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Custom Earphones in 4 Minutes

by Stewart Wolpin on February 09, 2011

A new company called Sonomax is marketing a DIY custom earphone kit called Sculpted Eers (get it? "ears" only spelled with two Es?). The Sonomax earphones are $200 for a single driver set of earbuds and $300 for a dual driver version. It's not really DIY for you, though, it'll be up to the retailer to do the fitting.

If you're in the market for noise canceling headphones, or just good-sounding/snug-fitting in-ear phones, you're best bet is buying custom-made earphones. By having in-ear phones molded specifically to fill your ear canal, most ambient noise – including airplane engine hum – will be blocked, or canceled, without having carry around bulky over-the-head noise canceling headphones requiring batteries. I use custom-made earphones from both Ultimate Ears, the brand chosen by most professional musicians, and Etymotic.

To get custom-made earphones, however, you need to first find and visit a local audiologist to make molds of your ears – they inject silicon into your ears. Then you have to wait two or more weeks for the custom buds to be made and delivered. You can't simply go into a retailer and have the molding done at the store to take your new custom earbuds home with you.

That's where the Sonomax Eers are different.

Sonomax Sculpted Eers

Sonomax Sculpted Eers being fittedThe Eers kit looks like a giant pair of headphones, but the "ear cups" are filled with medical-grade hypoallergenic silicon. You fit the temporary headset over your head, which inserts the earphones loosely into your ears. Wing levers on other side of the headset are flipped up, releasing the flow of silicon into the earphones, molding themselves to the inside of your ear canal. After four minutes of drying, the molds are completed. They snap off and are attached to wires and, voila, custom-made earphones finished in about four minutes.

Sounds like a good idea – but do they sound good?

How do they compare in price, fit and sound?

The Sonomax Eers are made with flexible over-the-ear hooks and have the smallest in-canal bud when compared to Etymotic and Ultimate Ears. (The Ultimate Ears has the largest, filling not only the canal but the immediate outside lobe as well). As a result, Eers sit more loosely in the ear than either the Etymotic or the Ultimate Ears.

Ultimate Ears are the premium custom in-ear phones. The company's least expensive entry is the 4 Pro priced at $399, with models ranging all the way to $1,350. Even at the low end, you easily hear what you are paying for. Ditto for Etymotic's various custom models, priced between $79 and $299.

Sound-wise, however, Eers do not sound good enough for $200. Compared to the $99 Etymotic mc3 ($199 with the custom-fit eartip), the Eers sound bright and thin, screechy at times, although bass response on the single driver was adequate. Eers also required a bit more volume to compensate for their looser fit, which allows more ambient sound to leak in compared to the Ultimate Ears and Etymotic. Of course that could be due to an improper fit. Unless you hold your jaw perfectly still while the tips are setting, you won't get a proper seal. Others that tried the Eers had a better fit and experience better sound quality.

Two problems

First, the Sonomax Eers don't have an in-line mic or volume controls as the Etymotic do for use with iPhone or other smartphones (Ultimate Ears, designed primarily for musicians, don't have in-line mics, either).

On a more logistical level, Eers present a problem at retail. Once you've bought the kit, you've bought the kit – there are no do-overs. You could attempt the fitting yourself at home with a partner, but if you screw it up, you're screwed.

But there's no guarantee the retailer won't screw up the fitting, either, and it's an open question who'd be responsible for the cost – you or the retailer. At my own fitting, the right bud initially wasn't connected solidly to the cable. Fortunately, a little tapping solved the problem, but this fitting was done by company experts, not some fumble-fingered distracted sales staffer with no invested interest in being careful.

All-in-all, Sonomax Eers are an interesting idea. But I'd rather have a professional do the fitting and wait a couple of weeks for a perfect, audiophile-sounding custom bud.


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