Personal Monitors Come of Age

Just 15 years ago, personal monitors were still a novelty; 10 years ago, they were the wave of the future; 5 years ago, they were what young artists used while some older artists remained on the fence; Today, they’re a given.
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Just 15 years ago, personal monitors were still a novelty; 10 years ago, they were the wave of the future; 5 years ago, they were what young artists used while some older artists remained on the fence; Today, they’re a given. Regardless of what you call them—personal monitor systems, IEMs or something else—they are now a permanent part of the modern touring arsenal, seen every day on concert stages around the world.

However, while personal monitors are now widely accepted—AKG’s product marketing manager for tour sound, Wolfgang Fritz, estimates that 70 to 80 percent of professionals have already changed from wedges to IEM systems—many artists don’t always have a complete understanding of why they’re wearing them.

“Unbelievably, there is still a need for education and awareness for both the hobbyist and professional users,” said Gary Boss, marketing director/artist relations at Audio-Technica, which produces the M2 and M3 wireless IEM systems. “This is not only from a technical side—how they work, how to integrate them, and so on—but also the benefits, like a less cluttered stage, safety, lower stage volume, better performances, better sound through the mains, etc. It still amazes me how many large touring bands are just coming on board with them, and how many are used improperly or in a way that minimizes the benefits— like ear monitors and traditional floor wedges.”

Marty Garcia, CEO/founder of Future Sonics, concurred, remarking, “My experience has been that many of the artists themselves aren’t sure what they are using other than ‘I now have in my ears the same thing as U2 or Dave Matthews!’”

Garcia, whose company is readying its upcoming mg5pro ear monitors, noted, “In a lot of cases, the decision is made by someone other than the artist and may be based on something other than audio quality. Seems odd don’t you think? You wouldn’t tell the guitar player which guitar or amp he is going to use, and yet time after time, someone else is making the decision for the artists as to what personal monitors they are going to use.”

Providing artists with professional insights on the best-use applications of personal systems remains crucial. David J. Slepak, marketing director for Westone Laboratories, which produces its UM, ES and AC lines for pro audio users, gave a few examples, like “Using ‘ears’ cranked all the way up at dangerous levels provides little if any benefit to the artists…Focus on proper fit, which translates directly to both sound quality and noise attenuation. Working with a seasoned monitor technician to dial in the mix is also a key advantage in the learning curve.”

Providing artists with professional insights on the best-use applications of personal systems remains crucial. David J. Slepak, marketing director for Westone Laboratories, which produces its UM, ES and AC lines for pro audio users, gave a few examples, like “Using ‘ears’ cranked all the way up at dangerous levels provides little if any benefit to the artists…Focus on proper fit, which translates directly to both sound quality and noise attenuation. Working with a seasoned monitor technician to dial in the mix is also a key advantage in the learning curve.”

Taking these considerations to heart results in something that all artists want to achieve: consistency. “The emerging young acts these days mostly look at personal monitoring as the standard for artists who are serious about having a consistent and reliable set up,” said Tim Moore, artist relations manager at Sennheiser Electronic Corporation, which produces the ew 300 IEM G3 wireless monitoring system. “Floor monitors vary so much—and in many cases have been abused and do not perform properly—that vocalists are looking for a way to have a consistent reliable baseline from night to night. That means a quality microphone and an in-ear system at the very least.”

Hand in hand with that desire for consistency is the fact that using personal monitors often forces the artist to perform more consistently as well. “For the artist, it is a new sound experience—the volume is much lower, which naturally has a very positive long term effect on his hearing, but he must learn to sing as loud as he would without an IEM system,” noted Wolfgang Fritz of AKG, which introduced its IVM4500 IEM system at the AES Convention. Likewise, he added, “The monitor technician is more challenged because he needs to be familiar with the audio and the radio.”

While more and more artists have adopted personal monitors, at least some of that has to do with the rise of the consumer earphone market, which barely existed when pro monitors first took off. The arrival of MP3 players, modern game devices and other consumer electronics in the early 2000s created a far larger audience for inside-the-ear audio than the comparatively small pro audio niche. While many personal monitor manufacturers are now important players in that consumer market, however, in most cases, pro audio remains the driving force for innovation.

“While consumers may have discerning audio tastes, that’s only half of the story,” said Matt Engstrom, category director, monitoring products at Shure, whose offerings include the PSM 1000 personal monitor system. “Onstage use of earphones is radically different than normal listening. The mechanical requirements for in-ears are substantial for professional use and must include design elements not found in most of the newer consumer in-ears on the market, including low-profile fit, high isolation, long-lasting comfort and replaceable parts. The development of these features is fueled by the professional audio market. If the result is appreciated by consumers, sales will be higher, so [adapting them] is a consideration for some companies.”

While there have been plenty of changes to personal monitors over the years, ranging from customization trends to which frequencies the FCC allows for wireless use, the materials used have generally stayed the same. “The pro market has settled on two materials for custom earpieces: hard acrylic and soft-gel silicone,” said Dr. Michael Santucci, Au.D. and president of Sensaphonics, whose products include the 3D Active Ambient IEM system. Noting that his company uses soft silicone for its earpieces, he explained, “The ear canal is a moving, dynamic system that changes shape with jaw movement. Soft silicone flexes with the ear to maintain the seal that’s required to prevent the loss of bass frequencies.”

Nonetheless, acrylic is used widely for personal monitors. “We still use UV-cured acrylic,” confirmed Jerry Harvey, founder of JHAudio. “It is durable, looks good for years and is repairable. With the technology that is coming out for making molds in the near future, this is the material that will be used going forward.” Similarly, Slepak noted that Westone continues to use acrylics and polymers in both its custom and universal in-ear monitors and earphones, and Future Sonics’ Garcia noted his company’s offerings all use UV light-cured materials so as to be hypoallergenic while ensuring consistent manufacturing.

“Materials change in overall makeup as advancements are made in raw materials—plastics, metals— and the capabilities of the machines that provide the tooling,” said Eric Palonen, senior product specialist at Sennheiser Consumer Electronics. “As the needs change—for example, smaller devices—the materials used may vary to accommodate the most important needs of that model.”

While personal monitors are a mature product niche today, they were first conceived as customized solutions for artists; today, customizing takes a different tack, focusing primarily on colors and designs. Just about every major player in the IEM monitor market offers some visual personalization, but whether it matters to artists is hard to tell: Sensaphonics’ Santucci noted that less than five percent of his customers want custom colors, while JHAudio’s Harvey noted, “99 percent of our consumer orders all have colors and artwork. Personalization is a must these days.”

Given the relative maturity of the IEM market now, there’s no question that non-audio factors like customization, support, accessories available and reliability are playing an increasing role in customers’ choices. Each manufacturer has its own approach to these concerns, and that surely helps define their presences in the marketplace, but in the end, one aspect remains the top priority.

“Today, all the major manufacturers have pretty much demonstrated the ability to achieve good sound quality, so those other factors—comfort, cosmetics, safety and customer service—all play a role in differentiating between products,” observed Sensaphonics’ Santucci. “But in the pro touring market, audio drives the bus.”