1. What is an Earpiece?
In Specific Terms an earpiece is the part of a device that is placed against or inserted into the outer opening of the ear. Telephone receivers, hearing aids, stethpscopes, MP3 players, phones and many more devices all make the use of the earpiece.
Earpieces, then, come in many different varieties.
For most modern earpieces to work, a transducer, capable of converting electrical signals into sound, is required. This is especially true in the case of communications technology or audio playback functionality.
Earpieces come in all different shapes and sizes, from radio earpieces that can be found on this site, to bluetooth earpieces, hearing aids and in-ear monitors. This guide will take you through the different types of earpieces that are available.
2. What Types of Earpiece are Available?
Earpieces come in many different shapes and sizes. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the different types of earpieces that are available to buy.
Bluetooth® Earpiece – Bluetooth technology is designed for use over relatively short distances. Accordingly, the power of the transmitter will dictate the range of your device.
Bluetooth devices are generally split into 3 classes. Class 1 is the most powerful, offering a range of up to 100 metres. Class 2 operates over a range of about 10 metres. Class 3, the weakest, tops out at about 1 metre. This is the class you will likely be looking at if you find yourself in the market for a Bluetooth phone, MP3 player or stereo.
Bluetooth devices are popular and perform well, but if the user steps out of the device’s range, it can become a problem.
Radio Earpiece – The radio or ‘spy’ earpiece comes in two distinct styles, known informally as ‘covert’ and ‘overt’.
The covert style is an acoustic earpiece that is popular for its design efficiency and general versatility – no wonder the secret service like them so much! These earpieces are designed with discretion in mind and, though not invisible, they are not immediately noticeable in most cases.
This earpiece’s inner workings are deceptively simple. The radio drives the transducer, which emits sounds. These sounds vibrate and push air through the tubing towards your ear. The air reaches the earbud and your own ear then interprets the sound.
In most cases, the earbud also acts as an earplug which reduces ambient noise by blocking the air to all but the sound from the transducer. This is known as passive noise reduction.
The overt style is essentially the same as its covert cousin, only that the speaker is now directly outside the ear. There is no need for tubing, so the entire device is visible.
Maintenance of both earpieces can be tricky. The covert earpiece especially must be carefully looked after if it is to function properly. The earbud must be regularly cleaned and there should be no moisture, condensation or dirt anywhere inside the tube. Warm soapy water or alcohol wipes can be used to clean all non-electronic components. After that, simply store them overnight in a warm, dry place. The overt styles can simply be wiped clean, though must never be immersed in water.
Hearing Aid Earpiece – A hearing aid is usually employed because the wearer suffers from hearing loss. They are classified as medical devices and are regulated as such (though comparable devices can be easily purchased online). Hearing aids serve a similar function to osseointegrated auditory prosthetics and cochlea implants.
Hearing aids work by transmitting sounds directly to the eardrum. There are two major types of hearing aid, although there are many different varieties overall. The two main types are known as Behind the Ear (BTE) and Receiver in Canal (RIC).
BTE hearing aids are the most common of the two. As the name suggests, the speaker rests on the back of the outer ear. All of the key components are situated within the same housing as the speaker. The sound travels from the speaker through the acoustic tube and onwards into the ear. Today’s BTE hearing aids are modern and discreet, coming in a variety of colours to match any skin tone.
RIC hearing aids are also known as receiver-in-the-ear (RITE) or canal receiver technology (CRT). RIC hearing aids operate on a similar principal to the BTE models, with many also sitting behind the ear. They are, however, considerably smaller, with the loudspeaker located outside of the main housing, as opposed to being an integrated component. The speaker itself is positioned at the end of a thin wire, which is placed near to the eardrum. The sound has less distance to travel, which makes for a more efficient design overall.
IFB Earpiece – Depending on whom you ask, IFB is short for ‘interruptible fold back’, ‘interrupted fold back’, ‘interruptible feedback’ or ‘interrupt for broadcast’. Essentially, IFB is the monitoring and cueing system used in the production of a variety of media disciplines including television, film and radio.
Essentially, IFB earpieces allow for smooth, one-way communication from the director(s) to the on-air talent.
If you’ve ever seen a newsreader place a finger on their ear and say something along the lines of “I’m being told now that there has been a development in the story” or similar, this is an IFB earpiece at work.
IFB earpieces work via an intercom circuit made up of a mix-minus program feed that can originate from a variety of sources (such as telephone, wire or radio signal). These signals can easily be interrupted (hence the name) or replaced by the director’s microphone. In this fashion, an on-air talent can easily be interpolated or given instruction with minimal impact to the broadcast.
In-Ear Monitors – Usually abbreviated to ‘IEM’, in-ear monitors are a particular favourite of musicians, record producers, audio engineers and specialist music aficionados. The reason for this is that are highly customisable, allowing the listener to hear a personalised sound mix relating to their area of interest.
When you buy an album and see those artsy pictures of your favourite band recording in the studio, the chances are they will be wearing IEMs. In this way, the singer can record whilst hearing only the band, whilst the individual band members can record with certain instruments higher (or dominant) in the mix. The monitor mix can be pre-set to the specific preferences or needs of the user, which is very useful for those recording music.
