IEMs: A Tale of Three Techniques

Left to right: UE7s, UE 18s, UE11s. 

Left to right: UE7s, UE 18s, UE11s. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As I write this, I realize I have an enviable job; evaluating high-end custom in-ear monitors. A while back, I told you about the new 3D scanning process that Ultimate Ears has developed for taking virtual impressions of our ears. Before that, I told you about the very cool new 3D printing process they have been using for a while to print the shells. And today, I sit at my dining room table with four pairs of IEMs, trying to figure out the differences between them. 

For this article, I’m not going to focus on the sound, but rather the fit. I finally have the trifecta of IEM production, three completely different ways to make custom-molded IEMs. I have been waiting for this ever since my friend Mike Dias told me about the 3D digital scan in January at NAMM. 

Setting the Table

About 5 years ago, I received my first pair of custom IEMs; the UE7s. Those were made the traditional way—an audiologist took an impression of the inside of my ears by squirting some quick-setting silicone stuff in there. It feels really weird and for some, is uncomfortable. I didn’t mind it, but it does feel odd, sort of like going underwater. Afterwards, the molds went off to the production lab. They created a positive mold of the negative the audiologist made. From that positive, they cast acrylic shells, and it takes no small amount of hand polishing and grinding to make sure everything matches properly. It’s not a perfect method, but it works well enough. Or did anyway. 

A few years ago, UE recognized there had to be a better way. They started to investigate 3D printing and developed a proprietary process that produces perfect, clear molds. The clear part was harder than you might think. In that case, they still took a silicon impression of my ear, but that impression was scanned and “polished” in the computer before being printed. Once it came out of the printer, it was virtually done. Just the slightest amount of touch up by hand and it was off for driver insertion. 

Knowing they were on to something with the whole 3D thing, UE also saw that one of the biggest challenges for people wanting custom IEMs was getting impressions made. It was inconvenient, and typically required a trip to an audiologist. And, not all audiologists know the proper procedure for getting a good impression for IEMs. But what if we could simply scan the inside of an artist’s ear with a Star Trek-like device? That took a little doing, but they did it. A few weeks back, I finally had my ears scanned, and a set of UE11’s printed. 

So I have all three methods—silicon impressions and cast shells; silicon impressions (3D scanned for printer prep) with 3D printed shells; laser ear scan straight to 3D printed shells. So, which is better? 

Getting scanned at the UE offices in Irvine, CA

Getting scanned at the UE offices in Irvine, CA

Progressively Improvement

As I suspected, as the process has evolved, the fit has gotten better. Fit is perhaps the biggest key for custom IEMs. If the fit is not good, the shells won’t seal to the ear, and the low end will be virtually non-existent. Moreover, if they don’t fit well, they will be uncomfortable. I have a set from another manufacturer that sound pretty good, but I can’t stand to wear them for more than about 30-40 minutes because they just don’t fit right. 

As I go through the progression of my IEMs, the first set don’t fit terribly. They are comfortable and I can listen for a long time with them. But they are a bit loose, and I sometimes notice they unseal. They are easy to get in and out, however. 

The middle technique, impressions with 3D printed shells fit really well. They are supremely comfortable and seal up great. 

The final set, well, that one is just amazing. Not only are they very comfortable, they really do seem to match the inside of my ears perfectly. They don’t take as much fiddling to get seated right; they snap right in and seal. I recently took a 4 1/2 hour flight with them, listening for 45 minutes before and after the flight, making for a total of 6 hours of IEM time. I could have gone another 6. 

Convenience for All

As the technology matures—and it’s doing so at a very rapid pace—Mike tells me he is looking forward to getting UE Ambassadors out in the field with scanners to make it easy to get virtual impressions for the entire band in one sitting. Rather than trying to line up an audiologist to come in and take impressions, everyone can get scanned. Because there is no cost for the scan, it’s easy to go ahead and do everyone on the team, knowing they can place an order at any time. 

My friend Duke had his ears scanned recently as well, and as soon as he got his new IEMs, texted me to tell me they were the most comfortable he’s ever worn. This is something I’ve heard from many people now. Mike also tells me the returns for fit problems has gone way down since they started down the 3D path. 

So if you’ve been on the fence regarding custom IEMs, the time is now. The fit is better than ever, and it’s easier than ever to get perfect impressions. To see the process, check out the video we shot a few months back. It’s really pretty cool.


