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?
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.