Singers sometimes wear IEMs on stage because it makes it easier for them to perform without feeling drowned out by the rest of the band (or else straining their voice by shouting over it). The sound engineer can set the levels so that the singer can hear him/herself and maybe just one of the instruments, which keeps them in time, but also allows them to stay in tune.
3. How do you Know which one you'll need?
Due to the wide variety of products available, it is important to identify what specific needs you have in order to discern which type of earpiece will best meet those requirements.
What follows is a brief glossary of terms you may encounter. You can use this to help you decide which earpiece to buy.
Acoustic Earpiece - This is a more-or-less standard design, commonly used by security personnel. The sound is relayed via a thin tube that often sits behind the ear, allowing for hands-free operation of two-way radios and similar devices. For comparison, a traditional stethoscope is also considered to be an ‘acoustic’ device, since the sound travels through air-filled hollow tubing in order to reach the earpiece itself.
Closed Acoustic – The term ‘closed acoustic’ refers to a system that prevents some outside noise from passing through the earphones themselves, allowing for a clearer sound. ‘Closed acoustic’ does not equate to noise cancellation, nor does it provide this function. Closed acoustic earpieces will not eliminate all background noise from your experience. Loud music will escape headphones and be audible to others, while noises such as car alarms, road works and loud conversations will still be perceptible by the wearer. As an aside, for closed acoustic earpieces to be truly effective, a high quality model from a trusted brand is recommended.
Noise Cancellation – ‘Noise Cancellation’ describes a technology wherein a small microphone is incorporated into the earpiece. This microphone measures ambient sound and generates a waveform that is the exact negative of that sound, which it then mixes with the existing audio, blocking out any ambient sound the user may encounter. Some versions of this technology generate a field of ambient white noise that nullifies external sound.
Impedance – Impedance (as in ‘to impede’) explains the earpiece circuitry’s resistance to the electrical signal it receives. The greater the impedance, the less the electrical signal can come through. To clarify further, if the impedance is too high, the sounds you receive will be weaker and therefore less clear. Ideally, you want a low level of impedance in your earpiece, 25 Ohms or less is fine.
Sensitivity – Sensitivity denotes how many decibels of sound the earpiece can produce per one milliwatt of electrical signal. The higher the sensitivity, the higher the sound levels will ultimately be. For earpieces/earphones, sensitivity generally ranges from 80 – 110dB.
Bluetooth® - Named for Harold Bluetooth, a Danish king who ruled in the 9th century, Bluetooth technology connects devices together wirelessly. In this way, an earpiece or earphone may be connected to a device such as a mobile phone or MP3 player without the need for cables or other physical connections of any kind.
4. What’s the Difference Between an Earphone and an Earpiece?
The difference between an earphone and an earpiece is relatively simple and easy to understand.
An earphone is essentially an in-ear speaker, except that it utilizes a transducer to convert electrical signals into sounds.
An earpiece is purely an in-ear speaker, or else a speaker placed close to the ear. It relays audio content, but does not convert said content from signal into sound.
5. Can Earpieces Cause Pain?
The short answer is ‘yes, earpieces can cause pain’. The longer answer involves an explanation of how and why this occurs, along with a few tips on how to avoid it.
The most common way that earpieces cause pain is though improper fitting. If the earpiece or headset is too tight, for example, this can bruise the outer ear, or pinna, which can be fairly uncomfortable for the wearer. Issues such as headaches may also arise from this.
Another common problem arises if the speaker volume is set too high. The inner ear is extremely sensitive, and any sound above about 85Db can be very dangerous, especially if it lasts for an extended period of time. Risks include ear pain, headaches and/or tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears that can begin immediately or else start up after some delay).
The biggest risk from using your earpiece at too high a volume, of course, is permanent hearing loss. If the super-sensitive hair cells of the inner ear are too badly damaged, they never grow back, which will lead to permanent hearing loss.
To avoid pain from your earpiece, then, it is advisable to do the following things:
- Keep your earpiece clean to avoid the risk of infection.
- Adjust the devices to make them comfortable and as loose fitting as possible.
- Remove the earbuds or earphones as often as you can.
- Reduce the volume levels to 60% or less of what’s available to you.
- Don’t wear your earpiece for more than an hour at a time.
- Keep your ears clean. Objects (such as earbuds) being pushed into the ear can cause earwax, or cerumen, to mix with skin cells and block the ears. This can temporarily cause hearing loss.
- Don’t worry! Visit a doctor if you suspect you may be experiencing any hearing difficulties. Most forms of hearing loss are quite treatable, with simple treatments such as eardrops, over-the-counter pain relief or antibiotics being the most common treatments offered.
Earpiece technology plays an important role in the unfolding drama of our modern world. From helping people to hear again, to helping musicians express themselves and onwards still to aiding the broadcast of vital information and even helping to guard the lives of the great and the good, earpieces are almost omnipresent in our lives.