I often play too hard when playing live. I often push too hard when singing live. I tend to do these things because I just can’t hear the nuances of what I’m doing well enough; the attack transients my right hand is generating tend to get lost in the live milieu, leading me to try to emphasize them for my own benefit. And while I know it’s important to protect my hearing, wearing my custom-molded musician’s earplugs can make monitoring my vocals from poorly positioned stage wedges (that are no match for unruly, loud instrument amplifiers) a fairly tricky endeavor. I had a pretty good idea that transitioning to an in-ear monitoring (“IEM”) setup would be an interesting experiment, if not a total paradigm shift. Now, many gigs in, I can happily say that I no longer pluck or push too hard, my amp stays at a respectful level, and I’ve never been more pleased with my live performance experience.
To state upfront: I am an IEM novice, but someone who understands the concepts inherent in the design and who is also aware of the frequently maligned elements of using an in-ear-monitor setup; a skeptic unbiased by previous experience, if you will. One oft-heard complaint I’d been privy to many times from the IEM literati is that the extreme aural occlusion most earphones necessarily create can be very isolating and off-putting. Audience reactions become difficult to perceive and everything can sound uncomfortably direct. I’d also dug up information suggesting that the sealed pressure chamber created between the drivers and your eardrums may actually pose somewhat of a threat to hearing, allowing for no way to equalize pressure in the ear canal. I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with all that noise.
Upon researching alternative solutions to these problems, I came across the Ambient category in Westone’s IEM line, which promised to resolve the issues of isolation and pressure equalization via a novel technology called SLED that allows partial porting of the column of air in the ear canal, without sacrificing low end and attenuation, as other previous designs have done. This porting involves a -12dB attenuating ambient noise filter, similar to the ones employed in my musician’s earplugs, which by no coincidence are also made by Westone. Westone says of their SLED technology,
“Ambient sound is seamlessly integrated with the monitor mix with no compromise to the frequency response of the monitor signal… Enjoy full-frequency response from your in-ear monitor signal, hear and feel your surroundings, engage with fellow performers and your audience like never before.”
The Westone AM Pro 30 kit is a triple-driver, universal- fit monitoring system that comprises a pair of the passively crossed-over earphones, a twisted, detachable Y-cable with 3.5mm stereo plug and MMCX earphone attachment system, 10 pairs of replaceable eartips (5 pairs of silicone rubber and 5 pairs of dense “comfort foam”), and a bright orange, hard-to-lose-on-stage, hard plastic protective caddy. They retail for $439.99.
What’s That Now?
When we think of professional grade IEMs, we almost exclusively think of the custom-molded variety that fully fill the voids of the middle and outer ear; the assumption that I’d always made being that this design was necessary for complete occlusion. So I was doubtful that any universal-fit system was really going to give me the kind of total bariatric seal necessary to make the design function correctly – and I was joyfully mistaken. I have found that the red color-coded silicon tips work so well for my ears, they might as well have been made for me. And while you may be thinking that I don’t have a proper basis for comparison (as I’m new to IEMs), I have worn those custom-molded plugs for the last 15 years, religiously, at almost every show I’ve played or attended in that time (I’m on my 3rd pair since then), so I have significant experience with custom-molded aural appliances. The seal from the silicone tips is so good and the tips themselves so flexible, I’ve had fewer instances of seal-breakage while wearing them than with my custom-molded plugs – even on several 4-hour casino gigs and a recent 5-hour flight. More impressively, I was able to wear them for the majority of that flight without pain or discomfort – which I can’t say of the plugs.
Plugging In – And Away
The wireless transmitter and receiver system I settled on for testing was the Shure PSM 300 (with upgraded P3RA bodypack receiver) after initially also testing with a Sennheiser EW 300 G3 system. I preferred the Shure’s sync function workflow and apparent noise gate on the receiver that completely disconnects the headphone amp from the phones at very low volume settings on the bodypack for total silence during set breaks and down time. General audio performance testing equipment also included a Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 audio interface, a Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 tablet, Samsung Galaxy S7 phone, and Asus laptop (built-in soundcard).
