Checking out recently released in-ear monitors with built-in ambience mics
by Craig Anderton
The two scariest words for a musician: Hearing loss.
Before designer earplugs became commonplace, when I was touring and doing the six-nights-a-week-for-six weeks thing, I stuck cotton in my ears. Since then, I’ve always prioritized protecting my ears, and I think that’s why I can still hear over 10 kHz at an age when many people can’t hear half that.
The growing acceptance of in-ear monitors (IEMs) has been tremendously helpful. It’s a variation of sticking cotton in my ears to keep the sound out—but IEMs are “intelligent cotton” that let you listen to a perfect cue mix and adjust the level to your liking. Other benefits are a cleaner front of house mix because there aren’t wedges, less chance of feedback, and less onstage clutter. Problem solved, right?
Well… the big limitation of in-ear monitoring is that the same sonic isolation protecting your ears is also isolating you from other band members, the acoustics, and the audience. With IEMs, you don’t know if the room has horrible slapback echo, whether the audience was applauding politely or flipping out, or if your bandmate yelled “take the solo, my keyboard’s having a problem.”
The “solution” for some musicians is taking out one of the IEM earpieces – but now you’ve lost the hearing protection that IEMs afford. ASI Audio’s approach is including binaural mics in your earpieces, with outputs that feed into a body pack whose settings are controlled by an iOS/Android app. Users can dial in how much of the outside world they want to hear as well as process it – for example, adjust EQ to add more low end if they want to emphasize the kick and bass. Nor are users restricted to using the app because louder/softer switches can set the mic levels in their IEMs.
MORE THAN LIVE SOUND
Although most people see IEMs as something only for live sound, the 3DME has three other pertinent applications. One is in the studio, when recording drums, loud guitar amps, or other loud sound sources. Those levels can be just as bad as playing live (if not worse, due to the proximity). Another is rehearsals. Again, spaces are usually tight, instruments can be loud, and unlike good studios, the acoustics may be pretty awful – but musicians still have to stay in communication with their bandmates. Even symphony orchestras aren’t immune to producing potentially damaging levels when recording or rehearsing.
A third, and at least for me very welcome application, is being able to deal with overly loud sound systems – such as concerts and even some movie theaters. The 3DME is like sticking earplugs in your ears to keep out the sonic violence, yet with the option to adjust the mic levels to listen at whatever volume you want.
3DME stresses the importance of having a tight seal in the ear canal. When I first tried the 3DME and inserted the earpieces into my ears, I was sitting in front a pair of studio monitors. I was sure I had done something wrong, because I expected to hear a highly muffled sound. But the speakers were loud and clear, with the usual stereo imaging.
I couldn’t figure out what was amiss, so I set up the iOS app, did the Bluetooth pairing procedure (which of course being Bluetooth didn’t work on the first try, and then worked every time thereafter), and found out what was “wrong:” Nothing. The mic level defaults to 0 dB, and the mics were picking up the speakers, and stereo image, as if I wasn’t using the 3DME. When I turned the mic level all the way down, the speaker level went down with it, ending up at the “I have earplugs in my ear” sound. It was impressive, to say the least.
When the 3DME was introduced, the app was available only for Android. Now it also works with iOS 12 and above, but frankly, there’s much to be said for dedicating an inexpensive Android device to 3DME. Although I use an iPhone, you can get a Fire tablet for under $50 (I’ve seen $29.95 for a 2017 model).
Gigging isn’t always the best environment for expensive toys, and if a $30 Android tablet gets lost, stepped on, or stolen, no big deal, I can find a replacement within minutes. But my $800 iPhone… I think I’ll keep it tucked away some place safe.
The initial 3DME production run required a cable between the smartphone control app and the bodypack. The app now does wireless control over Bluetooth, but you can still use a wired connection for control and firmware updating if you want. (However, you’ll need a custom cable that’s available as an accessory for $7.50.)
The system arrives in a cool-looking designer case. The complete package is $699 (although as of this writing, there’s a $100 rebate offer that expires on June 1, 2021). Elements in the 3DME package (Figure 1), include two
in-ear monitors with dual TRRS jacks, sets of IEM tips (small, medium and large), a bodypack receiver, a 12-inch stereo minijack jumper cable to connect the bodypack to the monitor feed (the ASI system doesn’t monitor wirelessly), a micro-USB to USB type-A cable for changing the bodypack from the AC adapter (also included), sets of IEM tips (small, medium, and large), a cleaning tool, and documentation (yes, you don’t have to online to read it, although it is posted online as well and is accessible through the ASI app).
A note about the bodypack: because the app lets you program the internal settings (which persist even when power is off), the bodypack is small because it really only needs connectors, not UI. However, there are volume more/less switches for the ambient sound.
SETTING IT UP
If you’ve used IEMs with an over-ear cable, you know what’s involved. The tips compress, so like the earplugs used in shooting ranges, they need to be squeezed prior to insertion in the ear canal. Next, hold the earpieces in place to let the tips expand and make a seal with the ear cavity. This takes under a minute.
It’s crucial to use the tip size that’s right for you, but ASI takes out some of the guesswork by including a seal test function. It’s simple but effective: initiating the test triggers alternating 500 Hz and 50 Hz tones. If the 50 Hz tone is considerably softer, there’s a problem – either incorrect insertion or the wrong-sized tip for your ear. (iPhone users will need to use their lightning to 1/8-inch headphone jack dongle.)
