How Custom In-Ears Stack Up To Earbuds

Daniela Vesco/Invision for Parkwood Entertainment/AP Images
Beyoncé performs during the Formation World Tour at NRG Stadium on Sept. 22, 2016 in Houston. 

In-ear monitors sound great on paper. But what about in your actual ears? To find out, Glick fitted me for my own in-ear monitors. She started by taking an impression of my ear canals, which felt odd but not uncomfortable, like having custard squirted into your ears. After we discussed what kind of sound I wanted, she recommended JH Audio’s JH13V2s, which have six drivers per side – two each for bass, midrange and treble. Then I used the JH Audio Web site to design them; I opted for translucent black, although bright colors and glitter are available for glam-rock fans.

A week later, they arrived in an impressively professional-looking screwtop tin, and I had a short videoconference call with Glick to make sure I was using them right. At first, wearing them is an odd sensation – you can hardly hear anything around you. That’s part of the point, of course.

Even at the lowest volume setting, the JH13V2s let me hear musical detail that I barely noticed before. The new album by Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Shine A Light, sounded warmer, the individual instruments more distinct. Although every song I used the monitors to hear sounded clearer and more powerful, the monitors especially reward carefully produced recordings: Listening to the new Keith Jarrett album, A Multitude of Angels, it sounded as though he was playing piano in my skull (in a good way).

The JH13V2s block background noise so well that at first it feels odd to use them on the street: I couldn’t hear as much New York street noise. But that allowed me to listen to music at a more civilized volume, and it’s just as easy to hear a car horn using these monitors at a low volume as it would be with earbuds blasting. And it’s much better for my ears.

Listening to high-bit-rate MP3s instead of streaming music, I started to feel like I had n audiophile stereo in my pocked (again, in a good way). At $1175 a pair, the JH13V2s aren’t a casual purchase. But they sound ten times better than $300 headphones. After a couple of days, when I got used to the feeling of having them in, I started to wonder how I used earbuds for so long.