Ear tips can make or break the experience of using earbuds as they not only affect the comfort, but also the sound of the device.
Getting them to properly seal off the ear canal is the most important step towards optimal sound quality, but it isn’t the only step.
Your choice of material and shape also plays a role in the overall experience.
The ear tips are an easily overlooked part of earbuds, but they’re arguably the most important part for getting the proper sound.
They aren’t as impressive as drivers or as innovative as many of the cool new features that most earbuds come with, but they have the power to make or break the product as a whole, more so than any non-essential flashy feature could. After all, a whole plethora of problems can occur if you don’t use the ear tips best suited to your ears.
The most obvious example would be the earbuds slipping out or causing pain, but an improper fit can also fail to isolate sound and even reduce the audio quality in many ways.
This is why finding the right tips for your ears is imperative.
Manufacturers aren’t oblivious to this: it’s the reason they package their earbuds with ear tips of multiple sizes and sometimes even multiple materials. But this doesn’t mean you’re stuck with the tips that the earbuds come with.
Ear tips can be bought separately.
So we’d like to go through all the kinds of ear tips out there to give you an idea of what might work best for you.
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IEM vs Earbud
Before we get to that we need to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Namely, we want to discuss the difference between IEMs (in-ear monitors) and earbuds to clear up any misunderstandings before they arise. Feel free to skip this part if you’re only here for the explanation on ear tips, but what we’re about to say could save you some headaches in the future.
According to some, the difference between earbuds and IEMs boils down to the way the device is placed in the ear. This distinction sees earbuds as devices that rest in the outer ear. They’re one-size-fits-all and don’t provide the level of noise isolation and stability that’s on par with IEMs. They’re also typically all plastic, so comfort isn’t their strong suit. Furthermore, they don’t feature any tips, so to speak of earbud tips in this context would be pointless.
By contrast, in-ear monitors are devices that have ear tips which are placed directly into the ear canal. Provided that the ear tip is right for the ear canal in question, this results in superior noise isolation, a better bass response, and a more stable fit; for most people, this is also the more comfortable option of the two.
If you dig deep enough, you’ll even find mention of canalphones, which are in-ear monitors/earbuds that go further down the ear canal.
Here at Earbudszone, we don’t subscribe to this nomenclature for two simple reasons: It’s inconsistent and it’s irrelevant.
Not only do the various articles cataloging these distinctions disagree on some of the definitions, but more importantly, manufacturers don’t use them! They use the term earbuds to mean all these things (or in-ear headphones, in some cases). So it would be foolish for us to expect this arbitrary knowledge in our readers.
If you saw an ad on YouTube for Raycon earbuds, how are you supposed to know that these are supposed to be IEMs? For that matter, we’ve never heard the term true-wireless IEMs being used. It’s always true-wireless earbuds, but according to these definitions, we’d only have true-wireless IEMs.
This is why, in this article and all other articles on this website, we use the term earbuds to avoid any confusion. And should a device being reviewed happen to rest on the other ear or go further down the ear canal (which rarely happens) that’s something that will be addressed in the review.
Now with that out of the way, let’s take a look at what kind of earbud tips there are.
Ear Tip Materials
The first defining feature of ear tips is the material used to make them.
The two most commonly used materials for making ear tips are silicone and foam, although other less popular alternatives do exist.
Silicone tips have the benefit of longevity and are easier to maintain. They can be washed in water with impunity. Silicone is also unlikely to cause an allergic reaction (rubber ear tips are notorious for this, which is why they’re not a popular material).
However, silicone isn’t great at isolating noise. This can work in your favor if you like to stay aware of your surroundings, for example when you’re jogging. But it can also be undesirable if you want to drown out the outside world and completely immerse yourself in music, for example in public transportation.
Just know that using silicone ear tips while exercising can cause the tips to because slippery due to sweat and potentially slip out of your ear, so there are always both pros and cons.
In many ways, foam tips are the exact opposites of silicone tips. They aren’t as easy to use since they’re much more difficult to wash and need to be replaced after a while, no matter how conscientious you are about maintaining them properly.
On the flip side, foam makes for a more comfortable fit, as the material can adjust to the contours of your ear canal over time. And as far as noise isolation is concerned, foam is king. It highlights the punchiness of the bass, although in some cases it can also negatively affect the high treble.
If you want no interruptions while enjoying your music it far outdoes silicone, although the occlusion effect it has – i.e. how you hear your voice while your ears are plugged up – can be weird, especially if you plan to do any talking whole wearing these earbuds.
In addition to silicone and foam tips, other noteworthy mentions are Comply foam tips and hybrid ear tips.
Hybrid tips feature both foam and silicone. They’re relatively obscured and aren’t found much outside of some Sony models, but aftermarket versions do exist.
As for Comply foam tips (foam tips manufactured by the company Comply), they feature dynamic memory foam are generally softer and more comfortable than regular foam tips but still suffer all the same downsides.
