Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Custom-fit Etymotic Research earphones

[Updated twice.]
Like many travelers on today's increasingly jam-packed flights, I like to block out external sounds.

You know what I'm referring to: engine noise, babies crying, people snoring, apologies from the captain about delays, duty free announcements etc.. In other words, stuff we don't need to hear.

One can use earplugs to sleep but I'd also like to listen to music from my iPod/iPhone without the constant buzz of the engines in the background.

I like Etymotic Research's ear canal phones because they seal well (noise-isolating) and are tiny. They also sound pretty decent.

Those so popular Bose active noise cancelation headphones require power and are too big and bulky for me. In fact, my Etymotics are so tiny, unfortunately I keep losing them.

I know: it's terrible. I've bought four pairs so far. Still got three of the boxes... only one missing is my top-of-the-line ER-4 box. There doesn't seem to be much difference (to me) between the various models sound quality-wise. They all seem a bit lightweight on the bass to me. Perhaps I never get to listen to them long enough before I lose them on trips.

The latest one I purchased are the hf3 earphones in metallic blue, which are also iPhone-compatible. (They have a microphone, volume buttons, and a center pause/play button as well that doubles as a track advance/backwards button if you can remember how many clicks you need.)

Being passive isolation earphones, in order to get a good seal, the standard earpieces require you to push them in quite far. Otherwise there is really very little bass indeed and the noise isolation doesn't work. The tradeoff therefore is one of comfort versus deep penetration.

This time around, I decided to go to an local audiologist and try custom earpiece molds since Etymotic Research has a custom-fit program. The cost is an extra $100 and a two week wait (for Etymotic Research to make the custom silicone earpieces). The benefit hopefully is better comfort and isolation. With a quietened background, this means I can play the music softer even in noisy environments. And perhaps preserve my hearing a bit longer.

Update #1: I really wasn't sure how tight they should feel. So I visited the audiologist again and she kindly immediately offered to re-do the molds for free and ask for rush delivery. (Apparently, there is a 30 day guarantee.) So in about a week or so I'll have a second pair of silicone earpieces, and I'll be able to see which ones are the most comfortable yet seal the best. I'll report back.

You need to have a mold of the inside of your ears made. The pink material looks like this:

and it comes in a pack like this:

Those white foam bits with string go in first and prevent the pink stuff from reaching your eardrum.

Injected into my ears, they take about 3 minutes to set. I know it's not the final material, but incidentally, the pink stuff happens to be a wonderful isolator. I have no clue what the audiologist is saying to me. I can't hear anything at all.

These molds are sent to Etymotic Research. And two weeks later you get the silicone versions in the mail. (You don't need to send the earphones as well to Etymotic Research.)

When the silicone pieces arrive, you can simply pop off the standard plugs and press the phones into the silicone comme ça:

This close-up shows how far the tiny phone extends into the silicone earpiece.

Here's how they fit into my ears (blue is left, red is right):

Once you wriggle those "worms" into your ear canal, the isolation is very good indeed. And the sound quality seems a bit improved. To my uneducated ears, the midrange and treble are pretty sweet. Unfortunately, I'm still not impressed with the bass. Perhaps those tiny drivers are just too small to get the weight and thump I expect from good bass. So I don't think these count as audiophile-level earphones. (They're about $160 at Best Buy.)

Because of the noise isolation, you literally are blocked off from the outside world. Rather than taking them out each time you need to hear someone, there is even a free iPhone App that allows you to pipe in the outside world when needed to your splendid isolation.

Anyway, this is my introduction to the world of custom-fit earphones. One can spend $1000+ on higher quality ear canal phones. I think I'm getting there with the number of Etymotic Research devices I've purchased so far.

Update #2

As I mentioned above, I revisited the audiologist to get new mold made. The first time around, I had some trouble wriggling the right side in. It felt too big and uncomfortably-sized after a while. And exactly a week after that, I got the new molds in. There is not much difference between the new and old left ear molds, but the new right mold was much better. It finally felt very comfortable. The difference in shape and size is clear from the picture below:

Also in my ears, the new set snuggle in a little better and results in a cleaner-looking appearance:

Unfortunately the sound remains the same. Sweet treble and midrange. No bass even compared to my car's audio system.


  1. ^Post your spam somewhere else you prick! It has nothing to do with phiaton headphones!

    Hey man, nice article! Just wanted to let you know that these earphones were designed for exceptional audio reproduction of mids and highs. They weren't designed for bass. I think it was done like that to prevent the bass from overpowering the mids/highs of their clarity. If you want more bass and like the audio quality, i recommend the superfi 5's (The ones without a suffix)if you can get them or maybe the UE 600's. I have the superfi 5's and they are awesome!

    1. Thanks for your recommendations. I haven't heard those. However, I went and got custom JH Audio's JH16s later on. See