What are the pros and cons of custom v. universal in ear monitors for musicians?
IEMs come in two flavors, custom fit (e.g., Future Sonics Ear Monitors) and universal/generic ear bud-style (e.g., Future Sonics Atrios). Most performers start by trying lower-priced universals (i.e. $200) prior to committing to more expensive custom-fitted models (i.e. $800).
One benefit to custom-fit IEMs is comfort, because they are molded to the individual musician's ear from an impression made of the ear. Fit and comfort are extremely important with IEMs, since between performing, rehearsals, and MP3 listening, your patients may be wearing them for several hours a day, for most days of the week. With custom models, good fit is a primarily the result of a good, deep ear impression. For professionals, it's important to work with a reputable manufacturer who will rework the fit should it not be perfect the first time.
With universal IEMs, fit and comfort are primarily related to tip material (foam, rubber, plastic) and size. Find what feels most comfortable, yet still provides a tight seal, for your patient. This is important for both isolation from stage volume and bass response.
Speaking of isolation, custom IEMs typically provide more isolation from outside noises than universals, up to 25 dB SPL. This is generally the result of the custom fitting and better acoustic seal.
For a more in depth review of in ear monitors, please refer to the article: In-Ear Monitors: Tips of the Trade
Keith Gordon is Director of Marketing and Sales at VitaSound Audio Inc. (www.vitasound.com). He is a veteran audio engineer who mixed monitors for over a decade before overseeing development of a DSP-based hardware/software IEM system in conjunction with Westone Laboratories. He can be contacted at email@example.com