Did you ever hear your parents or your doctor tell you to make sure you NEVER stick anything in your ear, other than a Q-Tip (and even with the Q-Tip, NEVER too far into your ear, right)? Yep, me too…
In August, I had a follow up with my Ear, Nose, and Throat doc. While I was there meeting with him, I inquired as to whether or not he could check my hearing. As a musician and producer of music, my ears are so important to me, and sometimes I don’t take adequate measures to protect them. He referred me to the audiologist in his office, and within 15 minutes she had me in the booth with a clicker in my hand doing the “can you hear the tone” test. Great news, my hearing is still within normal ranges. Sweet! As we were talking while she was writing up the results, she told me that as a musician, that I absolutely needed to be wearing In Ear Monitors (IEM’s). This sent me down the path of looking into the wide variety of IEM’s to choose from.
When shopping for IEM’s, there are two paths to the same end. Universal fit and custom molds. Both offer ambient noise reduction, quality audio, and both options offer a much better monitoring situation than a traditional floor wedge. The universal fit monitor is a less expensive way to get started in an IEM. Most manufacturers offer a few different size cushions or sleeves. I wasn’t in love with the Shure E3′s that my wife let me borrow. I had bought them for her air travel a few years ago, and they work well for that environment where you’re not moving around as much. I found that with all the different size sleeves, I still found them a bit loose and became frustrated with having them slipping out. This led me to start researching custom molds.
Custom mold IEM’s are just that, they are custom fit to your ear. I spent a great deal of time reading reviews for the different IEM Manufacturers. The most popular brands are J.H. Audio, Ultimate Ears, and Westone. I learned that the inventor of In Ear Monitoring was Jerry Harvey, who was touring with Van Halen back in the 80′s as their monitor engineer when he came up with the idea. He founded, and later sold his company called Ultimate Ears. He then created his new company doing the same thing, under the name J. H. Audio.
So, here’s the big question…how do you shop for something you have no experience with, and compare it to the competition with when you can’t try or test the product? As a sidebar, these manufacturers do have units that can be tested where they put their drivers into a universal fit sleeve. They can occasionally be found at music conferences, etc. but I had no occasions on my calendar to chance seeing one of their booths anywhere. Tough decision, so here is what I ended up doing. I reasoned that Jerry Harvey pioneered this whole path, and has been successful under both companies that he has formed. This led me to go with JH Audio. I found the recommended audiologist on their website, Dr. Maria Wynens and made an appointment. I made the decision to use Dr. Wynens instead of the audiologist that encouraged me to move into IEM’s based on the logic that If Dr. Wynens was listed on the JH Audio site as an expert in making ear molds, then certainly she has a great deal of experience in getting this done correctly. After all, imagine going through the expense of ordering molds made custom for you and having an issue with the fit. This isn’t something you can bring back. After arriving at Dr. Wynen’s office, she brought me back and explained the process to me. She had this miniature cotton balls on strings that she would place within millimeters of my eardrum, then pack my ear full of blue goo that would harden into cement. The kicker on this is that the entire time I would be sitting there, I was to keep a bite block between my teeth and was not allowed to swallow. Seems easy, eh? It takes the goo about 8-10 minutes to harden. Try this, take a popsicle stick and place it between your teeth for 10 minutes without moving it or swallowing for 10 minutes and report back in the comments section for this blog. I put in my bite block, and as she packed the goo into my ear, it felt like they were getting crammed full of cold clay mud, and then the world went completely silent. Dead silent, like hear your heartbeat and breathing kind of silent. Then she handed me a handful of paper towels and told me that drool overflowing down my face was natural and that it happens all the time. Stellar. I regret not having a photo to tell the tale with. 8.5 minutes later, she tested my cemented ears and pulled out the forms. After placing them in a box she asked me which manufacturer I was planning to go with and I let her know that I was down to JH Audio, but was still considering Westones. She told me that her husband had a set of Westones he got for travel listening and he was lukewarm about them, but every artist she has fit for JH Audio loved them. I don’t believe she would get a kickback for her endorsement, so that comment really sealed it up for me.
When I got home, I ordered my JH5 monitors. I had been obsessing about which model and which color from which manufacturer. The JH5′s are the entry model into custom molds, and they have one low and one high frequency driver. This was the original IEM design. I really wanted to jump up to the JH7′s which have two low drivers and one high, because as a multi-instrumentalist I play drums and keyboard, and it would be nice to have a more detailed low frequency response. However, budgets being what they are, and given the facts that I primarily will be using them for guitar and vocals, combined with the idea that moving into a custom mold will already be an exceptional listening experience, I purchased the JH5′s and absolutely LOVE them. I ordered them in trans black, because I had seen a photo of them on someone else’s blog. I wear my hair in a flat top, so given the fact that I am leading people in worship, I didn’t want to get a distracting color like ice blue or hot red with skulls on them.
I think I looked out into the driveway every 20 minutes looking for the Fedex truck. When they arrived, they were packed in an otter box for their safety, with vividly colored trimmings. They come with your name on the otter box for easy identification amongst the greater population of JH Audio customers that you’re sure to run into, and your initials on the monitors themselves. Because I have a prosperous physique, I also ordered the longer headphone cable length. They look great, and sound even better. I can’t imagine what the JH16′s could sound like! I paired the JH5′s with an Audio Technica M2M wireless ear rig. Reasonable quality for the price. I am a big believer in Shure gear, but they have a limited frequency entry model PSM200, and then the touring grade PSM900 that is priced out of the Stratosphere. I’m afraid that will have to wait until we are touring.
So, here’s the deal on what I’ve gotten by moving into IEM’s. My hearing is protected thanks to the 26 decibel reduction that the custom molds give me (providing I keep my headphone volume reasonable). I can hear crystal clear what I am playing and singing, and my live vocals have gotten much stronger. I am able to play full weekend retreats and leaving the weekend with my voice just as strong as when I arrived. Before, I had a terrible habit of trying to out sing the crowd and the PA which would result in me blowing my voice out. Airplane rides are beautiful too, after a polite hello to the people in my row, the JH5′s go in and musical goodness for hours on the ipod. No ear fatigue wearing them, because they were made to fit my ear canal! I haven’t found a downside yet.
Thank you Jerry, for a great product, and for enabling me to get better at my craft.