Review Round-up: Custom in-ear headphones

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There are a few ways to to get excellent audio out of a pair of headphones. You can have excellent components or a tight, close fit or special electronics. Or, better yet, you can have all three. I was lucky enough to be able to try three types of custom earphones/earbuds and am please to report that if you have the cash they’re definitely a great way to listen to music.

I tested three distinct models from JH Audio, Ultimate Ears, and Etymotic. All of these buds were custom molded for my ear, a process that is, at the very least, undeniably weird.

First a note on these headphones: they’re definitely not cheap. Not only do you have to pay for the headphones, you also have to pay for a licensed audiologist to take a mold of your ear. The mold is then used to create a custom-fitted earbud that fits you, presumably, less like a glove and more like a custom sports mouth guard.

These earbuds are not for everyone but they are amazing bits of audio gear. I chose three different types, ranging from almost $1200 to about $400. If you love music and have a great deal of high quality or lossless content, this is certainly an option to consider. Full disclosure: Obviously these companies squirted gunk into my ears and made these headphones for the review.

Here’s how the earbuds are usually made. Obviously you’d go to a doctor’s office and not my dining room:

A quick note on durability: I’ve used the Ultimate Ears 5 Pro for almost eight years now and they only this year did they begin to break down and require repair by the company – a process that cost me a mere $168. In short, when you make the investment in these earbuds, expect a life of about ten years on these if you treat them well.

Also a note on audio quality: these buds sound great with great files. If you’re listening to compressed MP3s, you won’t get a benefit. These earbuds are designed for folks on stage who want to hear the mix but don’t want to depend on monitors. They are “professional” in that they offer excellent sound reproduction in a noise-isolating case.

JH Audio 16 Pro – $1149
These earbuds are incredible. They have a frequency response from 10Hz to 20kHz along with -26db noise isolation. The buds contain 8 discrete drivers per side w/ 4-way crossovers, which translates to each earbud containing eight tiny speakers, each handling a certain frequency range.

What does this mean in terms of audio? Well, for one you have eminently comfortable noise isolation in loud environments and these also offer amazing performance with the right content. I listened to a number of pieces of lossless music and heard more detail than you’ll ever year in a pair of stock earbuds. “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd sounded like the band and that coughing guy was in the room with me while music by TV on the Radio and Portishead was a layered soundscape of amazing clarity.

I talked to our buddy, Mike Kobrin, audio ninja extraordinaire, and he wrote:

JH makes in-ear monitors for on-stage performers who play at large venues and sound engineers, where there simply can’t be any compromise in sound. Performers also need something discreet and lightweight on stage… Imagine Christina Aguilera dancing around on stage with a giant pair of Sennheiser HD800′s. A “nice” pair of cans from Grado, Denon, Sennheiser, etc. are more for spectator-style listening.

Then there’s the segment of musical “spectators” with lots of discretionary income that want to hear things the way the pros hear them on stage. These also might be the bleeding-edge techie folks who just need the latest, regardless of whether it’s truly the greatest.

Is 8 drivers overkill, even for professionals? Certainly. After all, performers have gotten along with 2- and 3-driver models for years without complaint, and engineers are more apt to use huge cans anyway. And doubling each segment of the audio spectrum (lows, mids and highs) adds quite a bit of complexity to the engineering, especially when it comes to distributing the original audio signal to all the different drivers. There’s potential for all kinds of sonic benefits, like improved clarity and separation of instruments, and certainly for more powerful lows. Whether that engineering is done precisely and consistently enough is what determines the sonic benefits actually occur.

Ultimate Ears 5 Pro – $600
These were my first custom earbuds and they were created by the same team that currently runs JH Audio. These earbuds have two drivers and the sound, in a nutshell, is a bit flatter than the 16 Pros. These are almost the “bargain basement” model for Ultimate Ears but they’re quite comfortable and you still get excellent -26db noise isolation an, because I’ve worn these for so long, I think the comfort has grown on me.

Eytmotic hf2 Customs – About $250
These earbuds are actually made by ACS Custom, a UK company, and use Eytmotics excellent hf2 headset. While the audio is decidedly lower key than the other two in this round-up, the price is about right. The “sleeves” are molded to your ear but are a less-secure fit than the other two. They cost $133 while the earbuds cost about $125.

These are custom audio products for people who want to recreate the artist experience. They are also the most dependable noise isolation solution I’ve found. Are they for you? If you need lots of sound isolation and want to hear almost everything in your high quality music while traipsing around the city or just sitting in your easy chair, these things can’t be beat.

Video music by Volfoniq and Binrpilot.

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