Breaking the Mold : A Survey of Entry Level Custom In-Ear Monitors

A Little Introduction
To start I need to make a bit of an apology. This review took way longer than I ever expected. I won't bore you with the details which were both in and out of my control but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. Why? Because when manufacturers send us, the "professionals", products for review there is an unspoken trust and expectation that we'll do just that. The silver lining here is that as a result of the delay I've spent a lot of time listening to all of these headphones in more situations than you can shake a stick at. Let's get started.

In The Beginning...
This story starts way back in 2004 when I first started getting into listening to music with headphones. At the time there was no such thing as a custom IEM and really, there were precious few choices in the IEM market period. Today there's a new IEM manufacturer around every corner but the custom market has exploded, with manufacturers both large and small providing options to suit just about every taste and budget. But I'd tried custom IEMs before, way back in 2008, and the experience was, in short, terrible. I tried two types of customs at the time: true custom-designed and manufactured IEMs and the remolded type reutilizing drivers from your choice of IEM. I had fit issues with both types and more importantly the sound left me wanting in a big way. The whole deal was enough to put me off the thought for another 5 years. But then my colleagues at InnerFidelity started talking about a mega review of high end IEMs and it got me thinking, was it finally the right time to retire my venerable Etymotic ER4Ps and finally make the jump back into the world of customs? The evidence was there, at least at the top end of the range, so I sought their trusted council and created a list of sub-$500 IEMs for a non-TOTL shootout. Boy, am I glad I did.

The field (in alphabetical order):
A. Aurisonics AS-1 (http://www.aurisonics.com/store/)
B. Cosmic Ears HY3 (now discontinued- http://www.cosmicears.com/shop/hy3/)
C. Jerry Harvey Audio JH5 (http://www.jhaudio.com/product/jh5-pro-custom-ear-monitor)
D. Lear Audio LCM 3F (http://lear.hk/)
E. Noble 3C (http://nobleaudio.com/products/custom/acrylic/order/noble-3c/)
F. 1964 Ears V3 (https://www.1964ears.com/product/1964-V3-Custom-In-Ear-Monitor)

Breaking Free?
There's no getting around the fact that to enter the world of custom headphones you still have to cross a bridge that no other category of headphones requires—having custom ear impressions made. Some manufactures have gone so far in trying to make this a non-factor as to offer do-it-yourself kits for the brave. Take it from this guy, a full-on fan of just about everything DIY, I'd leave this to the professionals. I say that for a couple of main reasons: one, do you really want to the one injecting stuff quite deep into your ear canal and likely doing it for the first time when you do? And two, even when I had professionals do my impressions I found two sets of the eight that I had made had to be rejected and redone. So take the leap, invest a little time and money and find someone fluent in high-end headphone ear impressions and let them do what they do for a living. Costs can range from free (at, say a headphone meet) to $50/set or more. Some manufacturers work with a network of audiologists so check their websites. Otherwise a little research is likely to yield multiple good options. I had three available within a 20 minute drive and I live in a pretty rural setting. The ear-mold process itself is pretty simple and involves inserting a foam block into the ear canal to the manufacturer's recommended depth, filling the inner and outer ear with material and letting it set up. Whether or not to get an open mouth impression can vary by manufacturer and I'd defer to either that advice or the advice of the audiologist. All of mine were taken that way and it seemed to result in a good seal for my ears.

The Good News
Of the six models that I tried I could easily live with all but one (we'll get to that in a just a bit). Most present a listening experience commensurate with the asking price, with reasonable extension at both ends and are generally inoffensive. Fit and finish on all six was very good and none require modification—that was certainly welcome news based on my prior debacle. Add to that that they all come with some sort of case, some hard shells, some soft, and cables that are compliant and constructed of high-quality materials. Most come with accessories to help clean the canals of the headphones and some even come with a 1/8" to 1/4" adapter. Basically enough kit to cover most user's wants and help justify the price. One word of caution about using headphones this sensitive with a device sporting a 1/4" jack, think before you press play. Most examples in the field have efficiencies near or over 120db/1mW and will have precious little adjustment on desktop amps. And noisy sources are a serious no-no. A high quality IEM amplifier, like the Headamp Pico Slim that I own (and used in conjunction with the review) will at a minimum provide a far more usable range of volume adjustment if not significantly better sound. All of the examples here were perfectly happy driven directly off my iPod but if you want to use a better source with an external DAC I'd look for a purpose built IEM amplifier like the Slim.

