It’s not every day that you look in the mirror and see your ears glowing blue.
But here I am, in my bathroom, trying the latest technology from the audiophile headphone brand Ultimate Ears, which is owned by Logitech. The company is known for creating anatomically customized, form-fitting ear monitors that are worn by professional musicians on stage. Using methods like spray foam molding and 3D scanning, Ultimate Ears creates a model of a musician’s ear canal to produce a spelunking earbud that will go deeper than anything produced by Apple. This highly precise object is designed to plug your ear from external noise (from the blaring speakers on stage, to the periodic shouts of your family), while delivering fewer decibels to your inner ear than the average headphone.
The problem is, the process is expensive. And the final, custom-made product from UE can cost thousands of dollars. While most gadgets today are relatively inexpensive because they’re one-size-fits-all off a factory line, custom headphones more closely resemble bespoke artisan products, like the crowns of dentistry or a handmade piece of furniture.
And so for the past three years, UE has been working to completely automate its process in a new product called UE Fits. The $250 headphones promise to do something straight out of Back to the Future II—you place the headphones in your ears, and in just 60 seconds, they’ll permanently conform to your anatomy.
The insane thing is, this technology actually works.
For UE, automating the fit process is the biggest challenge in headphone design. So everything about UE Fits is designed to address this issue head on, including every cue that UE gives you along the way.
Unpacking the Fits, I quickly tore open the box, only to be stopped in my tracks. A small package inside, which contained the headphones, came with a word of warning: The contents were light sensitive, and I shouldn’t unpack them before downloading the UE Fits app. (Luckily, no, you don’t have to unpack the box in the dark.)
Lots of gadgets come with their own apps these days. But few offer the full bedside manner of the Fits app. It instructed me to pull out the headphones and place them into my ears. Then it began to play music, urging me to rotate them until I got the right level of bass.
Everything about this app looks and sounds like some new age spa, from its ethereal soundtrack to its water-like graphics. “That app serves as a means of reducing anxiety, holding your hand to make sure you go seamlessly,” says Daniel Blumer, head of new product introductions at UE. On one hand you might critique UE for taking itself too seriously—this is just a pair of headphones. But I must admit, the stakes feel real, because I know I’m about to hit some button that will make these headphones mold permanently.
Once I’m happy with the sound, a brief countdown begins, and I’m instructed to push the Fits gently into my ears for 60 seconds. That’s when they light up blue, and I realize that the Fits are growing warm inside my ear canals.
What’s really happening?
The UE Fit is shaped with a generic anatomical model. It has a rubbery plug for your ear, but inside that plug is a patent-pending soft gel that’s called a photopolymer. That means it’s a plastic that reacts to light. Pushing the tip into your ear, it moves the gel around like Play-Doh. As tiny LED lights inside the earbud glow, that gel is cured, or hardened, into place permanently. The heat has nothing to do with the curing process. It’s just a side effect from the LED.
“If you were to use the analogy of Coke, there’s a special formula they don’t divulge,” says Jonah Staw, president of the disruptive new business team at Logitech. “That’s the same thing here. There’s a specific wavelength and a special [polymer] formula.”
During the curing process, I’m sure my right ear isn’t quite perfect, so I jam that one in pretty hard. As for my left ear, well, I’m holding the phone in my left hand! So I leave that one alone. (No, I wasn’t smart enough to realize I could just put my phone down and have both hands free to hold the earbuds.)
After the 60 seconds is over, I remove the headphones, then pop them back in. My first thought: It’s uncanny. Preconfigured, I had to fuss with them a bit to fit. Now, they slide into my ears like a lock and key.
My second thought: Crap, the left ear feels ever so slightly looser than my right. (Though I shake my head, snap my fingers, and even listen to music with each ear separately, I can’t tell a performance difference.)
When I bring this up to the engineers at UE, they laugh, talking about how they tested all sorts of levels of push. The process, they promised, was something you couldn’t mess up. In fact, even if I had opened up that photosensitive box several hours before I did my fitting, nothing bad would have happened. The earbuds are light sensitive, but not that light sensitive. The margin for error is days, rather than minutes.
But UE admits that it’s possible not everyone will get a perfect fit the first time out of the box. They opted to shape Fits with a 95% geometry. In other words, the anatomical assumptions they make will fit 95% of people. A big reason that they can’t reach 100% is that the photosensitive gel is capable of moving and hardening, but not growing to fill gaps. The problem will always be there for outliers, especially those with larger ear canals.
To overcome mistakes with fit or rarer anatomies, UE is offering a perfect fit guarantee, which will send you new tips if there’s an error (a future version of the app will include a test that verifies your fit, too, to further rid you of fit anxiety). And they also have a few different tip options for people who can’t be fit out of the box. While that option requires contacting customer service, and certainly removes the 60-second ease-of-use of setting up UE Fits, such are the limits of current technology.
In the week since I set up the earbuds, the UE Fits still feel great in my ears. Perhaps it’s not the clinically snug fit of a bespoke suit, but I’d say it’s akin to an off-the-rack jacket in the hands of a good tailor. Meanwhile, I can’t help but think back to all the ingenious experiments in shape-changing materials at MIT, which enable tables, phones, and even robots to build themselves. Many suspect that one day, companies will make any product customizable to your person. Truthfully, we’re already there, if only inside our ear canals.