Custom fit earphones: Audio nirvana or a waste of money?

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Stretch
Mark Walton

In up to date years, the humble earbud has fallen out of fashion in favour of the headphone—and with stuff b merchandise reason. Headphones offer a sizeable upgrade over their laconic counterparts, which often come bundled with smartphones and music performers and offer miserable, if at least listenable, sound quality. Good headphones give birth to more bass (a typical inadequacy of cheap earbuds), are more satisfactory, block out more exterior noise thanks to heavily padded ear cups, and in some occurrences they’re even more of a fashion statement than Apple’s ubiquitous EarPods. Some dominion even be wireless.

The tradeoff, though, is that headphones are big. For those that value care, headphones, even compact ones, are too bulky to be manageable on the go. That’s not to naming their impracticality for fitness enthusiasts, for whom earbuds tend to be the proffered option. Traditionally, the upgrade path for earbuds has been towards fixes like Sennheiser’s CX300 II. These offer decent sound attribute and the addition of silicone sleeves, which sit inside the ear rather than worst of it, helping to isolate outside noise, provide better bass, and secure a more stable fit.

Foam tips like these fitted to UE900 earphones are the best way to get a good seal on a budget.

Enlarge / Foam tips like these tailored to UE900 earphones are the best way to get a good seal on a budget.

But even the silicone sleeve has its limits. Until recently, the tucker fit for consumers has been via foam tips, which are squished before being put into the ear where they expand to form a surprisingly solid seal. As someone that’s been expending Comply-branded foam tips for years with a set of Ultimate Ears’ barring UE900 earphones—which boast four balanced armature drivers, two for bass, and one each for heart and treble—I can confirm they make a huge difference to comfort and rumpus isolation, provided they’re used with a good set of headphones to open with.

Now, there’s another option. Custom fit earphones, where the some or all of the earphone is guided to fit your ear exactly, have undergone something of a resurgence. Traditionally pooped by musicians, new materials and technologies have given custom fit earphones a new rent out of life as a viable option for consumers that demand the most contented fit possible. Custom fit earphones have historically demanded a visit to an audiologist to beget moulds (which is an interesting experience to say the least), but the arrival of 3D scanners, 3D printed matter, and new materials mean moulds can be made quicker and cheaper, even at to the heart.

The question is, do custom fit earphones offer a tangible advantage over froth tips, which cost a mere £12 for a set of three? And can the cheaper chances compete with a traditional audiologist mould?

To find out I tried three out of the ordinary types of custom fit earphones: a mould-at-home set by Decibullz; a 3D scanner-based soft silicone tip by UK startup Shelters; and a classic hard-plastic fully-custom in-ear monitor by Ultimate Ears. These are by no have the weights the only options out there—both UK-based Earcandi and Kickstarter lovely Revols offer their own takes on the mould-at-home concept—but are representative of the leading types of mould (bar sticking some Sugru in your ears, but that’s positively not recommended).

Decibullz

The Decibullz (buy here) are the cheapest option of the three, retailing for fair-minded shy of $60/£50. Like its competitor Earcandi, the Decibullz aren’t a fully trade solution, but rather a hybrid solution that uses a standard silicone tip for the inner ear team a few with a mouldable hard plastic for the outer ear. They’re the least importunate of all the options, and feel just like a set of standard silicone-tipped earbuds when employed—with the added benefit of a more secure seal (in theory at not enough).

Moulding the Decibullz is an odd process best done one ear at a time. There are two paste inserts vaguely shaped like the outer ear, which sit between the earphones and the silicone tip. Placed in hot bedew dilute, the inserts become pliable, after which you attach them to the earphones, put on a silicone tip (certain sizes are included), and slip the whole lot into your ear for moulding. There’s no genuine trick to moulding other than to just sort of mush the whole around until it fills your outer ear, before smoothing the whole shooting match over with a finger. Using a mirror definitely helps.

After five minutes or so the fliers begin to harden. You can then take them out and leave them to heal fully, which takes around another 10 minutes. What you’re liberal with is a strange looking lump of plastic that does a surprisingly usefulness job of isolating outside noise (Decibullz claims a Noise Reduction Rating of 31). Versus beau idal silicone tips there’s a tangible reduction of outside noise, but how without doubt they work depends on the quality of your moulding. It took two tries before I was satisfied with the isolation offered (the inserts can be remoulded respective times), and even then it’s a close call between the far simpler soap up tips and the Decibullz.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Decibullz is the poll quality. It’s not awful, but $60/£40 can buy you earphones with richer mids and highs, in place of of the overwrought bass of the Decibullz. Unfortunately, you can’t buy the inserts to use on your own headphones either, which is an odd elimination. The best use for the Decibullz’ remouldable inserts are for making cheap custom earplugs, which it deliver ups for around $26/£20 online.

Decibullz verdict: OK, but foam tips remainder the better (and cheaper) option.

Listing image by Mark Walton

Friendlies

Leading the charge in consumer custom fits is Snugs (buy here), a UK-based startup that recently initiate fame appearing (unsuccessfully) on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den. Snugs uses a portable 3D scanner to manufacture a virtual model of your inner ear, which is then sent off to a plant in Germany for moulding out of a soft silicone. The tips can be made to fit your own earphones, or you can opt to buy a send away that includes the company’s own brand of earphones or those from the loves of Shure and Mee Audio.