The Bad News
As I mentioned above, the news isn't all good, there are still examples out there that, well, just aren't very good. Honestly, I think things have gotten a lot better and risking your hard-earned cash on customs is a lot safer bet than it was even a few years ago. That said do your research, read a bunch of reviews before buying and, my advice, if the reviews are polarizing steer clear. There's no reason to throw good money at bad with the plethora of established good choices that are out there.

The Best News
After impressions are made and order(s) placed it's the same gig as every other headphone. Kick back, relax, listen to one of the other sets of headphones you almost certainly have and wait for the box to show up on the door step. Therein lies another piece of good/great news, manufacturing and wait times seem to have gotten a lot better, at least generally speaking. Some wait times still exist, there's a fair bit of manual labor in prepping the molds/shells/etc. and they can't start making them till they get your impressions but without exception the manufacturer's in this review produced a quality product in a reasonable timeframe.

When it comes to personalization there is a truly staggering array of choices. Most manufacturers offer sample images and some go above and beyond, like 1964 Ears who offer an amazing configuration tool that allows you to see a very realistic visual of each choice you make along the way. From the entire rainbow of colors to wooden or carbon or mother of pearl shells there's very little that can't be done with CIEMs these days. Try asking Grado to put custom artwork on your next set of SR325e's and see how far you get. And should you fear cost-creep there are generally no-cost finishing options and for the most part that's what I tried to select when putting together the samples for this review. But when one offered free reign I was helpless to refuse the full carbon treatment. I am, after all, only human.

Get On With It Already!
So, I'm sure at least one person is wondering how the field shakes out so here we go, from worst to first:

BreakingtheMold_Photo_AurasonicsAS1

Aurasonics AS-1

6th Place—Aurisonics AS-1 ($399)—As I mentioned above, these are the only ones that I couldn't live with on a day to day basis. The top end of these is flawed to such a degree, in my opinion, as to render the listening experience pretty unpleasurable. Please understand that I take absolutely no joy in making this statement. I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with the folks at Aurisonics trying to glean information on how they arrived at the sound that they did. Bottom line, it was intentional and they feel they are supplying a product for which there is demand. So if it's your particular brand of "good sound" you'll be happy but I suspect that most will be at least a little disappointed.

From there the judging got a lot more difficult. I mean it. A lot.

BreakingtheMold_Photo_LearLCM3F

Lear Audio LCM 3F

5th Place—Lear Audio LCM 3F ($515)—despite being referred to as the "flat" version of the LCM 3 I found the sound signature to be more colored than other participants, specifically in the top end which had an overall lack of clarity. Now I'm a pretty forgiving guy when it comes to listening impressions and can live with a lot, and without another four CIEMs to choose from I probably would have been ok using these as everyday commuting or general listening headphones. But switching back and forth between these and any of the others highlighted that there was information missing.

BreakingtheMold_Photo_CosmicEarsHY3

Cosmic Ears HY3

4th Place—Cosmic Ears HY3 ($discontinued)—sadly, shortly after receiving my review sample Cosmic discontinued the model. So I'm not going to waste many words on these. What I will say is that sufficient evidence exists based on my time with these that I think Cosmic can make a good sounding pair of CIEMs.

BreakingtheMold_Photo_JerryHarveyJH5

Jerry Harvey Audio JH5

2nd Place (tie)—JHA JH5 ($399)—ok, quite frankly I was shocked at how well these performed. For one thing they're down a driver compared to both the 3C and V3 and they've been around for forever in IEM terms. But Jerry clearly knows what he's doing when it comes to making CIEMs whether it's in the budget realm or the top of the class. Without a doubt these are the bang-for-the-buck champion of this comparison clocking in at a full $100 less than the V3's and $50 less than the 3C. They present a balanced, well rendered sound from top to bottom with very little, if anything, to complain about. If JHA ever decides to update the bottom end of their custom range the competition should get seriously nervous.

