Getting Serious About Sound: The Case for Custom In-Ear Buds

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

A few years ago, drummer-producer Robert Biesewig was on tour with the reggae band Orange Grove when he met doctor of audiology Julie Glick, who changed the way he listened to music. Backstage before a Los Angeles show, the group was fitted for in-ear monitors -- earphones often custom-designed from impressions of the ear canal -- that pump in music while blocking out background noise so musicians can hear themselves play without damaging their hearing. The $1,500 pair of JH Audio JH16 monitors that Glick recommended, recalls Biesewig, “sounded better, and I didn’t have to turn up the volume so high anymore.” He liked them so much, in fact, that they ultimately became his go-to when listening to music on his smartphone, since they also fit into standard headphone jacks.

He’s hardly alone. Using in-ear monitors to listen to music on mobile devices has become a growing trend among musicians and, increasingly, producers, executives and fans. “I have people in here every day ­buying monitors as custom earphones,” says Glick, who makes house calls for dozens of clients from Beyoncé to Bruce Springsteen -- and even the New York Yankees, whom she fitted for monitors when Derek Jeter bought them as gifts for some of his teammates. “And why not? The sound quality is at a professional level,” she says. “Don’t you want to hear music the way your favorite artists hear it?”

Costing as much as $3,000 a pair, custom in-ear monitors have become the Rolls-Royce of portable audio for fans who are serious about sound quality, ­careful about protecting their hearing or both. “If you’re going to spend $500 on headphones, you might as well invest in a nice pair of in-ears,” says Strokes guitarist and solo artist Albert Hammond Jr., who uses a pair with five drivers (the tiny speakers inside a headphone). “The white Apple ones are ridiculous -- they don’t even fit your ears,” he says, likening products of a slightly higher caliber to “having a protein shake as opposed to a meal. It works but it’s not as long term, qualitywise.”

In-ear monitors sound so good partly because they block out background noise, which means listeners don’t have to play them as loud. “Music-induced hearing loss is at epidemic levels,” says Benj Kanters, an associate professor in Columbia College’s audio arts and ­acoustics department, citing a 2015 World Health Organization finding that almost half of 12- to 35-year-olds in high- and middle-income countries listen to personal audio devices at volumes that could endanger their hearing. And before in-ear technology existed for professional musicians, they listened to themselves during concerts by turning high-volume speakers toward themselves.

“In-ear monitors create a seal that blocks out the external noise, so the level you need to hear becomes much lower,” says Agnieszka Roginska, a professor of music at New York University’s Steinhardt School who has seen a spike in students wearing them in the past year. “They are the ultimate noise-canceling experience,” adds Hammond. “On a plane they are amazing. I’ll put them on just to quiet the noise of the plane.”

Ultimate Ears, a California-based ­company that has been crafting audio devices for 20 years, stopped ­marketing in-ears as “monitors” five years ago. “We started seeing a significant uptick in nonmusicians, with a majority of business coming from Japan,” says GM Philippe Depallens. “We call them ‘earphones’ now.” 

But Glick, who started working with in-ear monitors in 1998 when she got a call to take impressions of Melissa Etheridge’s ears, is experimenting with what’s next. The New York-based audiologist who opened her practice in 2010 is ­launching Sound Engineering Consultants with Ian Kuhn and Kevin Glendinning -- respectively, the monitor engineers for the Dave Matthews Band and Maroon 5 and Alicia Keys -- to help musicians choose the right equipment for their entire monitor setups. “I’ve put hearing aids on legendary musicians,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

As for fans worried about the Bluetooth migration that smartphones are making? Glick began carrying the Noble Audio Bluetooth Solution, a device the size of a lipstick that clips to a lapel and accepts a standard headphone jack so in-ears will be compatible. Unlike Apple’s dongle, it  doesn’t plug into or block users from the iPhone 7’s charging port. 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of Billboard.