It's after Christmas, and you're flush with gift certificates and $5 checks from Grandma. Still, you never received the present that hits all the right notes for on-the-go listening. No matter your post-holiday budget, it's possible to get more from less, and sometimes for less, thanks to innovations in in-ear monitors (IEMs), a highly portable, personal listening experience. Inserted directly in the ear canal, and secured by foam or silicone tips of varying sizes and shapes, IEMs go well beyond earbuds in providing noise isolation. Therefore, they offer a strikingly intimate listening experience.
Of course, finding gear that matches your tonal preference involves some familiarity with the equipment. Your choice of IEMs can emphasize, even grossly exaggerate, certain frequencies, so it's important to take into account what you like and what you listen to when selecting audio gear. Just like you look for certain personality traits in a significant other, you are going to find that every IEM connects on a different physical, mental and/or emotional level. Here's a small selection of IEMs that will make the commute, the gym, or the cubicle farm far less mind-numbing.
The Shure SE215 ($95) is a dynamic "MicroDriver" (imagine a single millimeters-wide speaker cone in your ear) that leans slightly toward the low end, showcasing bass that has a smidge more punch than fluidity. The sound is pleasingly textured and well behaved for the price, but the style is best suited for warm, round pop/rock. Where the SE215 ultimately shines is music that keeps a steady, active thrust, and with its secure, over-the-ear reinforced guide wire, and a sturdy, detachable/replaceable cable, it's a perfect exercise companion. Think of these as your friend with benefits; they're enthusiastic, sometimes even passionate, and you have a lot of fun together. But they don't demand your constant attention to please.
If you're a pragmatic type that wants a more cerebral connection but doesn't go for romance, you will love the Etymotic Research HF5 ($125) ... and end up reevaluating the fidelity of some of your music. No soft focus candle-lit seduction here -- the HF5 is, in a word, revealing. Etymotic Research has a long history in hearing assistance and protection, and the clarity of the HF5 can be arresting. These are for the obsessive that want to dissect recordings in detail. If you want a little less warts-and-all view into songs, then look to the company's MC3 ($75). These come as an iPhone-friendly headset, and for a fee can even be used with silicone tips molded to the exact shape of the ear, providing the ultimate in comfort and isolation after a trip to an audiologist for impressions. With the MC3 there's a little crispness traded for the ability to push a bit more air. Put in either Etymotics, however, and you're set to compose a track-by-track blog entry meticulously critiquing whatever dense, "difficult" indie-prog album has Pitchfork afire.
There's plenty to be said for poise, but sometimes you want wanton abandonment. And if you're looking for a legs-wobbling fling with Nicki Minaj or M83, then it's the Future Sonics Atrio M5 ($175) ear monitors you want to take home with you. Some gear is for those who observe every musical movement, but these are for those who'd rather experience them. With a background in live sound monitoring, this company knows how to produce an authoritative, unflagging sound, and the sub-bass from the proprietary driver in these monitors produces such jaw-vibrating lows you'd swear you're hugging speakers at the club. There's a surprising amount of smooth control, however, considering just how tactile and intense the experience can be.