BreakingtheMold_Photo_NobleAudio3C

Noble Audio 3C

2nd Place (tie)—Noble 3C ($450)—when I started this review the Noble brand didn't really exist. In fact the 3C's that I got were one of the first pairs of CIEMs they produced. It's important to note that the guys behind Noble are not new to CIEMs and the Wizard hardly needs me to explain that. I won't get into the how/why of how Noble came into being but I'm glad they did. They obsess about all the details associated with CIEMs. I spent quite a bit of (email) time with Brannan just talking about CIEM cables and let me tell you that this attention to detail yields results. Their cable is very nice—non-microphonic, soft and compliant. And the headphones are pretty sweet too. Much like the JH5 the 3C presents a clear and well rendered aural experience and with a touch more clarity on the top end they'd be right there challenging for first overall.

Editor's Note: Please see page 2 of this review for information on the Alclair Reference ($399) CIEM that would now take second place in this comparison.

1964 Ears V3

1st Place—1964 Ears V3 ($499)—ironically these were the first review sample that I received. I clearly remember the experience, opening them up, remarking to myself how well made they appeared and then plugging them in. Why on earth did I wait this long to get back into CIEMs!? After my first few listening sessions I contacted a more seasoned colleague to see if I was way out of line in responding so favorably. Nope. Currently priced at $499 as a result of a recent price adjustment they still represent an excellent audio investment, in my opinion. They have just the right amount of slightly emphasized bass that just begs to be driven hard and I found myself having to exercise a bit of restraint with the volume knob on my Headamp Pico Slim. The icing on the cake is that the top end is the best of the bunch as well. Clear with no etch or harshness. Overall if I'm taking a trip for work or sitting down to some critical listening and want to block out the world I reach for the V3s every time.

In Closing
To wrap this up and put some sort of bow on it I guess I'll say the following—if your needs demand a sealed or noise-isolating headphone you owe it to yourself to do some research and strongly consider a Custom IEM. The choices these days are so good and the customer support system sufficient mature to eliminate or at the very least mitigate most of the concerns that this particular listener used to have. $500 for a pair of headphones is no small investment but you'd be well served by any of the top three examples reviewed here.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Klievhelm's picture

Thanks for the review. I know it's hard to measure isolation objectively with custom molds, but can you comment subjectively how they compare to your ER4Ps?

n_maher's picture
Objectively speaking I don't think any of them isolate quite as well as the Etys. That said, I've worn all of these as earplug/IEMs while mowing the lawn, snow blowing the driveway and all provided an acceptable level of noise attenuation while still allowing me to enjoy music at a safe volume. I've also used most of them on flights and they were sufficient to block out the drone as well as the occasional crying child in the next row. So on the whole I'd rate the isolation as good, but not quite at the great level. One more important point, I've never found another regular IEM that could equal the isolation of the Etys so that's a very hard standard to measure something against.
Syan25's picture

Good review

markus's picture

What about these €189 customs? ljokerl likes em a lot, and they're from poland!

veggieboy2001's picture

You mentioned the "top end " of the Aurisonics AS-1 as being "flawed to such a degree, in my opinion, as to render the listening experience pretty unpleasurable." Did you think too much, too little? I wasn't sure what you found unpleasurable...
thanks for the review!

n_maher's picture
a better job explaining that comment. I found the highs of the AS-1 to be severely congested and rolled off. Muffled would be another good adjective. Thanks for pointing that out!
veggieboy2001's picture

...and too bad. I know you mentioned that you didn't enjoy pointing that out, but you have to call them as you see (hear) them. I appreciate the honesty!

Copacetic's picture

Even though they're discontinued I'm certain that since you placed them 4th in the lineup there's a lot of us that would be interested to read more detail re' the Cosmic Ears offering.

