Review: Roundup: Bespoke Headphones

After getting my first Sony Walkman back in 1980 I’ve endured nothing but poor-sounding, poor-fitting in-ear headphones. Now, nearly three decades downstream and completely fed up with the white buds that were issued with my last iPod, I turned to “rock star audiologist” Frances Miranda for help finding the perfect pair of bespoke earbuds.

See, the most important component of any earbud is a proper fit. So Miranda — who for fifty bucks provides headphone fittings for pro musicians — filled my ears with cool, rubbery goo to make impressions of my ear canals. The resulting molds were then sent off to Westone, Ultimate Ears, Future Sonics, and Sleek Audio, who would each create a custom set of in-ear headphones from the molds.

To make sure every bud got a fair shake in our tests, I selected 40 songs, encoded in Apple Lossless format, from a wide range of musical styles. I listened to each device under the same set of conditions: in a quiet room, on a commercial airline flight, riding a bicycle on a city street, on the New York City subway and strolling down a busy city street. Here are the results.

Ultimate Ears UE-11 Pro “personal monitors”

UE provides earbuds to more touring musicians than any other maker. Given that star billing, our test set did not disappoint. The UE-11 Pros are packed with four, count ‘em, four drivers: there’s a double dose of bass, one for the mid range and one chiming the highs. If you’re looking for the most precise, separated sound possible, then this is the earphone for you. Throughout the play list I heard clarity and detail in the music I’d never heard before. This rang especially true with classical tunes — it literally feels like sitting in a symphony hall and having every instrument speak directly to you. The UEs ran a close second to Westone on the comfort and sound isolation scale and killed every other custom earbuds in the overall sound department. To get that kind of superior fidelity you’ll certainly have to pay the piper. But you’ll really love the music while Rome — or your bank account — burns.

$1,150, ultimateears

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