The AudioFile: My Violated Ears

UE-11 Pro
I recently had the opportunity to try out a prototype of the upcoming flagship earphones from Ultimate Ears, the outrageously pricey UE-11 Pro‘s. For $1150, you get four drivers — including a subwoofer — in each custom-molded plastic earpiece, complete with custom artwork (see mine above). What you also get is a trip to the audiologist to get molds made of the insides of your ear canals, which is a pretty bizarre and… er… violating experience. Here’s a first-hand account of the UE custom experience, plus a look at how other companies do it.

I showed up at Jim Silberman’s office in midtown Manhattan with much the same feeling I get when I go to the dentist. I sat down and looked around as he took a couple of phone calls — the anechoic chamber (a completely sound-absorptive room) in the corner got most of my attention, taking my mind off of how clammy my hands were getting. Once he got off the phone, we chatted for a few minutes and he set to work prepping a silicone-based gel and large plastic syringe. Again, dentist flashbacks.

I bit down on a small piece of hard Styrofoam as he injected the gel into my right ear. A little stopper that he placed over the tip of the syringe kept the gel from going all the way into my eardrum, but I felt like it was going to come out the other side of my head. As we sat and waited for the gel to harden, I could hear my heart beating in my chest and I began to sweat, since my right ear canal is a bit on the sensitive side and was beginning to hurt.

Finally, he yanked the mold out and repeated the process in my left ear, which has an unusually sharp turn just past the entrance to my ear canal. It didn’t hurt going in, but he had a hell of a time pulling the hardened mold back out, and I imagined him putting his foot on the side of my face to get leverage.

He then sent the molds off to Ultimate Ears, with whom he works regularly, for manufacturing. I also sent them a JPEG of a logo that one of my bands, Otis Funkmeyer, had printed up for t-shirts at our recent record release party. (The logo is actually a 45-rpm record adapter, since our record release really was a 45.)

A couple of weeks later, I got the UE-11’s, pictured above, in a nice custom metal case, complete with my initials on the inside of one of the earphones. I spent the next 45 minutes or so trying to insert the earphones, which are made of hard plastic — no doubt to protect the $1150 worth of miniaturized electronics inside. By the time I was able to get them in, I was sweating, and they were far from comfortable. Actually, they gave me a headache within a few minutes, despite the incredibly glorious sound.

This isn’t a typical experience by any means, since I’ve got plenty of musician and engineer friends who’ve had far better experiences. But I couldn’t help thinking that the earphones should’ve been a little softer.

I’d gotten an ear mold made before years ago in San Francisco so I could get a $175 pair of musician’s earplugs made by H.E.A.R. (I’m a trumpet player, and normal earplugs just won’t cut it because they don’t block out sound evenly across the audible range.) The audiologist process was very similar, kind of like a really intense wet willie, but what I ended up with is semi-rigid silicone earplugs that truly fit like a glove — a soft calfskin glove rather than a gauntlet from a suit of armor.

Shure also makes custom earphones, but instead of enclosing the electronics inside the molded part, they simply make a custom-fit sleeve that you slip onto the sound nozzle. They’re semi-rigid like my earplugs, but the electronics are housed in Shure’s regular earbud enclosures. Of course, that puts the sound source a bit further away from your ears than if the microdrivers were right next to your ears like with the UE-11’s, but the comfort makes this a viable tradeoff.

If I designed custom earphones, it would be a compromise between these two approaches. Why not simply enclose the electronics in a small earbud, maybe the size of Klipsch’s upcoming “world’s smallest” in-ear headphones, and then make a custom mold out of semi-rigid material that slips over the earphone? That way the drivers would be close to your ears, and the electronics would be well protected within a hard plastic core. You could even get replacement molds without having to replace the entire headphones.

Hopefully Shure, Ultimate Ears, or some other high-end headphone manufacturer will listen up and join the 21st century with their materials and designs. Of course, I’d also love it if audiologists could use 3D laser scanners to make molds instead of filling people’s ears with cold wet goo.