My own main reason for this is that I briefly owned a pair (destroyed by dog!)which I really liked, and am patiiently (OK, not so patiient now) awaiting the new hybrid offering from Cosmic, but I bet other readers would be keen to read more about one of the few hybrid CIEM's around?

n_maher's picture
My one main gripe with the Cosmic CIEMs was a somewhat honky midrange. That's where vocals live, in my opinion, and to have discoloration there seems to strike me worse than at either extreme end of the spectrum. As you correctly point out though, there was a lot to like about them. Sadly I have no idea how my experience with the HY3 would translate to one of their current offerings.
thelostMIDrange's picture

I had a set made and lost seal within 3 years due to unavoidable change in ear shape. You as a human being are changing believe it or not and the audiologist advised me of this before I plunked down my hard earned fiat dollars. Sure enough it happens and at that point whether it's audio quality earplugs or earphones, they become worthless. What you'll lose first is bass of course, and since most phones are bass heavy these days you may not notice it right away and in fact they may sound better at year 3 than year 1 in terms of accuracy. But once the seal is lost, you'll lose other things hifi enthusiests like you need and so you'll need to get another set made. No biggie since most people's expectations and long term planning is such that they don't expect to not have to constantly re-buy things often. If you can afford these things great, just for those who think they can spend $500 and be done with it for a decade, it's not true and frankly a basic universal silicone is good enough for 99% of people, myself included. The difference from custom to universal is small and unworthy of the hype. For those of you on any kind of budget, forget these customs, you're not missing anything special. Save your money for upcoming world disaster and strife so you're not dependent on amoral authority figures.

John Grandberg's picture

In my experience this is simply not true. Not doubting it happened to you but let's not make it a universal, inevitable experience. My oldest CIEMs are from a company that's no longer in business but they are 6+ years old and still fit perfectly. I know many folks still rocking their old Westone ES2, Ultimate Ears UE10pro, or Sensaphonics for nearly a decade by now. Yes, the human ear does change and grow on its own, and significant weight gain/loss will exacerbate the change.... but for many people this will not be an issue. If you DO end up needing a reshell, there are companies out there (Fisher Hearing Technologies for example) that do a good job for $150 or so.

The difference, for myself and many I've spoken to, is pretty dramatic in going from universals to custom fit. Some people have no issues with universals and to them I say "Lucky!!!" in a Napoleon Dynamite voice. For me, universals have never been very comfortable. The first time I used customs I felt them disappear into my ears and knew I would never go back. Spending $400 or $500 on a custom made IEM that will potentially last 5-10 years does not seem all that extravagant to me.

thelostMIDrange's picture

I do believe you can just reuse the drivers, but you will need to get new molds made and have them reseated etc....

And if you're young, the fine shape of your ear is changing quite rapidly so you may not even get a full year of proper fit out of a set. So just keep that in mind, because whether you are aware or not, the current young generation is the poorest lost of folks since the 1940's in terms of savings and disposable income and people like me are looking out for your financial well being and care that you don't waste and spend what little earnings you have on non necessities like custom ear molds.

n_maher's picture
The ability to re-use drivers is definitely dependent on the manufacturer. For example, the AS-1s absolutely cannot be reshelled. So if you'r ever considering buying a used set of CIEMs do your research and make sure. The price that some manufacturers charge for the service can also vary greatly and individuals will need to decide if it's worth the level of investment to get a reconstructed set as opposed to new.
John Grandberg's picture

There is no specific age cutoff where Audiologists declare your ears are no longer growing as quickly. Obviously a 14 year old in the midst of a growth spurt is not a good candidate for custom IEMs. Someone old enough to legally drink and vote may be a good candidate and should evaluate their history of growth (in both height and weight). If it seems stable then customs become an option.

I think it goes without saying that people with little to no savings or disposable income should not be spending $400+ on entertainment equipment. Not sure why you need to point out this piece of common sense.

thelostMIDrange's picture

the wave of obvious marketing bull the industry aims at young men and women. Add in that 'common sense' is not nearly as common as it used to be.....regarding the fit, the echoi'ng commenent you made is correct except that is almost implied that an older age person should be good to go and not need to worry about ear change. And that is innacurate. I was 38 when I had mine made and it was 2 years in before they were toast. The audiologist told me 3-4. That's direct experience good sir, not internet speculation or armchair hypothesis. This kind of info imo is the only valuable info, even if it ends up being common sense.