If you have an unusual ear shape or want the best seal possible, ASI works with audiologists who can fit you for custom molded ear tips. Currently, there’s at least one audiologist in 33 states and the District of Columbia. These audiologists, trained by Dr. Michael Santucci (the head of Sensaphonics, to which ASI is elated), are listed at asiaudio.com.
Normally you’ll be notified if there’s a new app or firmware when what’s hosting your app connects to the net, but I always like to check anyway. Firmware updating is done over Bluetooth (but can be done with the above-mentioned cable) and is quick and painless.
Operation is simple. There are three pages to the app. The most important is the Main page (Figure 2) with the ambient mic level control and limiter threshold. You can link the left and right ambient mic sources or separate them if you want to do individual channel adjustments.
Note that you don’t have to use an IEM monitor feed to take advantage of the mics. This is what makes the unit so useful for rehearsals; essentially, you have earplugs with a volume control, as well as EQ and limiting. That’s actually pretty cool and I think ASI needs to emphasize this application more – it’s mentioned only in passing in the documentation as being useful for acoustic ensembles, but if you have drums and a couple of amps happening, this is a fine way to protect your hearing and still hear everything that’s going on.
The limiter (fast attack but no lookahead) has a threshold range from 84 to 105 dB SPL and seems designed specifically to trap intermittent, ear-melting sounds. However, I’d love to see an update that would allow using it more as a limiter in the studio sense where it would reduce the dynamic range for a more consistent monitoring experience in terms of levels. Although technically you can do that now, I find that although the lowest threshold is adequate for “transient trapping,” it’s too high for sustained listening with a full mix coming in. Fortunately, the limiter is digital, and it’s app-driven, so maybe ASI will consider an update at some point.
The Equalizer page (Figure 3) is a 7-band graphic EQ, with each band adjustable to ±12 dB. As with the mics and limiter, you can unlink the left and right channels. Note that this is a global processor that doesn’t affect only the mics, but also the incoming monitor signal.
Before moving on to the next page, note that you can save all current settings (EQ, mic level, limiter) as a preset, and load, rename, and delete presets. Typically, you wouldn’t be using the app onstage, but instead, setting up beforehand with presets.
The Options page (Figure 4) is pretty simple. Two buttons on the bodypack top vary the level from the mics. You can change the button behavior to step up/down through different levels from -24 to +12 dB, or toggle between two preset settings. The settings do not affect the incoming monitor feed, only the signal from the mics.
Another option is for musicians who have hearing loss in one ear; it routes audio from the side with the loss to the side that can hear. A help menu parallels the included documentation, so you needn’t worry if you lose the printed version.
DOES IT WORK?
The whole concept of having “earplugs with a volume control” takes a little getting used to compared to earplugs that are either blocking everything, or out of your ears and blocking nothing. What makes using the 3DME enjoyable is the realistic sound due to both the IEMs and the mics.
Just listening to music through the IEMs was pretty darn glorious, so I took a walk outside while listening to music from my iPhone (using a lightningto-1/8-inch dongle to feed the 3DME bodypack’s input). Usually when taking a walk using conventional isolating earbuds, I have to pay close attention to what cars and motorcycles are doing. With the 3DME, I could dial in the amount of outside world sound I wanted, which made walking around safer. Of course, I doubt whether people would buy the system just because they like taking walks while listening to music, but it’s another welcome bonus for me.
As to blocking out noise, given the current gigging situation, there’s no way I could try it on stage. However, the pandemic doesn’t prevent me from turning up guitar amps in my studio really loud, and again, when you add in the mic signal you think it’s probably leakage. Nope. Turn down the mics, and the amp fades into the background.
In addition to using the 1/8-inch monitor output jack on the bottom of the bodypack as a pass-through, it also outputs the mic signals. So if you want to record binaural ambiences in stereo, patch the jack into something that can record, and you’re good to go. Of course, tiny mics that fit in earpieces aren’t going to sound like vintage condenser mics, but they give a good account of themselves.
There are a few changes I’d like to see, in addition to the lower limiter threshold mentioned earlier. There’s a pop in the IEMs when you turn the unit off, and although the company says the level isn’t unhealthy, it’s unpleasant. As a result, I’ve just gotten into the habit of removing the IEMs before turning it off.
Also, most IEMs expect you to plug into a box with the monitor feed and a volume control, and 3DME is no exception. But I do wish there was a level control on the bodypack for the incoming monitor level, not just for the mics.
Since the 3DME costs about twice as much as a good pair of wired IEMs, the question then becomes the price of your hearing. All IEMs help in that respect, but the “earplugs with a volume control” is a unique and interesting feature. The 3DME does indeed stress hearing protection, from the built-in limiter to the fact that you don’t have to remove one of the IEMs to hear what’s going on around you. I suspect for many people, the extra expenditure will be seen more as inexpensive insurance than an expensive IEM.
Although ASI Audio is a relatively new company, it has the Sensaphonics lineage behind it. The 3DME is a clever, high-quality product that solves a significant problem with IEMs. I suspect we’ll see more and more musicians wearing these on stage, in studios, and when rehearsing.