One of audio’s biggest tipping points is happening between your ears. The latest big thing in personal audio is very personal, with custom-tailored moulds designed for your own ears to make a perfect fit for an in-ear monitor or earphone. This creates a personalised set of in-ear devices, just as a pair of hand-made shoes or a bespoke suit is personalised. But, unlike a pair of John Lobb brogues or a Huntsman suit, the result doesn’t cost a fortune, and new technology is lowering the price of admission. However, because this is a new venture for many audiophiles – especially more traditional audiophiles – we thought it best to walk the listener through the process from beginning to end, using United Sciences’ new in ear-scanning technology – wielded by Snugs.
Like fingerprints, the shape and size of our ears are unique and while standard-fit small, medium, and large ear tips are designed to adjust to your ears they are always going to be something of a compromise. Worse, the left and right ear canals are not identical and in some cases the listener needs to buy different size ear tips for the left and right ear (it is worth experimenting with different size tips in both ears to find the least compromised fit). These compromises simply vanish when dedicated moulds made to fit the contours of your ear and ear canal replace those ear tips.
Until recently this moulding process typically required the services of a specialist audiologist and, while not as unpleasant a process as it looks, the bespoke fitting service involves some degree of drooling: you need to hold a piece of styrofoam between your teeth while the two-part foam compound hardens from its resting ‘goo’ state. These moulds are then sent for 3D scanning. The Snugs experience is different. Rather than filling your ear with foam, the system uses a small light-scanning handset, connected to a computer. The trained operator (who need not be a qualified audiologist, because at no point do they actually insert anything far enough into your ear canal) places a headset (not unlike a pair of headphones, but without the ear cups) on your head, which helps locate the scanning position in three-dimensional space. They then lock the scanner to the headset, and begin to fill in a growing 3D model of the ear and ear canal. Aside from a gentle ‘bap, bap’ sound during the scanning process, and the fact that – like any moulding or mapping process – you look and feel like a bit of an idiot while it’s happening, you can be scanned in about 10 minutes flat.
The 3D map created in the Snugs computer is exactly the same program file as created when a custom moulding is scanned. These files are used to create the custom-fit mouldings for your ears, and as a consequence of cutting out one link in the chain, the Snugs process has lowered the cost of custom moulds. And this means you can now turn your favourite earphones into de facto custom monitors: all you do is specify the kind of earphone you want them for.
Reviewers can be prima donnas at times, and our ears are no exception. Mine are either ‘dinky’ or ‘kinky’, and this poses a challenge for custom in-ear moulding processes. It was interesting to see if the same challenge troubles ‘light’ as it troubles ‘goo’. In fact, the scanning process was not troubled by ‘difficult’ ears, although if that kink in my ear canal was closer to the surface, a light scanner would be unable to get past that and this might pose fitting difficulties. In fact, the scan passed off without a hitch and a week later I was the proud owner of my own pair of custom Snugs. It took me longer to set up my camera and take remote-controlled photos of me having my ears scanned than the scanning itself.
This is also going to get simpler: and simpler means cheaper. Currently, the United Sciences eFit scanning system requires connection to a Windows laptop, but it’s clear the next generation of equipment will turn this into an app for a tablet and the scanner itself will become smaller and cheaper. This will mean more people offering a scanning service. Currently, there are just a handful of people criss-crossing the country to zap the ears of CIEM enthusiasts, musicians wanting ear protection, and reviewers trying the system out (a journalist from one of the major newspapers was scanned a few hours before it was my turn). While this is unlikely to ever be the kind of ‘while you wait’ £10 upgrade to a pair of £30 earphones, Snugs is stealthily democratising custom monitors, and that’s a good thing for ears and listeners alike.
In democratising custom mouldings, however, it means approaching a new audience with little or no understanding of how these mouldings work, how they fit, how they feel, and how to use them, and these are all important elements of good custom monitor use. The range is fairly large, depending on whether you are using custom monitors, or applying full or half-shell mouldings to existing earphones. There are also specialist models for ear defence (without a headphone component), single ear units for headset users, and even waterproof models for divers. The key models, though, are likely the half and full-shell mouldings because they represent the affordable gateway to CIEM sound to those who already have good earphones. The Snugs are custom made to fit the earphones in the ideal position for your head – while still not quite so flexible or as optimal as CIEMs, this represents the best fit for a production line earphone possible, especially the full-shell design.
Custom monitors mean you play quieter, especially in loud environments. It’s worth remembering at this time that the first CIEMs were designed for rock musicians on stage, replacing fold-back monitors and protecting their hearing in the process. While the floor-mounted angled ‘cab’ was great for hair-rock guitarists to put a foot on to show their purple Spandex ‘prowess’ to one and all, even all that permed, poodle big hair was no protection against high sound pressure levels, and as a result many musicians who toured during the 1970s and 1980s have significant hearing damage. CIEMs allow musicians to monitor their music on stage without having to destroy their hearing. Today, the level of attenuation need not be so severe (few of us regularly work in an environment that can deliver 120dB+ average sound pressure levels), but the benefits remain at quieter levels.