John Grandberg's picture

I submit that adults are indeed good to go, and that your experience is an outlier. I personally have CIEMs going back many years that still fit perfectly well, and I know dozens of other folks in the same boat. Contrast that with a few people I've heard from who have had issues, almost always correlating to weight fluctuation.

I've also spoken to multiple audiologists who confirmed that ears never stop changing/growing over a lifetime, but those changes don't necessarily translate to fit issues. It's case by case. And based on extensive feedback I've heard from friends and forum dwellers, I conclude the changes are not typically significant as it pertains to CIEM fit.

audionewbi's picture

Thanks for all your great work, I had a minor suggestion. I notice that you guys include emblem of various awards you guys give to the product you review I thought it would be nice to be able to just to click on them and it will take us to the pervious recipient of this awards.

firedog55's picture

Have a pair of EH-5's on order. Picked them on the basis of: a) reviews; 2)price; 3)high level of customability

Glad you also liked them.

drm870's picture

I've been waiting with bated breath for this since Tyll mentioned first mentioned it was in the works! Great to see it finally released! :)

Impulse's picture

Isolation aside, is there anything you think the Etys still did better or were the top three finishers clearly superior in every way? I know it's really hard to quantify this kinda thing but how much of an upgrade did you think they were over universals?

I didn't realize prices for decent CIEM had dipped quite so much, I thought you'd still need to spend upwards of $650 for a pair. $400-450 isn't exactly affordable but it's something I could stomach.

I had actually been hoping to get custom sleeves done for my Ety hf4 soon, taking advantage of that offer from Ety (where it comes out to like $100 total). I got the hf4 at a steep discount so even with the sleeves I'm still nowhere near the expense of CIEM...

I'm quite curious about the gap in SQ tho. Two more questions, are these all hard shelled or what? I remember reading most are but some use a softer material (and Ety's custom sleeves use something else entirely IIRC).

Finally, and this is pretty trivial but still, I imagine at least some of these offer cables with microphone/smartphone functionality built in, or not?

n_maher's picture
I'd say that I would take any of the top three over the Etys but in truth, the top end of the Etys is probably the best (assuming you don't find them too bright). I'm still staggered by what Etymotic was able to do with one driver but the multi-driver approach does yield better balance and the ease of use with CIEMs trumps universals all day long. I find CIEMs to be way more comfortable.
John Grandberg's picture
Nate, this was worth the wait. The more affordable side of custom IEMs is rather exciting these days.... there was a time when spending nearly $1,000 got you a dual or maybe triple driver CIEM, now these models are half that and imho sound better as well. That's progress!
n_maher's picture
Thanks John and I totally agree. The trickle down of tech/SQ to the lower end of the ranges has been impressive and I hope, at some point, to sample at least a couple of higher end models and see just how good these can get.
Eric_C's picture

Can confirm, the Aurisonics sound is really, really unpleasant. Super thick (no clarity), completely unlistenable at any budget.

ednaz's picture

I have a set of Westone ES-5 that are probably my favorite listening mode other than my large home system. Unfortunately they've developed a problem connector and need to go in for work. I seriously miss them. They seal as well as my Etys with custom ear molds. For motorized yard work, it's Ety or Westone, both beat several non custom IEMs in the sound seal.

I have a set of Aurisonics, and let me add a little detail on the "thick, congested" comments. When I first got them I was listening to small jazz combos and small bluegrass groups and I was pretty pleased. The first time I listened to symphonic music I thought they'd broken. They don't handle dense complex music very well at all, all the instruments become one instrument. I still use them for small combo listening, and like them for that. They're also not my best fitting however, they were made with a soft layer around the part that goes in the ear canal, and it came off after one or two wearings; tried having them apply it again, came off again, so they're a little looser. Wouldn't have gotten them if I'd known about the sound problems, and the soft tips on the Westone (and the soft silicone tips for Ety customs) have spoiled me for fit and feel.