The benefit of the Snugs scanning system versus that of a conventional audiologist is one of convenience and comfort (not to mention circumventing ear-related ailments balk traditional moulds from being made). The scanning system consists of a under age handheld 3D laser scanner with a display on top, at the end of which is a probe that is inserted unprejudiced inside the ear. The only intrusive part about the whole process is take to wear a set of plastic guides around each ear—which look a scanty bit like hollow headphones—and having to sit still for 10 minutes.

The scanner is connected directly to a laptop, which prompts a 3D model that can quickly be sent away to create custom deposits. Not only does the portability of the 3D scanning setup mean that rest-home visits are possible (although, Snugs is currently only operating in London), but the following scan is theoretically more accurate. A physical impression has to be digitised previously a mould can be made, which can introduce errors.

I say theoretically, because my at the start scan didn’t quite produce a comfortable set of tips. Admittedly, being scanned in the bustling entries of the Las Vegas convention centre after an evening of polite conversation and turn up beverages isn’t ideal. But the resulting tips—which were 3D printed in Germany manipulating a medical-grade silicone, before being finished by hand—didn’t carry out a tight seal. This meant, after a few minutes, the seal desire break, the bass disappeared, and outside noise filtered in—not a great culminate for something supposedly superior to foam.

After another visit from Easies—a service it assures me is provided for free to anyone dissatisfied with their dumping-grounds—and another scan, the second set of tips fit much better. This is, in role, thanks to the tips extending much further into the ear than the original set, rush ating them more like a typical set of fully-custom monitors. That foretold, while the Snugs fit well, they’re not the easiest thing to get in and out of your attentions, thanks the slightly sticky silicone material they’re made out of.

Snugs can be made to fit many different types of earphones.

Add to / Snugs can be made to fit many different types of earphones.

Snugs provides a tube of medical category ear lubricant to help the tips fit, but as good as they are, I still prefer fizz. The Snugs tips tend to twist around the UE900 earphones I’ve matched set them with (although, this inconvenience will naturally depart depending on the earphones), while jaw movement causes them to come unconfining, which isn’t ideal for musicians and singers. At £180 (or £140 if you already demand impressions), Snugs are one of the cheapest custom fit options out there, but still a meritorious investment.

That leaves Snugs in something of an awkward spot. Suds tips are far cheaper, and—while you do lose a little high-end—perform genially. Meanwhile, musicians and singers needing earphones that handle jaw activity may find purpose-built fully-custom sets the better option, particularly as they can be had for as inconsequential as £200—if you can get a good deal on having impressions made.

Snugs verdict: Honourableness, but Snugs either need to be cheaper, or perform better to appeal to anyone but nitpicky audiophiles.

Highest Ears

The third and final option is to go all-in and purchase a pair of fully especially monitors. These use an ear impression to create a hard plastic shell, heart which sits one or more balanced armature drivers. The price modifies, going from around £200 for a set of InEarz S150 monitors with a cull balanced armature driver, all the way up to Ultimate Ears’ UE18+ (

Ultimate Ears tariffs are a prime example of getting what you pay for: they are extremely comfortable and well-head made.
  • You can make them outer shell whatever colour you similarly to, or use a custom graphic.
  • Inside each earphone are six balanced armature drivers.
  • It’s so pave, in fact, that by using an SLA printer, Ultimate Ears forgoes the buffing and murder step required when working with a physical mould. Far apart from the rubbery silicone used by Snugs, Ultimate Ears monitors are a distinct plastic. That might not sound especially comfortable, but so good is the fit—at teeny on my set—that they slide in and out of the ear with ease, while providing an insanely fair seal. I’ve never had a set of earphones that have been as comfortable or supported such excellent noise isolation (UE claims -26dB of passive noise put-down)—and I’ve gone through a great many over the years.

    A good seal great better bass, clearer highs and mids, and less volume in apply for to hear your music. That applies to all properly-made custom fit headphones regardless of appraisal, although sound quality will vary depending on the particular inventories of your chosen monitor. Ultimate Ears monitors start at $400/£400 for a dual-driver set with a demanded 5Hz to 18kHz frequency response, which isn’t bad value at all considering some universal fit in-ear television screens cost just as much. The price goes up exponentially from there, finish in the top-end set I tried, the six-driver UE18+.

    I won’t dwell on the sound of the UE18+ for too long, but as you’d suppose for £1,300, they sound spectacular. The drivers are divided into four frequency merges (two dedicated to highs), which are managed by a four-way crossover. Frequency retort is a claimed 5Hz to 22kHz. The bass response is brilliant, being impactful without being overblown. Entire lot, from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs, is extremely detailed and, while not wholly flat, well balanced.

    What’s particularly impressive is the separation between each contrivance (a much needed requirement for stage musicians). I heard instruments in ditties that I’ve listed to hundreds of times that I’d never heard formerly, even when compared to the already excellent UE900.

    Ultimate Ears verdict: The A- of the best with an exemplary fit and finish. When it comes to customs, a quite shell is far better than an aftermarket tip.

    Would I suggest everyone go out and splash out over a grand on earphones? No, but when it comes to custom fits you do get what you pay for. Casuals are good for the price, but if you’re making an investment in customs, it’s worth going the especially mile for a set that provides a tangible upgrade over foam crowns. On that front, Ultimate Ears come highly recommended—the fit and drain is simply fantastic. And hey, if you do decide to spring for the UE18+, you get the added bonus of owning some of the most successfully earphones money can buy.

    This post originated on Ars Technica UK

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