Ear Tips Shapes
The second defining feature of ear tips is their shape. According to shape, they are defined by how many flanges they have.
For the most part, we make the distinction between these three types of ear tips:
- Single flange
- Double flange (or bi-flanged)
- Triple flange
Single flange ear tips feature a single piece of silicon or foam to seal off your ear canal. Foam tips only ever come with a single flange, which some don’t take to be a flange at all since it can have different shapes. In any case, the point is that there is only a single piece of whatever material is used. This is by far the most popular ear tip shape and it works well with more earbuds.
Double flange ear tips feature two flanges, one smaller and one larger. They still come in various shapes, but far fewer than can be found with single flange tips. Their biggest strength lies in the fact they can provide a better seal than their single flange cousins, thereby improving the bass response and strengthening the noise isolation. Nevertheless, you should only look at double flange alternatives if single flange tips simply don’t allow for a proper fit, since these offer a far narrower selection of shapes and sizes.
Triple flange tips double down on this idea of better bass response and improved noise isolation, but this is again only if you can even fit them inside your ear. Some people don’t have ear canals deep enough to accommodate them, and even those who do won’t always find them to be comfortable.
There are ear tips out there with unique shapes but each member here is in a category of its own so there isn’t much that we can say about the group as a whole.
And, of course, if none of the other options are right, you can always get custom-fit ear tips. No two ears are alike, even when they belong to the same head, so custom-fit tips offer a way for folks who otherwise simply cannot stand the discomfort of using earbuds to give them a try. This is easily the most expensive route to take, but if you’ve got the money and are willing to spend it on comfort, there are companies out there that will mold ear tips specifically for your ears.
How Ear Tips Affect Sound
The most important thing needed to attain the desired sound quality on any pair of earbuds is a proper seal. If the seal isn’t good, you may as well toss out the earbuds. Just try to put the wrong ear tips on and you’ll see what we’re talking about. This is why ear tips are so important and why you must look at aftermarket solutions if the ones that came bundled with the deice simply don’t do it for you.
But the material also affects sound quality. We’ve already mentioned how the insulatory properties affect the bass – silicone lets some of it escape while foam directs all of it inside the ear, making the bass tighter and punchier. However, foam has also been known to have a negative effect on the highs.
Unfortunately, the effect ear tips have on sound quality isn’t a hot topic of research, so we don’t know the exact reason why this happens. There are claims out there that the foam absorbs some of the high treble. We can neither confirm nor deny this. However, we can refer to the tests done by Tyll Hertsens for InnerFidelity.
In this article, Tyll measured the frequency response of different ear tips using a dummy to get some objective clues regarding the way tip material affected the audio. Interestingly enough, these tests didn’t show any impactful changes in the frequency graphs between Comply foam tips and silicone ones. On the contrary, he found that triple flange tips cause the most discernable change in the frequency response.
This led him to conclude that the material itself doesn’t affect the highs, but rather the way the earbuds are inserted into the ear.
The tests ran aren’t comprehensive enough to dismiss the complaints various people have had with foam tips, but they are something to consider.
How to Insert Foam Tips
The anatomy of foam ear tips is simple:
There’s a plastic inner tube and there’s the surrounding foam.
If you squish the foam while inserting the earbuds, it elongates. Then when you put the earbuds into your ears, the excess foam can deform causing a part of it can block out the tube. This obstruction will inevitably affect the sound in some way, which is how Tyll rationalizes the negative effect foam tips are perceived to have on the high treble.
To avoid this issue, we need to make sure that the tube isn’t shorter than the foam. This can be accomplished by pushing the foam back. Once the tube is longer than the foam, the possibility of something obstructing its exit becomes far less likely.
This method was proposed specifically for Comply tips, but if the hypothesis is correct it should work to clear all foam tips of the bad rep they get by some users. To this end, some users have even proposed cutting off the excess foam at the tip of the tip or installing the tips backward.
We can tell you the pros and cons of different materials and shapes used for making ear tips, but unfortunately, we cannot tell you which ones will work best for you. All ears are different so this is something you have to decide for yourself.
Some earbuds are designed to be pushed further inside the ear canal, some less so. Unfortunately, the only way to find out which would work for you is to try them out.
Once you do this, however, you need to be honest with yourself!
If the earbuds are causing pain or discomfort, don’t try to bear with it or hope it will get better on its own just because your friends don’t have that issue when using the same model. In this case, the pain/discomfort is letting you know there is a problem that needs addressing.
Changing the ear tip can help sometimes. This is why knowing the benefits of different ear tips can help guide you in the right direction. But there will also be cases where certain earbuds will simply not be right for some people.
Ultimately, it’s an exercise of trial-and-error. We hope this article will help simplify this process, but after a certain point, all we can do is wish you luck!