(Images by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)
Shopping for stereo gear doesn’t usually involve strangers inserting balloons into your ears, but Uvero is an unusual audio-hardware vendor. This Burlington, Mass., company takes the idea of mass-customization into especially cramped quarters, offering earphones that are customized for your personal ear canals.
I had the chance to experience its form-fitting process last month at the SXSW festival in Austin. A few weeks later, Uvero sent me a pair of earbuds personalized for the audio-input hardware I was born with, and I’ve been checking them out ever since.
Uvero isn’t the first company to try this. The traditional way to make custom-fitted headphones has been to squirt a gel into each ear, wait for it to harden, remove it and then use that to form a mold for individualized earbuds. That doesn’t seem fun to me.
Uvero’s method doesn’t require any gel or any cleanup, but it’s still on the invasive side: A technician threads a thin balloon, filled with a solution that fluoresces under ultraviolet light, into each ear canal, getting about 4 millimeters from your eardrum. A camera then moves down the balloon, mapping 100,000 measurement points that Uvero’s software uses to generate a three-dimensional map of your ear canal.
Uvero is training technicians in this process and plans to eventually have them in stores across the country. For now, though, its only location is a mall near its Massachusetts headquarters. Instead of going there, I had my fitting done at Uvero’s SXSW show-floor booth by Brian Fligor, the company’s chief audiology officer.
The process took about two minutes per ear. While Uvero’s inflatable mold was in, it didn’t feel uncomfortable, but it definitely felt unnatural. It helped that I had not watched a certain scene from Star Trek II in years.
Afterwards, Fligor said I had really great ears, which is one of the weirder compliments I’ve ever received.
The data gleaned from this fitting process can be turned into custom-fitted headphones in two ways: As a set of custom tips for Etymotic hf3 and hf5, Bose SoundSport or Apple EarPod earphones ($99); or a set of the company’s own phones with the tips built in ($269). Either way, the personalized silicone tips — less than an inch long — channel audio deeper into your ear while at the same time dampening out outside sources of sound.
Fitting in and sounding off
I chose the latter option. When they arrived, the headphones were neatly presented in a blue box with a soft-sided carrying case and an instruction pamphlet featuring the somewhat scary headline “Practice safe insertion!“ and a warning that “in very rare circumstances, an earpiece may come off in the ear canal.”
I have yet to experience that particular issue, but popping these things in did take some practice. There is only one correct insertion angle, and don’t even think about swapping the right earbud (labeled only with a red dot) for the left.
With each one aligned properly and snuggled in place, the outside world hushes up. (But then the inside world — the noise of yourself chewing or swallowing, say — can become distractingly loud: These aren’t the headphones to wear while chomping on potato chips.)
The custom fit also helps keep these things seated in place no matter what. If I listened to music while running, these would be a great fit, but I don’t.
And yes, they do sound great. Music is louder and clearer; I found myself checking my laptop’s volume in confusion after switching from my regular headphones to the Uveros. The earbuds were particularly adept with low-end notes in rhythm-heavy tracks like Chuck Brown’s go-go classic “Bustin’ Loose,” in effect moving the bass guitarist back into the studio from down the hall.
On a long flight, the Uveros dampened the ongoing din of the plane and allowed me to listen to whispered dialog in a movie without cupping my hands to my ears.
But over time, it’s impossible not to notice that you have two squishy lumps of material tunneled into your noggin. In my case, the right earbud occasionally started to feel uncomfortable.
It’s also important to note that my usual headphones are nothing special, so it’s not as I’ve been in the habit of spending extra for superlative sound. I’d ask a real audiophile what they think of my Uveros, but I can’t — nobody else in the world can wear these headphones and get the intended effect. There’s also no loaning them to a friend and no reselling them on eBay.
So that’s the tradeoff: For almost what you’d pay for a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones that aren’t biometrically bonded to your ears, you get great sound out of headphones you can stash in your pocket but which can’t find a home in anybody else’s.
Does that sound good to you? I suspect the answer correlates heavily with how much money you’ve already spent on audio gear in the last 12 months.