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CTA Review: UE SoundGuard

More and more churches are getting rid of the wedges on stage and switching to in-ear based monitoring systems. Generally, this is a good thing. It greatly reduces stage wash in the house, makes for a quieter stage overall, and can do a lot to protect the hearing of musicians and engineers alike. With a custom IEM, you’ll get somewhere in the neighborhood of 24-26 dB of passive noise reduction; which takes a 105-110 dB SPL A stage down to a safer and more manageable 80-ish. Of course, this is assuming that the musicians have the discipline to keep the volume reasonable in their ears. And that feedback never happens. Or a mic never falls over. Or some random, insanely loud bit of digital noise never sneaks into the IEM mix. 

I admit that once or twice I have pushed the wrong button on the console and sent musicians scrambling to rip their ears out. Thankfully, both times I caught it quickly and no one was hurt. But I do know someone who lost a significant portion of his hearing in one hear because he was leaning down to adjust a guitar pedal when piercing feedback erupted from his wedge (thankfully, I was not the engineer on that one). 

As more and more musicians go to IEMs, they have to start thinking about protecting their hearing. A deaf musician has a harder time making a living, or simply enjoying their craft. We can and should be diligent as engineers to do everything we can to protect them (and our hearing as well), but sometimes bad things happen. 

Ultimate Ears has been making custom IEMs as long as almost any company and saw a need to help musicians protect themselves. At NAMM they unveiled a small box called the Sound Guard. It’s under 2” square and about a half inch thick. It comes with a belt clip and two 3.5mm jacks; in and out. A short jumper cable connects the Sound Guard to the wireless receiver or wired cable, and the IEMs are plugged into the output jack. It’s powered by a pair of CR2450 batteries, and runs about 20 hours on a set. Though I’ve been using mine for what seems like a lot longer than 20 hours on the original batteries.

You Have Two Jobs

Sound Guard does two things. First, it handles some impedance matching. One of the biggest problems with many IEM systems is that the output impedance doesn’t match up properly with the impedance of balanced armature-based IEMs. The Sound Guard fixes that. Without getting too technical, it cleans up the low end significantly, and improves transient response. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have heard from reliable sources that the Sound Guard really improves the sound of our favorite personal mixing punching bag, the Aviom A-16 II.

The second, and primary purpose of the Sound Guard is to protect against high-level, accidental transients. It acts effectively like a limiter, monitoring average sound levels and lowering the level of a spike to safer levels. This would include things like feedback, a mic falling off a stand, a cable short or burst of digital garbage. 

Sound Better

I have been testing the Sound Guard with various sources for the last few months and found that it does indeed make most things sound a little better. It’s not an, “OH MY GOSH!!!” improvement in sound, at least in the sources I’ve tried, but there is a noticeable improvement, especially at the low end. It’s cleaner, tighter and better. 

On the listening tests I did, it seemed like I could hear subtle details a little bit better than without SoundGuard. For example, I’ve been a fan of Lone Justice for almost 30 years, and have listened to Shelter hundreds of times. A favorite song is Dixie Storms, it’s just Maria McKee and her piano. It’s a beautiful song but I have never noticed the spring reverb they put the piano through. Now part of it is likely the UE11’s I’m listening with, but I felt like I could hear the corrosion on the springs, it was that clear. 

Protect Me

Because the Sound Guard has a limiter in it, I kept expecting to hear it clamp down on something at some point. I never did. Of course, I haven’t injected a high-level spike into my ears either. I’ve seen test results showing that it does clamp down on spikes and I will take their word for it. Plus, I don’t have a convenient way of testing it. 

So I did the next best thing; I talked to my friends at UE. They told me the limiter doesn’t kick in until approximately 109 dB. They originally set it lower, but the beta testers kept telling them to turn it up. I suggested a switchable setting perhaps between 100 dB and 109 dB. Of course, actual output will depend on the ears you’re wearing, but that gives you some options. I suspect this may be in the works at some point. 

Bottom Line

 The SoundGuard isn’t one of those products you simply must run out and get right now! However, for a musician that wears balanced armature in-ears, especially one who is plugged into a wireless pack or Aviom, it is worth the investment, if not for the sound improvement alone. RF spikes can hurt and can be damaging, and this little box will protect you from them. At $199, it’s not a no-brainer, but consider what your hearing is worth. I know I’m not giving mine back.

I have to mention--mainly to keep the FTC happy--that UE gave me a SoundGuard to evaluate. So technically I don't have to give it back. But I really like it, so I'm keeping it. Disclosure over.

CTW InfoComm 2015 Coverage: Yamaha PM10

We've been waiting a long time for the new large-format console from Yamaha, and it's finally hear. After months of rumors, we finally got our eyes and hands on the new PM10 Rivage. It's a big console with some amazing features. To learn more, check out the Yamaha website.

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