How to Experience the Benefits of In-Ear Monitors on a Budget

The first in–ear monitor systems (IEMs) date back to the 1960s and ‘70s, when tinkerers in the audio engineering world wanted to give musicians a better way to hear themselves on stage.

These systems started to take off with major touring acts in the ‘90s and, since then, have largely been perceived as a luxury reserved for big time professionals in large venues. In recent years, however, a whole new range of IEM systems have hit the marketplace, bringing affordable and convenient options to beginners and amateurs as well as pros.

IEM systems are essentially earphones that allow musicians to hear themselves and others without monitor speakers. Most of the IEM market is dominated by those high–end units with integrated wireless systems. But with a little creativity, you can add a solid IEM system to just about any rig using as little as a headphone amplifier and a decent set of earphones.

For a more in–depth look at IEM components and functionality, check out our primer on the topic.

The Many Upsides of IEMs

IEMs have become a standard choice for musicians on the biggest stages, but they can also have huge benefits in everyday contexts, like basement jams, rehearsal spaces, and small–venue gigs.

One of the primary benefits is simply controlling how much sound is entering your ears. For the volume–conscious user, IEMs can create a drastically quieter environment without sacrificing the things you need to hear. This can help not only for hearing protection, but also to prevent the physical straining that can take place when fighting to cut through a loud mix.

With a simple IEM rig, musicians can recreate a more predictable listening environment with every use, regardless of the space they’re in."

Another huge benefit of IEMs is the ability to get a truly customized monitor mix. Unlike wedges, which can only add more things you want to hear, IEMs can also help filter out things you don’t want to hear. Need a little more of your vocal and keys? No problem. Want less of the crash cymbal three feet from your head? IEMs also have you covered.

This kind of subtractive approach helps you hear by creating space in your mix, as opposed to putting everything on blast. Your bandmates may also enjoy the decreased stage volume and monitor bleed.

A third major benefit of IEMs is consistency. Every club, rehearsal space, and jam room is different. The shape of a room, proximity of drums and amps, and skill level of personnel are enough to completely change the sound of every room. A simple IEM rig can recreate a more predictable listening experience with every use, regardless of the surrounding environment.

Earphones 101

The earphones used in IEM rigs can range from low–cost universal models through high–end customs that require molded ear impressions from an audiologist. Beside the custom fit, the other key difference between low– and high–end earphones is the number of audio drivers.

In simple terms, drivers convert the electrical signal into audible sound. Lower cost, universal fit IEMs like the Shure SE215 ($99) often rely on just one driver to generate all of the audible frequencies. Mid–level IEMs, like Westone’s AM Pro 30 ($399), move up to three or more drivers, each dedicated to different frequency ranges. Custom molded pro models, like the 64 Audio A12 ($1,999), can offer 12 or more drivers, bringing greater depth and clarity across highs and lows.

The Best Affordable IEM Systems

These days you can score a great–sounding set of IEM earphones for under $100, but you’ll need a little more before cutting the cord from your wedge. These headphone amplifiers are all small enough to fit in a gig bag and will bring a monitor mix straight to your ears.

Your Ears, Your Mix: Rolls PM351

The Rolls PM351 Personal Monitor System is a headphone amplifier that allows users to create a mix of their own vocal mic, instrument, and the rest of the band.

Rolls PM351

The PM351 accepts a monitor mix via 1/4–inch input and has separate inputs for a vocal mic (XLR) and instrument (1/4–inch and XLR). Each of these has its own dedicated level knob, making it easy dial in your own custom mix without needing much help from your friendly sound person.

There are “thru" outputs for the vocal mic and instrument (XLR), so you can twist and tweak the levels knobs at will without changing the level going out to a mixer.

The unit features both 1/4– and 1/8–inch mini headphone outputs to create a wired connection with any earphones or can–style headsets. It can accept between 9V and 15V DC power and is light enough on milliamp consumption to play nice with a few pedals in a daisy chain.

Both the mic and instrument “thru" jacks also feature jumpered ground lifts to eliminate audible hum. An optional mic stand mount is available for the PM351, putting this option within arm’s reach.

Rolls also offers a few more stripped–back headphone amps — the PM50 and PM55 — as does Behringer, with the Powerplay P1 and PreSonus with the HP2.

IEMs Anywhere: Ultimate Ears Sound Tap

Ultimate Ears is one of the pioneering companies in the IEM space and its Sound Tap personal monitoring D.I. box can bring that technology to just about any space.

Ultimate Ears Sound Tap

The Sound Tap is a simple box modeled after traditional D.I.s that features just two knobs: master volume and input adjust. Like the Rolls PM351, it essentially takes in a monitor mix signal and provides a headphone input for a wired earphone connection.

The Sound Tap takes its inputs to another level by including both line–level and speaker–level connections. This essentially means it can be used in place of any wedge, regardless of the cable running into that wedge.

Simply disconnect the 1/4–inch, Speakon, or XLR cable from your wedge, plug it into the appropriate input on the Sound Tap, connect your headset, and dial in a monitor mix as you normally would with your sound person.

The unit also features line–level and speaker–level outputs for linking with other wedges.

Wireless On A Budget: Wi Digital Wi–ALP55 AudioLink

Wi Digital’s Wi–ALP55 AudioLink systems is a multi–purpose wireless transmitter and receiver package that uses the license–free 2.4GHz digital wireless band. Stereo audio is encoded at CD–quality, uncompressed 16–bit, 48kHz PCM for latency–free transmission and suffers none of the interference often found with VHF and UHF wireless systems.

Wi Digital Wi–ALP55 AudioLink

The transmitter and receiver are both about the size of a large flash drive and have USB–rechargeable batteries with four to six hours of continuous use. The transmitter has and 1/8–inch mini–jack input but can accept a 1/4–inch connection with an included adapter cable. The receiver features the same standard 1/8–inch output jack.

With an effective range of 100 feet, the AudioLink’s transmitter could be plugged directly into a 1/4–inch aux output on a mixer in with plenty of power to reach the receiver in smaller space.

This unit can also be used to bring wireless functionality to units like the PM351 or Sound Tap by simply plugging the transmitter into the headphone output. In addition to the IEM functionality, the AudioLink can serve as a wireless instrument link and a wireless interface for tablets and smartphones.

Though the above are great places to start if you’re looking to pick up an IEM system on a budget, there are still plenty of other entry–level IEM systems worth considering. For a more traditional system, for example, check out the Galaxy AS–900 Any Spot.

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