The first time I played the piano wearing the 3DME In-Ear Monitor System, I was so overcome by the sound that I rested my head on the piano and sobbed. The pealing, sweet high overtones and the rich vibrations of the bass transported me back, to that time before I had lost so much of my hearing.
ASI Audio’s 3DME in-ear monitors are earbuds with state-of-the-art microphones optimized for music, whose natural sound output may be programmed to your unique hearing profile and whose fit may be customized to the unique shape of your ear canal. The monitors’ form factor consists of earbuds wired to a battery-charged bodypack.
I should mention that while I was crying at the piano, I was in the middle of a tele-audiology session with Dr. Heather Malyuk, an expert music audiologist, to customize the 3DME’s to my hearing profile. After I looked up, Dr. Malyuk’s eyes shone. “This is my favorite part of the job,” she said. Dr. Malyuk is owner of Soundcheck Audiology and Head of Audiology at Tuned and was also part of the team who created and developed the 3DME.
Now, whenever I play the piano, I wear the in-ear monitors, not my hearing aids, despite the fact that I wear premium hearing aids with an optimized music setting. The in-ear monitors have revolutionized the quality of my playing and most importantly my enjoyment of the piano.
Immediately after my session with Dr. Malyuk, I began work on this product review. I wanted to share my experiences with you, musicians and music lovers with hearing loss. I would like for you to be aware that you have alternatives for music beyond wearing hearing aids or simply ignoring your hearing difficulties. I believe that even musicians and music lovers with a mild hearing loss would benefit from trying out the system.
While the in-ear monitors provide a superior alternative to hearing aids for music, they are not ideal for conversations. As Dr. Malyuk notes, the monitors “aren’t designed for speech and background noise.” Hearing aids, whether prescription or OTC, remain the best choice for conversing. I plan on continuing to wear my hearing aids for any non-musical activity.
At Grand Piano Passion™, we generally do not recommend specific brands, but in this case, we believe the 3DME monitors have no direct alternatives. Perhaps the closest would be music earbuds with a transparency mode that may be personalized with your hearing profile, but their sound quality is not comparable. If and when competitive products arise, we will add them to this review.
I received no compensation to write this review. I paid for the monitors, accessories, and attendant audiology services myself. At Grand Piano Passion™, we remain purely focused on our mission of sharing information and inspiration for musicians with hearing loss and adults who play the piano. What follows is my assessment of the 3DME’s benefits, disadvantages, and total cost, plus more explanation of how the system works.
Benefits of the 3DME In-Ear Monitor System
The 3DME has a number of tangible benefits, starting with its natural, gorgeous sound quality.
Natural, Analog Sound Across the Frequency Range
With the 3DME in-ear monitors’ analog sound output, there’s no digital processing of sound. This matters because sounds in their natural state are analog signals. Systems like 3DME that rely on analog technology capture the continuous wave of the sound signal, whereas digital technology only samples sound. As a result, the in-ear monitors’ sound output is more natural and true to the music.
In addition, the in-ear monitors capture sound across the entire frequency range, up to 20kHz, approximately the highest-pitched sound audible to humans, reports Dr. Michael Santucci, AuD, Sensaphonics president and founder and a founder of ASI Audio, in an interview. In contrast, the top of the frequency range for hearing aids, more focused on speech enhancement, is generally 6kHz to 8kHz.
The 3DME system’s broad frequency range infuses the music with a full-bodied quality. While the highest note on the piano, for example, only registers at just over 4kHz, the harmonic overtones, those secondary tones that ring resonant with the main tone played, are in much higher frequencies. In fact, for most instruments, the harmonics sound at least as high as 10kHZ, as shown in this Instrument Frequency Chart.
The 3DME’s miniature microphones embedded in each earpiece are ambient, meaning that they capture sound’s full dimensionality. These patented microphones, along with the fact that the technology is analog, explain the dazzling sound. After a few months practicing with the 3DMEs and customizing the settings, I conducted a quick test. I played the same piece of music, the Brahm’s Intermezzo in A-major, first wearing the monitors, then my hearing aids. Compared to the monitors, my Brahm’s Intermezzo with hearing aids sounded flat, twangy, and robotic.
