The market for premium in-canal earphones is growing: as iPod users and other music fans have begun to understand the substantial quality differences between free, packed-in earbuds and each step up the price ladder, they’ve become increasingly willing to spend upwards of $50 – sometimes $100 to $300 – for earpieces that reveal more of the original detail, presence, and spectrum of music. iLounge’s editors are all converts: as owners of in-canal monitors priced as high as $900, yet fans of various models priced far lower than that, we’ve pretty much heard it all, and it’s hard to go back to the cheap stuff.
Up until recently, though, we were faced with a question that hadn’t been fully answered on the site: why are custom-fit in-canal earphones so much more expensive than the $50 Sony earbuds you see in stores? To get the answer, we visited the Orange County, California-based labs of Ultimate Ears – a long-time leader in custom-fit audio monitors – taking notes and snapping photos. In summary, the $550 to $900 cost is attributable to two things: high-quality components and staggering amounts of human labor.
Any company – and we mean any company – can put a tiny speaker into a plastic casing that fits in your ear. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of highly similar earbud models are turned out of Chinese factories every year, and as a consequence, we’ve heard the same thing over and over again from iPod accessory companies: “the parts are cheap, the labor’s cheap, and we can build the best quality earphones for nothing.” But then something inevitably happens: they try and fail. Their earbuds sound flat, muddy, distorted, or shrill. And a year or two later, once they’ve sold all their inventory, they confess that something went wrong, but they’re not sure quite what it was. For some reason, the headphones made by dedicated audio companies just sound better.
Part of that “some reason” is precision measurement and component testing – the best earphone makers can guarantee that every one of their units sounds nearly identical to the original design, and that the original design was made to sound pretty much the same from ear to ear. This mass-manufacturing strategy explains why a company like Shure or Etymotic can satisfy everyone from hard-core audiophiles to less discerning listeners with a non-custom-fit earphone like the E500 or ER-4P, both recently reviewed by iLounge as outstanding. However, Ultimate Ears and other custom earphone makers take this process a step further: they measure your ear, then design their monitors to fit and sound perfect inside. As more fully described in our review of the company’s UE-10 Pro earphones, this process begins with a visit to an audiologist who makes molds of your ear canals (shown above), and ends with the receipt of a box with finished custom monitors inside.
What goes into making those monitors? The biggest surprise is that the finished products, shown several pictures up, are hollow inside and tuned completely – yes, completely – by hand. Those pink ear molds are digitized using a 3-D scanner, then transformed into reverse molds that are used to create hollow acrylic shells in your choice of colors. Clear remains Ultimate Ears’ most popular color, but new bright-colored shells, like the one above, are becoming increasingly in-demand as fashion accessories.
Each of the shells is hand-polished by a two-stage coarse- and fine-grain machine, yielding pieces that feel smooth and soft in your ear. Occasionally, as we found with our UE-10 Pros, additional post-receipt tweaking is necessary to make the fit perfect; having already upgraded its digitizing hardware since our units were made two years ago, Ultimate Ears is in the process of moving to even more advanced 3-D digitizing tools that will yield more perfect results out of the box. An ideal fit with your ear canals guarantees superior isolation from outside noises, one key to creating an engrossing, enjoyable listening experience.
With the shell finished, completed driver and wire packages are inserted – these packages differ based on the model and price of the earphones, ranging from dual-driver $550 models to $850 triple-driver UE-7s and the $900 triple-driver-plus-circuit-board UE-10s, each fitting inside the enclosure. The presence of these multiple drivers makes further miniaturization a challenge, but not an impossibility – Ultimate Ears’ earlier super.fi earphones shrunk dual-driver designs into an even smaller, less expensive enclosure, and Shure’s recent E500s managed to do the same with a triple-driver design. By contrast, Ultimate Ears’ larger, custom-fit earpieces are designed to provide additional isolation from outside noise and guaranteed personalized comfort; recent innovations have enabled customers to add artwork, jewels, and other fashion twists to these models. We’ll have more to share on that point shortly.
Once the drivers are inside the shell, engineers tune the components with syringes of additional acrylic to guarantee that the sound output of each earpiece matches or closely approximates the signature audio curves shown on the company’s web site. Each pair of earphones is placed in a special monitoring vise for measurement, with adjustments to the sound-shaping canals being made by hand. It’s hard to overstate the importance and value of this process: top-quality sound, hand-calibrated to make sure that your ears hear what they’re supposed to be hearing. This sort of attention to sound and fit detail is the reason why professional musicians go on stage – and off-stage – with custom earpieces rather than off-the-shelf earbuds.
With the earpieces tuned, finished, and marked with personally-identifiable information, all that’s left is the packaging. Two minutes after we told Ultimate Ears that their older metal UE-series boxes were getting long in the tooth, the company’s representatives were showing us this: the newest metal custom-fit case, which will start to be available in the near future. Larger than the prior box, the new one holds your choice of iPod alongside the earphones, and will include a smaller metal earbud-only case for greater portability. A laser etching process done on-site customizes each box for its recipient.
So yes, these earphones sell for premium prices, and no, they’re not right for everyone – you need to have a lot of cash in order to pay two or three times the cost of an iPod just for any pair of headphones. But if you’re looking for something that’s ultra-personalized, possessing top-shelf audio quality and noise isolation without forcing you to wear huge earcups, custom-fit earphones are one of your best options – the sort of gift virtually any serious listener would want to receive, and one that’s worth its added price.