In case you didn't know, I'm a bit of a tech head. And that doesn't stop at triathlon/cycling equipment; I'm an egalitarian gear monger. One of the things I care quite about is audio. Specifically, I really like headphones: circumaural closed-back cans, in-ear monitors, and everything in-between. A good set of headphones is the best way to improve your listening experience. Bitrates beyond properly-encoded mp3s or similar files are totally unnecessary, as brilliantly explained in this article and this video.

Before we go further, I'm going to have to address why they're connected to triathlon. Of course, I like to listen to music when I run - lots of people do. But I also do so when cycling. And I know that's going to make alarm bells go off in a lot of readers' minds, so I'll temper that statement with the requisite disclaimers and warnings. No, riding with headphones isn't the safest thing to do. I do NOT endorse it. But in fifteen years of riding, I've never had any kind of collision, crash, or even a close call. In my opinion, the most important thing you can do is to ride smart, whether or not you're listening to music. To some people, riding smart means NEVER putting anything in your ears. To others, it just means using a bit of common sense. The urbanites among you should definitely keep your ears clear at all times. But I'm a suburban guy, and I only ride in places where headphones really don't matter. Most of my riding occurs on bike trails, because I'm lucky enough to live in an area where there are literally hundreds of miles of continuous, uninterrupted trails.

Also, just for clarity, I'm going to use the terms "headphones," "earphones," and "monitors" interchangeably, although they can technically be different things. But for the purposes of this article, you may consider them all the same.

With all of THAT out of the way, I'm going to tell you about my favorite headphones in the world. They began life as in-ear headphones from Shure. Specifically, I'm talking about the 500-series headphones, which have been around for more than a decade. In that time, their name has changed, along with the outer casing, and the included accessories. But the technology inside them has remained effectively identical. These are very top-end monitors, featuring three tiny speakers PER EAR. That's what's called a "triple-driver monitor," and it's a very complicated bit of technology. Not only do you need those three tiny speakers, but also some complex crossover circuits that control which sound frequencies will be produced by which speakers, and in what proportion. It's not easy to do, but when done right, the result is the most sublime sound waves making their way directly into your head.

Because these are in-ear monitors, there's nothing between the speakers and your ear canal. The 'phones come with a collection of foam and rubber tips you can swap out to get the perfect fit. Once you find the set that's right for you, you'll achieve a good 25 decibels of sound isolation, meaning you won't hear much of ANYTHING of the outside world. It also means you can generally listen at lower volumes, and still enjoy very full-sounding music. But one complaint I've always had about ANY kind of in-ear monitor is that if you listen for long enough, either doing a long ride, or sitting on a long flight, or just working at your desk all day ... the tips will eventually get pretty uncomfortable. Your ears will eventually complain to you about the foam or rubber pressing against them for so long.

The other problem with typical earphones is that they're prone to breaking at various weak points. The little posts on which the tips sit are usually pretty thin and fragile. The point where the electrical wire goes into the earphones is also subject to break, or wear away. Cables in general are usually not the most long-lived piece of hardware in the world, and that's always going to be true for earphones, where the wires are generally very thin, and move around a lot over their lifetime of use. I've busted the cables on my E500's at least twice, and always paid for the repairs. Eventually, when Shure upgraded the line from the E-series up to the newer SE-series, they also made the cables replaceable, so that eliminated one area of weakness. But there would always be the issue of discomfort.

Going Custom

I had long known about custom IEMs (that stands for 'In Ear Monitor'), and that custom IEMs were supposed to be much more comfortable, isolate even more noise, and deliver even better sound than standard earphones. What ARE custom IEMs? The idea is that the manufacturer takes an impression of your outer and inner ear, and uses that to create custom earphones that will fit perfectly into YOUR ear. That way, you'll get a perfect seal without needing foam or rubber pressing against your ear canal. Supposedly they can also deliver even better sound, since they'll be shaped to deliver sound directly down YOUR ear canal, no matter what funny curves and turns your inner ear makes.

The problem, of course, is cost. Typically, the cheapest IEMs cost about $700 for a pair. And there was no guarantee that they would work properly. You might get a bad mold, bad manufacturing, or some other problem. So for 15 years, I kept using my trusty Shure earphones, despite the fact that their foam tips would make my ears hurt after a few hours. I've used a lot of other headphones and earphones over the years as well. After the Shure 500's, my other favorites were cans like the Sony MDR-V600 and V900, which are the sort of headphones you often see in recording studios - the big guys that wrap completely AROUND your ears (they don't sit ON your ears, those are called supra-aural headphones).

A decent set of circumaural headphones can be had for $120 or so. But they're obviously not very convenient for taking on-the-go. Moreover, even they can start to bug you after awhile, especially if you have a big fat head like mine. Every set of cans I've worn will tend to squeeze my noggin ever so slightly, which can become a nuisance after 3-4 hours or so.
So, I always *wanted* to try custom IEMs, but didn't want to pony up the dough.

But one day, that all changed. Hit the jump and let's talk about