What are the two most aggravating things about the ear bud style of earphones? For me it’s the fact they never seem to fit comfortably in the ear and even those with the little loops for draping don’t seem to ever want to stay in place. The second thing is directly related to the first as I’m sure the lousy fit is a major cause of how poor a job they do of blocking out background noise. The concept of earphones is so you can listen to a portable music device when you’re out and about. But what good are they if they’re either falling out of your ear or the only way you can hear your music is if you crank the volume so high you risk deafness.
I’m amazed I made it to my fifties without any discernible hearing loss after spending so much time in clubs standing right up front next to the stacks of speakers listen to noisy punk bands. The last thing I want to be doing is blowing an eardrum while listening to my iPod – the irony in itself would be mortifying. Ever since I started reviewing music I’ve been looking for a decent set of earphones. I want something I can use in a variety of circumstances ranging from walking down the street next to traffic to the middle of the night when I don’t want to disturb anyone else. While there have been a couple that have been fine for when I’m stationary and in a quiet atmosphere, no matter how good their sound quality is once I’m moving around amidst the noise and bustle of the world nothing has really proved to be reliable.
So when I first heard about the idea of earphones which could be sized to fit an individual’s ear canal I was intrigued. Developed by a company, Sonomax, which has been making industrial ear plugs for workers for over a decade, each set of sculpted eers ear buds is supposedly tailored to fit the shape of your ear canal. Not only would this keep the earbud comfortably in place it would also provide a seal to drastically reduce the amount of extraneous noise leaking in. The idea sounds great, but how in the heck were they going to accomplish that? It’s not like buying shoes or clothes where you can send a company your measurements so they know what size to send you.
What they’ve done is developed the means for you to literally create your own earbuds at home. I was sent the kit for a set of PCS-150 custom fitted sculpted eers to test. At a list price of $199.00 Canadian a pop (the company is Canadian) the price might seem rather steep. However, if they can deliver on what they advertise the price isn’t that out of line when compared to the cost of high end speakers for a stereo system. Remember, no matter how much money you spend on the other components it’s the speakers which will determine the quality of the sound you listen too. A bad set of speakers will ruin a good system, while great speakers will make K-Mart quality components sound like an audiophiles dream. So if you have a $300.00 portable music player do you really want to listen to what they produce through a set of headphones that cost $19.95?
The first thing you’ll notice is the quality of the packaging the materials come in. Everything is contained inside a durable, hard cardboard box, which when opened reveals the carefully sealed contents. The kit includes what looks to be a set of headphones but is actually the SonoFit Custom Fitting System. The system fits over your head just like a set of headphones, but instead of containing wires and speakers its guts contain a pair of inflation pumps and medical grade silicone. At the receiving end of silicone and pumps are two modular ear pieces which can fit into even the smallest of ear canals. The ear pieces look like your typical ear buds down to the loops to fit over your ear, but that’s where the similarities end.
Looking at everything was a little intimidating, especially with the notice warning you not to play with any of the buttons before beginning the customization process. However it comes with easy to follow trilingual (English, French and Spanish) and comprehensive instruction manual and a very efficient quick start guide as well. The latter contains all you need to know for creating your earbuds while the former has detailed instructions for how to care for your product and other helpful information. In an nutshell what happens is you use the head band and over the ear loops to position the ear pieces in your ear’s canal. Once you have pushed them in as far as comfortable and done any fine tuning adjustments you require for comfort and fit, you activate the pumps which shoot the silicone into the pieces. The hardest part is sitting still with your head level and not talking for the five minutes required for the process to take place. When the time is up you simply snap the pieces off the frame and put the included face plates in place and, voila, you have your very own custom fitted ear buds.
Okay, I didn’t go into the full details of how it works. However, the instructions are easy to follow, and if for some reason you have any problems they give you a link to a video to watch showing how its done and supply a 1-800 number to call for help as well. What’s more important is whether they deliver on their promise of sound quality and ambiance? Well the apartment I live in right now is on my city’s main street. Traffic at almost anytime of day or night includes 18 wheelers, Harley Davidsons, diesel passenger buses and cars equipped with sub-woofers big enough to knock over buildings. Normally if I want to listen to anything, including talking on the phone, I have to close the windows. With the windows open not only was I able to hear the music from my iPod with no problem, I could barely hear the sound of the passing traffic, and this was at four in the afternoon smack in the middle of rush hour.
I was so shocked and surprised that it took me a couple of moments before I even paid attention to the quality of the sound I was listening to. Just being able to hear without having to crank the volume was pleasure enough in itself for the first little while. Once I started to pay attention to what was going on inside my ears I was even happier. I had been a little leery of the PCS-150s advertised bass enhancement as I’m not a fan of bass heavy music. However all it means in this case is they’ve found a way to create a full, rich and balanced sound. There’s none of the tinniness I’ve long come to associate with ear phones and neither have they resorted to most people’s answer to that problem by simply amplifying the bottom end.
One of the tracks I use for testing headphones and speakers features a band that uses a lot of hand percussion alongside the standard rock and roll set up of guitars, bass and drum kit. Not only could you make out instruments the percussionist was playing normally lost on most speakers and ear buds, but you could also hear each instrument and the vocal harmonies clearly, distinctly and proportionate to their place in the mix. It was like the audio equivalent of 3-D as the sound had a depth of field you very rarely have the privilege of being able to appreciate. You could even hear the individual notes being played on the acoustic bass and the pitter patter of the congas drums, instruments which are normally lost when played in a rock and roll band.
To say I was impressed with the custom moulded eers PCS-150 ear buds isn’t overstating it. Not only do they live up to their hype of providing a product that eliminates a high percentage of atmospheric noise common to the urban landscape which fits comfortably and securely into your ear, the quality of the sound they produce is as good as any high end speaker system if not better. While the PCS-150 comes complete with a built in microphone, for $30.00 less you can purchase the PCS-100 and get the same quality sound without the microphone. For the real audiophiles out there they also have the 200 series with even more enhancements to the sound quality for $299.00 with and $269.00 without the microphone. I doubt my ear is good enough to notice any difference, but if they are of the same quality as the 100 series, I’d bet they’re worth the extra $100.00.
Currently the sculpted eers are only available at a limited number of retail outlets in the US, but you can purchase them through the company’s on line store. As an added inducement they are not only covering shipping costs, but paying the duty on all cross border orders. In Canada, they are currently available at The Source, a nationwide electronics chain, and through the online store. The price might seem a little steep, but for those who want to experience the same quality of sound on their portable device as they do in the comfort of their living room, they are worth every penny.