Looks like it's time to get some new CIEMs... I think having my Westone's away for repair is the perfect excuse...

AnalogSavior's picture

Thanks for the review. I had the chance to listen to the universal Noble 3, and found them too v-shaped for my liking, though Noble does advertises them as such.

Can you comment on the sound signatures of the JH-5 and V3 compared to the 3C?

LytleSound's picture

Thanks for an excellent review. It was unfortunate that the Cosmic Ears HY3 were toast. Have you thought about having a method set up so that you can measure their characteristics as well?

Assume that you started with the best impression possible and that the IEM was made into a shell that did as little distortion to that image as possible, two things are constant. The first is that IEM's aren't' earplugs. Thus, don't count on getting the magic "25 dB" that could be expected from a custom-molded earplug. They can't provide that kind of attenuation because they are packed full of electronics and transducers and have holes drilled in them. If you need isolation, wear a pair of earmuff over them.

Second, it has been my experience and that of most people in the industry that the ear changes sufficiently over a five- to six-year period for most (faster for some, slower for others) to change the tightness of the fit. With a lost in tightness comes leaks and with leaks comes loss of bass. How soon that is noticed depends upon how good the bass response was in the first place. As we age our ears and our noses continue to grow, they are the last cartilaginous parts of our bodies that grow until death. They, obviously, have phases in which they grow faster (childhood) and slower (early to middle adulthood), but they they grow regardless. So, as a matter of course, expect to replace that custom IEM, or at least its shell, every five to six years to maintain the quality of the fit and of the sound, especially the bass.

DaleC's picture

The statement that, before 2004, "there was no such thing as a custom IEM " is not true, not even close.

The Grateful Dead pioneered IEM's in the early 90's and the first concert tour with NO monitor wedges (totally IEM) was the Grateful Dead and Steve Miller Band in 1992. IEM's were commonplace on concert tours by the late 90's and my club band used them by 2002. I bought my first custom IEM's from Sensaphonics in early 2000 after comparing them to Ultimate Ears and Future Sonics.

In fact, Jerry Harvey, creator of one of the IEM's in this review, built Alex Van Halen's IEM rig back around '94 or '95. After that he founded Ultimate Ears.

It's hard to take the rest of the article seriously after that, but I tried and it was worthwhile.

DaleC's picture

My first impressions were poured in 2000 for my IEM's. In 2003, I had another impression poured for a set of Etymotic Research "Musicians Earplugs". I used the IEM's when I gigged as a bassist and the ER's when I produced/stage managed major concerts (10,000+ patrons) or attended live performances. I had another mold made in 2011 when I lost my ER plugs.

There is no difference in the seal/isolation between my different molds. That said, I am 48 today and was 34 when the first molds were poured, so my skull was no longer growing rapidly.

The outer ear continues to grow for your entire life, but bone growth in the auditory canal slows around 20 years of age. Outer ear growth could cause discomfort with molds, but the seal, critical for isolation and correct sound, should remain unaffected by age, except in extremes. Molds made at 20 years of age probably won't fit well at 50 years, maybe even 30 or 40. I would bet that molds made at 30 will serve you well for a decade, at least, probably longer. Rapid weight gain, or loss, could affect the fit of your molds considerably due to subcutaneous fat cells narrowing/enlarging the auditory canal. All of this, of course, is subject to disease or injury.

I have enjoyed a fantastic, usable life span for my molds, but your experience may differ.

My comments are based on MY experience over the last 14 years, so utilize them accordingly. :-)

FWIW, the ER's have interchangeable filters which provide a 15 dB, 25 dB and 30dB (Total occlusion) reduction with minimal alteration to the the frequency balance. That means I can wear them to musical performances and enjoy the sound without damaging my hearing. They are the single, greatest investment in music appreciation that I have ever made and recommend them highly to anyone who attends live performances or works in a loud environment.

http://www.etymotic.com/hp/erme.html

AstralStorm's picture

Acrylics just isolate quite a bit less, even when fit best, and silicone tends to fit even better.

The main problem with silicone CIEMs is that few companies make them - and thus you can get really weird products, from less experienced makers.

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