No More Small Echoes from Delay
Most hearing aids have processing delays, a gap between when a sound occurs and when it reaches the ear canal, of about 3 to 11 milliseconds. The user experiences this delay, or latency, as an echoing quality of the sound. “Some people will notice the timing as a little off,” explains Dr. Santucci. The delay occurs because hearing aids process sound with the objective of improving users’ ability to hear conversations, in environments like loud restaurants. Santucci reports that the 3DME in-ear monitors have no processing delay at all.
No More Exaggerated Background Noise
When I have performed with hearing aids in the past, someone down in the audience leafing through a program sounded like a person crinkling paper next to my ear. That’s because my hearing loss in the high frequencies is so severe that my hearing aids seek to magnify any soft sound in the region. I’m thrilled to report that with the 3DME monitors, my struggle to ignore these overly magnified sounds from the audience is a problem of the past.
Ability to Self-Adjust
Whether you elect to visit an audiologist or rely on yourself for the initial programming, over time you will most likely fine-tune the settings. I found that having the freedom to adjust the settings as often as I wished, without having to schedule an audiology appointment, was an important benefit of the system.
In contrast, prescription hearing aids sold and serviced by hearing care professionals do not have this flexibility, despite research showing that users can select settings that produce hearing outcomes comparable to those achieved by professionals.
Earbud Form Factor
Having grappled with stigma even after I became a hearing health advocate, I understand when people share with me that they don’t want to be seen wearing hearing aids. In this case, the in-ear devices resemble earbuds, not traditional hearing aids. Professional rock musicians often use the system, giving the devices a refreshing cool-factor.
Convenience and Choice with Tele-Audiology
Carting large instruments to the audiologist to test programming changes is challenging to impossible. If we pianists have it hard, how about the organ! The church organist Brian Henderson was fortunate in that his audiologist visited his church to program the music setting on his hearing aids.
With a tele-audiology session on the 3DMEs, logistics to bring audiologist and instrument to the same location vanish. I very much enjoyed the process of tweaking the settings with Dr. Malyuk real-time while seated at my beloved Steinway grand in my home.
Since you are meeting via tele-audiology, you are not constrained by geography. The entire field is open to you to find the best audiologist for your needs, one who is expert in music and the 3DME system.
Limitations of the 3DME In-Ear Monitor System
Although the 3DME has a number of significant benefits, I would also like for you to be aware of its limitations.
Bulky Form Factor
The 3DME monitors are far less streamlined and convenient than hearing aids. The monitors protrude from my ears, while the bodypack makes me feel as though I have a sound system strapped to me (which I do, in a sense). The long cord extending from the earbuds to the bodypack is not exactly subtle. I’ve coached myself to make sure that I don’t sit on the cord, accidentally removing the earbuds during a performance.
Moreover, the volume buttons on the body pack are extremely sensitive. On several occasions, when the body pack was clipped onto my waistband, I brushed against the buttons without realizing it, inadvertently raising the volume.
30-day return policy
The return policy is important because the 3DME system does not work for everyone with a hearing loss. Dr. Malyuk explained to me that for people with a severe or profound hearing loss that the success rate is about 50 percent.
If your hearing loss falls into those categories, thirty days does not provide much time to assess the product, especially if you plan to seek the help of a specialized music audiologist. By the time you locate an audiologist, book and wait for the appointment, and then experiment with the enhanced settings, 30 days easily could have elapsed.
Consider booking the appointment with the audiologist before you order the product, so you have sufficient time to make a decision.
Discomfort from the Standard Ear Tips
One of the things that I love about the human body is that the shape of each person’s outer ear and ear canal are unique as fingerprints. However, that beautiful diversity confounds earbud makers who offer standard ear tips.
In my case with the standard ear tips, the left monitor felt as though it were forcing my outer ear’s cavity into an unnatural point. As for the right ear, the monitor would sometimes fall out in the middle of practicing a piece. These problems occurred despite my trying the small and medium sizes during my tele-audiology session.
So I ordered the custom-fit sleeves, silicone ear tips made from impressions of my ears that slide onto the universal monitors. The investment was well worth it for me: the soft ear tips felt comfortable and stayed securely in my ear canals. However, the custom sleeves increased the system cost for me by about 30 percent. See this article’s section on the total system price for more details.
