Will 3D Printing Be the Custom In-Ear Monitor Game Changer?

Rock stars, producers, and the audio elite have long been the target demographic for the custom in-ear monitor. Personalized, individually crafted, and generally prohibitively expensive, purchasing a set has often been out of reach for most audio hobbyists. But now two companies, Normal and OwnPhones are looking to cater to the custom-curious with affordable 3D printed in-ear headphones. Will the advent of of the printed earbud change in-ear headphones for good?

It’s a question as a headphone reviewer I get asked very frequently: is the cost and trouble of custom monitors really worth it? There’s a lot to consider. First of all, to get fitted for custom in-ears, you have to go to a certified audiologist (generally these folks are at doctor’s offices, or hearing aid centers) and have moulds made of your ear canal. This involves your eardrum protected with a sort of soft stopper, and then having goo shot through a syringe into your ear. It’s not painful, though it feels totally bizarre. After your moulds are made, they’re sent off to the lab where production of your new monitors can take up to a few weeks. Most of these have an MSRP ranging from six hundred to several thousand dollars, and it’s difficult to even say whether you’ll like the sound and fit, as you can’t really test drive the final product until you’re knee-deep in the process. Many who have the fortune to own a pair say they are very happy with their purchase, but for most people, taking the plunge seems like a risky endeavor.

Enter the 3D printer. What used to take specialized equipment to manufacture is suddenly made affordable and infinitely adaptable thanks to the printer’s capabilities. A few startups have seized the opportunity and have begun to make custom headphones available to the mass market at a fraction of the cost of traditional custom monitors. Here’s how it works: both Normal and OwnPhones claim they can use a downloadable phone app to take a free scan of your ear canal. Normal’s app takes a series of pictures, OwnPhones’ uses video. No travel, no goo, no waiting for moulds to ship. The scans are then rendered and input into the 3D printer which spits out a headphone that’s a perfect match to your ear canal based on the data you submitted. Normal claims their headphones can be completed and shipped to you in as little as 48 hours, and they are prepared to start doing so at the end of August. (Yup, just a few weeks away!) OwnPhones is still in the funding stage, so we won’t have turnaround estimates until sometime in early 2015. Regardless, the prospect is an exciting one, especially when you consider that Normal has an MSRP of $199 and OwnPhones have a variety of styles ranging from $299- $349.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: how do they sound? I have no idea. Nobody does, really. So we’ll just have to wait. Normal’s headphones are wired 14mm Neodymium dynamic drivers, with a claimed frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz. OwnPhones will be completely wireless (which poses serious audio-quality obstacles, but in the proper setting could be at minimum practical) and are made of… well, they’re still figuring that stuff out, as troublingly, there’s not much discussion of the drivers on their site.

Master & Dynamic or Mr. Speakers for excellent examples. And there was a time when nobody had ever heard of Grado or Audeze either. Am I convinced that that Normal or OwnPhones will sound as good as thousand dollar headphones? Not really. But I do like the direction in which we’re going. Imagine a world with no more tips. No more comply or pine-tree-looking things. No more hoping that you can get a good seal, and fussing to get the earbuds to stay put. It’s compelling, it’s within my budget, and it’s almost here. I can’t wait.