With this comes an important caveat. In a few cases, the absence of background noise has the opposite effect, and listeners turn the music up until they hear distortion. Often this is your own ears relaxing, and long exposures to this sort of listening level can damage hearing. Generally, this is not the case with CIEMs, because this kind of listener is at once more discerning and more knowledgable than their ear‑bud using counterparts, but the sheer comfort of custom moulds can make for very extended listening sessions (on long flights, for example) and many hours of constant exposure to music at lower SPLs can also add up. Simply taking short breaks periodically helps a lot here. For those used to CIEMs, this is going over old news, but for newcomers to the whole world of custom monitors, this is a new world.
The only other point to note is the first time you go out in the wide world with a pair of Snugs in place, take extra care. It’s surprising how much of our spatial awareness comes from little sonic cues, and when they are significantly attenuated, you can tend not to notice the world around you. Remember this the first time crossing a road! It takes a little while for listeners to get used to wearing custom moulds, and Snugs are no exception. If you’ve never tried custom-fit in-ear monitors before, the first time you try them is slightly unnerving, like putting those little yellow ear defenders into your ear, except it covers the inner section of the ear. Perhaps worse for first-timers, the Snugs come with a little tube of lubricant and you need to ‘lube up’ for the first few times you insert them, at least until your own earwax takes over. You also need to learn how to insert and remove custom moulds, if you have never done this before (it’s a corkscrew motion in and out of the ear – as described in the supplied booklet).
So, why go through this? You do this because the outside world quickly disappears like putting your head under water, in that strangely comforting ‘back to the womb’ manner. But then the strangeness of the feeling quickly disappears, especially at the first bar of music. Put them on a couple of times, however, and it’s like a natural extension of your ear, and fitting a universal fit ear tip will seem forever clumsy and wrong afterwards. The sensation some have of earphones always almost falling out of your ears is replaced with a natural and easy fit that feels like it was made for your ear… because it was. When they are in place, nothing apart from physically removing them is going to shake these monitors loose: over-ear loop sport earphones are exceptionally solidly held in place, and anything that might accidentally dislodge these earphones will dislodge dental work first!
Although you could in theory use Snugs custom moulds for any earphone (and Snugs has an ever-growing list of ‘compatible’ earphones), it’s unlikely that someone will use a £150 custom mould with a £30 earphone (although the SoundMAGIC E10S is proving a surprisingly popular match). Two popular choices have emerged within the Snugs line – the Sennheiser ID800 and the Shure SE846, with the Shure model edging ahead slightly in the popularity stakes. Never one to pass up on a good thing, I borrowed a set of Shure SE846 earphones, and had a set of silicone Snugs (a red metallic one for the right ear, and a blue metallic one for the left) made up specifically for my ears.
The Shure SE846 is a truly remarkable earphone in its own right, with an incredibly detailed, dynamic, and accurate presentation that you’d struggle to find from a pair of loudspeakers that cost this side of a nice Mercedes. With the Snugs in place, everything snaps into even tighter focus. They are comfortable and the tonal balance is nigh on perfect because the positioning of IEM in your ear canal is nigh on perfect. It’s a strikingly perfect audio experience, one that will both highlight any potential weak links in the signal chain and yet one that invites you to listen to music for hours and hours on end, at lower levels than you might expect. Pretty much as soon as the loan period for the Shure SE846 expires, I’ll be buying a pair of SE846 to match my Snugs. And from there, I’m going to be shopping around for a good DAP, DAC and/or amp to match: it is that good!
What’s the difference (if any) between moulds made by an audiologist, and those made by a Snugs specialist? Irrespective of differences an audiologist can advise you on good ear health, the right way to clear your ears of cerumen (ear wax), how to clean both your ears and your CIEMs, and more. We will discuss this and more in a subsequent feature in Hi-Fi+.
My problem now is there’s no way back. The Snugs team have my ears on file, and although our ears change over the years, those files should be good for at least another half a decade. I’m now running through those really good earphones (like the AKG K3003) that I thought posed a legitimate challenge to dedicated CIEMs, and wondering how good they would sound with a set of Snugs on their speaker tips. I have a horrible feeling this could be the start of a beautiful friendship, between my bank account, Snugs, and a host of great earphone brands.
Snugs Custom Fitted Earphones
Price: £159 (replacements: £47 per ear, £79 per pair)
Tel: +44(0)1984 640582
Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphones
Tel: +44(0)1992 703058