Dr. Santucci’s company, Sensaphonics, manufactures the custom sleeves for the 3DME. To find an audiologist near you who is certified to take ear impressions for these devices, visit this page on the Sensaphonics website, at https://www.sensaphonics.com/pages/find-an-audiologist.
It’s worth noting that ASI Audio also offers a Custom Tour option combining the monitor and ear tip into one integrated, fully customized silicone ear shell that retails starting at $2,000.
Limitations on Conversation
Although ASI Audio designed their system with music, not conversation, in mind, conversation in a quiet room is possible. While wearing the monitors, I’m able to talk with my piano teacher during my weekly lesson and also with a family member who may stop by the piano during my practice.
When I speak while wearing the 3DMEs, however, my voice reverberates inside my head. In my opinion, this phenomenon, which audiologists refer to as occlusion, is a small price to pay for the stunning sound quality.
If you wear hearing aids, one option is to put them back on for longer conversations in the midst of practice. However, it’s worth noting that it still takes me a good five minutes to clip on the bodypack, correctly position the monitors, and slide the sleeves into my ears, as well as to reverse the process.
Insufficient User Manual
The 3DME system comes with a small user manual in multiple languages. The manual covers the basics on assembling the system, selecting and inserting the ear tips, and pairing the monitors with the app. However, I was not able to insert the monitors with ear tips without coaching from Dr. Malyuk. Since doing so requires correct positioning and rotation, no doubt users would welcome a video with demonstrations from multiple angles.
Users would also benefit from a more detailed manual explaining how to use the Equalizer tab on the app, as well as how to think holistically about the interaction between the Volume and Limiter sliders with the Equalizer. Finally, the company may want to consider increasing the print size in the manual. Although I have perfect vision for reading, I strained to read the tiny type.
Setup Time and Learning Curve
It’s important to know before purchasing the 3DME system that the setup requires an investment of time. After I decided to order the custom sleeves, the wait time for a skilled audiologist to take my ear impressions was a good six weeks. Then I had to figure out how to slide the sleeves on the monitors and position them into my ears. From when I first ordered the monitors until I reached a point of equilibrium, a good three months elapsed.
How to Use the 3DME In-Ear Monitor System
With that background on the 3DME benefits and limitations, I’d like to share with you some more detail on how the system works.
The System Components
The two primary components of the 3DME system are a pair of earbuds wired to a bodypack mixer. After inserting the earbuds, you will need to attach the bodypack mixer to a waistband or pocket, using the clip on the back. The clip fits securely in my experience.
The system delivers sound customized to your unique hearing profile, e.g., how well you hear individual sounds as they increase in pitch. The downloadable ASIAudioBTG2 app allows you to program the 3DME monitors. It’s the bodypack mixer’s job to take your selected settings and deliver the customized sound to the earbuds.
You program the devices on the app’s Equalizer tab. The Equalizer provides a slider control for seven pitches, starting at 60hz, which is about the lowest note on the piano, going up to 10kHz, which includes the highest overtones on the piano (and the highest note on the violin).
The Main tab allows you to adjust the Mic Level, in other words, how much you will amplify the overall sound. This tab also contains a Limiter Threshold, which provides a slider to adjust the maximum sound level going into your ears, expressed in decibels, dB SPL.
Protecting Your Hearing
I exercise strong caution with the Limiter Threshold. Keep in mind that OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, advises that when noise in the workplace is at or above 85 decibels (dB SPL) averaged over eight working hours, that companies must implement a program to protect workers’ hearing.
Although I practice the piano for about an hour a day as opposed to the eight hours noted in the OSHA guidelines, and although the OSHA guidelines refer to an average of 85 decibels, I do not move the Limiter beyond 92 decibels. Since music has many dynamic micro-peaks that exceed my selected threshold, most audiologists would find my position to be overly conservative. However, I’m very careful about protecting my remaining hearing abilities. For those who elect to turn off the Limiter Threshold, the in-ear monitors can handle sound peaks up to 135 decibels (dB SPL).
The good news is that since the 3DME technology is analog, not digital, any sounds louder than the Limiter Threshold will not sound clipped as they might with digital hearing aids. “It’s a slow limiter, gently reducing the peaks in sound” above the threshold, explains Dr. Santucci.
