The rise of custom earphones!
Let's face it, Custom Earphones are awesome. For many fans of high-end audio, custom in ear monitors (CIEM) is the pinnacle of portable audio pleasure.
It's true that the product category has grown exponentially in the past couple of years. We have a lot of awesome companies that have entered the market space to cater to consumer demand and the majority of these second generation manufacturers are doing some crazy stuff.
Custom in ear monitors are a big deal and rightfully so. So we wanted to look at the top 5 reasons you should choose CIEM over universal, off the shelf, earphones.
A range of factors can be attributed to the general publics interest of custom monitors. What was once considered the most drool worthy of possessions over at audio geek forums like head-fi and AnythingbutiPod (does anyone remember that?) is now popping up not with aspiring musicians who love them for their function but the actual consumers of music.
What are custom earphones / Custom In Ear Monitors / CIEM's
Custom earphones (Custom In-Ear Monitors / CIEM) are exactly what you think they are. They are earphones that are custom made for you in terms of fit, finish and style.
The process of getting the final product can be a lengthy one but for many people in the audiophile community and beyond they are seen as the ultimate end game earphones.
There are all sorts of designs on the market some use balanced armature (BA), Dynamic and Hybrid drivers to produce the sound. A variety of materials (Silicone / Acrylic) can be setelcted and the choice seems endless when it comes to colours and cables.
The Process of buying Custom Earphones
As I mentioned this can be a lengthy process and the product is not one that has much value in the resale market due to the fact they will fit only you and no one else.
You are going to want to check out as many companies as possible. Read reviews where you can and base your choice as much on the companies track record of delivering the earphones as well as sound. Some companies have a great reputation and others don't but off the top of my head here are some that I have personally had experience with or who I know from word of mouth offer a good service.
Custom Art: European based CIEM company that offers tremendous value and service. We also like that they offer both acrylic and silicone models.
Noble Audio: Home of "The Wizard" offering some of the most advanced designs on the market.
JH Audio: Pricey but nonetheless stunning sound and they also offer universal versions of their custom earphones.
Ultimate Ears: The legendary UERM can be picked up here. I own them and they are still incredible at resolving detail even years after release. Perfect for critical listening.
Cosmic Ears: Stunning design and an incredibly comprehensive lineup of products to suit differnt tastes and budgets.
Custom Ear Impressions
Once you decided on the specific model and company you go with you will then usually go to an audiologist to have custom impressions taken of your ears (Some companies provide DIY kits but I prefer having a professional do it).T
The audiologist will inject some quick setting resin into your ears past the second bend in your canal. It feels a little weird but strangely, it's not unpleasant. Your impressions will then be sent to the company of your choosing and the waiting begins.
This is the part that sucks. Some companies have a quick turn around time and others can take months to send you your earphones. There is also no guarantee that the earphones will fit perfectly first try so be prepared to potentially send them back a few times for refinements to the shell.
This part of the process can be frustrating to a lot of people but patience is the key and trusts me the end result will be worth it.
So your custom earphones arrive, you open the box to see what goodies are included. You pop them in your ears and they fit. Congratulations you made it and are now a card carrying member of the CIEM club
Top 5 Reasons to choose custom Earphones (CIEM)
1. The Looks
Ok, this really should be lower of your list of your priorities but let's face it, custom earphones look awesome. When it comes to customisation of the styling the limitations are pretty small when choosing CIEM's.
When you buy a set of universal earphones you are stuck with one design for each earphone. Sometimes you get limited colour options but contact any good CIEM company and they will tailor the looks of the earphones to your specific needs.
Want purple, blue, green? No problem. Want glitter? Sure. Want to have custom artwork or pictures of your cats on them... you might be a loser, but sure you can have that too.
Some companies like Cosmic Ears and Noble Audio even go above and beyond. They almost turning their creations into works and offer some truly stunning designs.
You can also customise your cables with a range of aftermarket options in all sorts of braid patterns and colours from companies like Labkable and Double Helix.
Whatever your style I'm sure there is something you can think of that will suit your tastes and that there is a company out there that can build it.
A Sure Fit Every Time
Sometimes with universal earphones, you may blind buy a set and when they come in you have issues getting a good fit. Other times I have found myself compromising on comfort because those earphones have sounded so good.
With so many earbud companies trying to stand out from the crowd many make great sounding earphones but some of those have lacklustre ergonomics. They try to accommodate as many peoples ears as possible and, sometimes, that might be hit or miss for you.
With Custom earphones you are buying earphones that are custom made to fit your own ears. You get custom impressions were taken which are sent away and then replicated in earphone form. Inserting them becomes second nature within a few days and you will then be rocking a set of IEM's that fit first try every try.
This means that your new set of CIEM's should be incredibly comfortable to wear for long listening sessions. That said there are plenty of universal earphones that are extremely comfy (some even more so than CIEM's) but it's really the fit you want to be concentrating on here. Get that right and you should have a great low maintenance set of earphones that will last for years.
There are many universal fit earphones that are good at isolating you from the outside world but that doesn't compare to my experience with CIEM's. I have over 8 current sets of custom earphones and across the board the isolation from environmental noise is excellent.
The depth of insertion, airtight seal and the fact that custom monitors cover the vast majority of the outer ear all work together to block you off from the outside world.
For those of you particularly interested in using custom in-ear monitors as noise isolating earphones then look into silicone moulded earbuds like those offered by Custom Art. Silicone is usually filled instead of hollow like traditional acrylic monitors so they should be able to provide a further reduction to those external decibels reaching your ear drums.
Yes, there are plenty of very good sounding universal earphones but generally, the most obsessive attention to sound and tuning comes from the Custom In Ear Monitor market. Custom in ear companies now offers a whole range of crossover and driver setups from multi BA models to hybrid custom earphones and even dynamic driver monitors.
The size and styling of CIEM housings allow companies to cram in far more drivers than can be configured in traditional earbuds and more drivers when done correctly, this usually equates to better sound.
It doesn't stop at drivers though because custom earphone companies are also able to tune their monitors through the use of filters and adjustable ports. When it comes to sound quality if you have the money, custom monitors can deliver in a big way.
Tailored & customised Service
With most sets of audiophile earbuds such as those from Campfire Audio and Shure, you will get good service and solid after sale support. However, my dealings with custom in ear monitor companies show they will consistently go that extra mile.
Not only do you get all of the benefits mentioned above but ultimately you get to give a lot more of your own input at various stages of the design.
If the fit doesn't quite work the first time most companies will endeavour to get it perfect for you. This process can be lengthy but you always have the ability to ask them to change something.
You will also find that a lot of companies can set you up with various custom cables as well as accessories such as custom pelican cases, jacks and splitters. In this sense, you get a lot more say in how your earphones turn up than if you were to buy an off the shelf model.
The Final Word
There are plenty of reasons to choose custom in ear headphones. My experience with them in the past has always been great and I would recommend them to anyone who has the time and money to invest in the project.
That's not to say they will be for everyone, they also come with a number of drawbacks such as poor resale value and a wait time that is unlike anything else in the audiophile hobby. At the end of the day make sure you do your research, think about what you want to get from the experience and buy from one of the many reputable companies that service the audiophile community.
Universal or custom just remember its about the music at the end of it all.