properly, sound quality can still suffer if your ears aren’t clean. Keep your ears clean of earwax for the uninterrupted sonic fidelity.
Here’s an in-depth guide on how to clean earbuds.
It’s worth mentioning that people’s bodies have different reactions when wearing IEMs, especially if their bodies think that the ear tips need to be removed, resulting in increased earwax production.
Because you push IEMs into your ears, earwax is also pushed deeper into the ear canal, making it harder to clean. Cleaner ears extend your foam eartips’ life. Silicone eartips also benefit from clean ears since earwax is slippery, and slowly pushing them out of your ear canal.