Dr. Santucci recommends that an additional precaution for people like me concerned about hearing conservation is to have your hearing tested every year (which I generally do). Yearly testing will identify any small changes in hearing ability.
Allowing Your Brain to Acclimatize
In addition to the imperative of protecting your hearing, you should understand that whenever you alter your sound environment, your brain will need time to adjust. This applies regardless of the device supplying the new soundscape – hearing aids, in-ear monitors, or music earbuds programmed with your hearing loss.
With the 3DME in-ear monitors, I needed to acclimatize to the new levels of sound coming from my piano. During my first encounter with the monitors, the music’s gorgeous texture reduced me to tears. In the next few weeks, however, I noticed that some of the tones sounded fuzzy. Was that because in some cases the amplification was too much? I let up on the bass amplification and lowered the volume slider. These adjustments helped, although I also believe that my brain needed time to adjust to the new sound levels, particularly in the higher frequencies.
Adjusting the App Settings
Depending upon your comfort level in mixing music and reading audiograms, there are several options for personalizing the app settings to your hearing profile:
Option One: Self-adjustments with trial and error. This option applies to people who understand the basic principles of mixing music. For each frequency band in the app, play a couple of notes on the piano and adjust to a uniform loudness. Dr. Santucci recommends that you slowly increase the slider for each frequency. “See what sounds good,” he advises. “It’s about tuning to your preference. You are the best sound engineer for yourself.” To understand how frequency bands map to keys on the piano, check out this handy resource, “Piano Keys: Theory, History, and Secrets Unlocked.”
Option Two: Self-adjustments with audiogram. An audiogram, a chart that shows the quietest sound you are able to hear at different pitches, or frequencies, helps jump-start the process of establishing the initial Equalizer settings. You can refer to your audiogram to see at what frequency your hearing loss starts and how it changes as frequencies increase. Dr. Santucci explains that the numbers up to 12 represent dB SPL, a different way of expressing decibels than on the audiogram. So you won’t be able to exactly match your audiogram to the Equalizer settings.
Also, the standard audiogram does not extend to the Equalizer’s two lowest and top frequency bands. For those outer bands, you will need to use pure trial and error, described in Option One. If you don’t have an audiogram, free digital hearing screening tests like the Mimi Hearing Test may provide a useful starting point.
Option Three: Working with a music audiologist. This option will probably appeal to most people, since only a minority have experience mixing music or interpreting an audiogram. However, it’s critical to find an audiologist who is a musician or understands the principles of music.
I went this route because the product directions did not explain how the Equalizer settings interacted with the Mic Level and Limiter Threshold. I wanted to explore the possibilities in depth with a professional. Once I had that discussion, I was able to adjust the settings myself, which I did quite frequently during my first two months of use, until I settled on the program that was best for me.
The ASI Audio YouTube channel has some useful videos on how to optimize the fit of the 3DME in-ear monitors. See in particular Dr. Heather Malyuk’s video, Fit for Performance. Although the video demonstrates a prior model of the 3DMEs, Santucci reports that most of it is still applicable. The company also recommends a video series by Craig Anderton, an authority on music and technology.
Cost of the 3DME In-Ear Monitor System
The 3DME base price of $799 is attractive. However, users may discover that they need help with setup and app programming, and they may elect to purchase the custom sleeves for the earbuds. I wanted to share my costs to give readers an understanding of the total picture:
Total 3DME System Cost with Taxes for Nancy M. Williams
|3DME product cost
|Initial orientation with music audiologist
|Programming session with music audiologist
|Hearing aid audiologist charge for custom molds
|3DME product cost for custom earbud sleeves
The Bottom Line: A Strong Recommendation
Overall, I’m thrilled with the 3DMEs. They are the only device that I wear when playing the piano. The bottom line for me is that while the 3DME in-ear monitors have some drawbacks including the bulky form factor and the setup time and learning curve, the benefits–especially the sound quality and ability to self-adjust–outweigh the limitations tenfold. In fact, if I have any regrets about the 3DME system, it’s that I waited so long to try it.
How about you? Are you considering trying in-ear monitors? If you have, what were your experiences?