Being a bassist, I was understandably a little hyper-concerned with low end response – would there really be much to speak of? Could an ambient/attenuated filter type product compete with studio or bass-heavy consumer headphones? Yes. Yes, they can. And having the patience to take the amount of time required to find the best-sized eartip for you is crucial here; too big and they can be uncomfortable or painful, too small and the air seal is only partial, and your bass goes bye-bye. While there are undoubtedly more bottom-heavy options on the market – especially in those models that Westone and others make that include a driver specifically meant to handle sub-bass frequencies – I was very pleasantly surprised at the low-end response and overall evenness of the AM Pro 30. Of course, it doesn’t feel the same as playing in front of a fEARful cab, but I’ve not been wont for more low-end while not able to achieve it with a small EQ tweak. In fact, more of that is due to monitoring the direct sound of your bass rather than the mid-suppressed, bottom-enhanced amplified tone through your favorite speaker cab(s).
Free At Last
Another component of going IEM that may be less often discussed is the glorious freedom it provides! I’ve been fond of wireless instrument systems for many years, and when paired with the ability to not only play from wherever you want, but to hear yourself and everyone else from exotic stage locales, as well, as if you were right in front of your own very well-mixed monitor… well that’s a unique feeling of utter freedom! I was recently goaded into the audience on a high-energy set-ender by the band’s guitarist, and before long, I was duck-walking through and around the congregation of dancers in front of the stage, with a smile on my face more due to the fact that it didn’t sound like I was moving away from the stage and my beloved amps, all while I gallivanted around foolishly – and the less-severe ambient noise attenuation meant I could actually hear and respond to the crowd’s groans and exaltations! This is worth the price of admission, alone.
The total experience of an in-ear system will necessarily involve both the phones and hardware, so the wireless (or wired, if you prefer) system you choose will have bearing on your overall opinion of performance and quality. I have found the Shure system to be impressively up to the task in a varied set of environments, from a recent 4th of July outdoor festival with several thousand in attendance, on a massive stage set for a later symphony performance and with many channels of wireless flying around at once, to smoky and cavernous indoor casino rooms with questionable FOH support, to quieter and more introspective dinner club dates. I have noticed the occasional signal interruption that seems to last for maybe 25 milliseconds – just long enough for you to notice something had happened but has been rectified, but I believe this performance to be somewhat indicative of many wireless IEM systems working in the sub-600 MHz range. I appreciate the PSM 300’s low boost/cut and high boost/cut options and some of the more advanced menu capabilities that are out of scope here, but most of all I appreciate the quickness and ease of scanning for a clean group and channel in a new environment and syncing up with the receiver without any fuss. The impedance of the AM Pro 30 seemed to be a good match with the output of the P3RA bodypack receiver, exhibiting a little bit of white noise when set above the gate’s noise floor with little to no signal being received, but not overly sensitive as to make for a distraction during performance. As a side note, Shure have offered to send us a pair of their SE535 in-ears for a complete Shure ecosystem review – watch for that in the coming months.
I’m glad that products that do their work deep inside your ear canals are not expected to be returned, because I wouldn’t give the AM Pro 30s back! For about half to one-third the cost of comparable, but acoustically sealed, custom-molded phones, the AM Pro 30 delivers all the performance of a crossed-over 3-driver system, while featuring some innovative and relatively new tech that allows you to remain more attached to and present in your surroundings, and also offers the flexibility to find the fit that’s just right for you. I wouldn’t expect anyone who has already invested in custom plugs to banish them to the junk drawer and run to their open Amazon tab to order a pair of these Westone’s, but for those who are currently shopping for an IEM solution or those who’d like to move up to a 3-driver from a single or dual, the ambient feature of the AM Pro 30 for me is the decision-firming factor in a competition between these and other similarly performing models. Due to the much higher level of fidelity than I was used to, my live performance is better than ever and I’m much more free to move about the stage without fear of a monitoring dead zone. If all this sounds attractive to you, you may well appreciate what Westone has done with this product.
|Manufacture:||Westone Laboratories, Inc.
2235 Executive Circle
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Toll Free: 800-525-5071
|Country of Origin:||Designed in the USA, produced in the Philippines|
|Technical Specs:||Three balanced-armature drivers and a 3-way passive crossover, with 124 dB @ 1mW sensitivity, 20Hz - 18kHz frequency response, and an impedance of 57 ohms @ 1kHz; passive ambient SLED technology|
|Available Colors:||Clear, black cabling (other cable options available as accessories)|
|Accessories:||MMCX Audio Twisted Cable, 10 pairs of silicone and foam ear tips (5 of each type, different sizes), plastic phones micro vault, cleaning tool|