Would you pay $1,350 for a pair of earbuds? Before you throw your empty wallet at me, let's break it down.
The earbuds, from Logitech's Ultimate Ears product line, actually start at $399. (Still pricey, I know. Wallets down!) They are also custom fitted; the price includes a trip to a certified audiologist who creates a mold of your ear canals -- it's the same process used to manufacture a hearing aid.
The earbuds seem ideal for musicians who want more control over what they hear on stage and who want to avoid hearing damage caused by blasting stage monitors.
But let's say you're not a touring guitarist for Grupo Fantasma or an aspiring dubstep DJ. Is there any way a casual music lover can justify spending so much money simply to listen to music? Philippe Depallens, general manager of Ultimate Ears, gave us an in-person demo. He said the products, which began as a project with drummer Alex Van Halen back in the mid-'90s, have evolved and now serve both demanding musicians and audiophiles alike.
"Now we have a lot of people who are music lovers, who have a passion for music, who are buying those products. If music is your life, this is a great product," Depallens said.
Ultimate Ears has a line of products that start at $20, many of which use familiar foam or rubber tips and are not customized to the listener's ears (the sweet spot of these products seems to be about $80-$100 for a set of noise-isolating earbuds).
But the $399 custom-fit earbuds solve a few problems that anyone who's dealt with Apple's white iPod earbuds has experienced. They certainly sound better and they're much more durable. They're also less likely to pop out. In fact, it practically takes an act of Congress to get them in and out of your ear canals, but we'll get to that.
I sat for a fitting as Depallens and a representative from Logitech watched. A representative from Austin's Audiology Diagnostic Clinic stuck tubes into my ears and shot pink foam until the world became silent around me. They had me bite on a piece of plastic to keep my mouth open since the shape of our ear canals change when we're singing or talking.
It was... supremely icky. The foam went really, really far into my cavities; I can't be the first person to be fitted for Ultimate Ears to think about the ear-burrowing Ceti eels from "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn." Depallens smiled and said something. I smiled back as best I could. I couldn't hear a word.
When the audiologist pulled out the hardened pieces of foam from my ear, twisting them out like the world's most disgusting wine corks, there was an abundance of filthy, dispiriting, dark wax at the end of each foam piece. I wanted to flee the room.
I am told this is normal! Several weeks later, a very nice black box arrived with a custom set of earbuds manufactured from those disgusting foam molds.
Inside the larger box was a welcome brochure and a small "roadie case," a lightweight metal container the size of a watch box, engraved with my name on the outside. In the roadie case: clear-plastic earbuds and a small cleaning tool (to clean future earwax buildup). The earbuds are attached to a slim, braided cable.
Overall, it's an attractive package, one that can be further customized with different colors and even artwork (at an additional fee).
But how do they sound? The base $399 models contain two speakers per ear; the sound is very crisp and clear. Depallens said the goal is to output the audio nearly exactly as it comes in without adding bass or distorting the sound. As the earbuds get more expensive, they get more speakers; the $1,350 models have six speakers per ear, using each for different sound frequencies.
In my own listening, the audio was spot-on with all kinds of music, from Drake's "Take Care" album to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" to Ozomatli to the Beatles to Arcade Fire to Sade. But was the sound four times better than my trusty $100 Klipsch earbuds, which use a humble set of noncustomized rubber tips? To my ears, it was not.
But they did fit better. The customized fit is strange at first; the earbuds go so far into your ears that at first it can feel like a violation. But after a while, they begin to feel very natural, and the sound isolation is remarkable. "Sound isolation" is a fancy way of saying you won't hear the outside world when you're wearing them. A $50 add-on "ambient feature" allows more sound to bleed in if you prefer.
If you're someone who can never find a good fit with earbuds and find that they're always popping out, Ultimate Ears are a good solution. Because your ear canal is like a corkscrew, you have to twist them to insert and to remove them. Pulling on the cables won't get them out (and it might hurt your ears).
The downside is that you can't share them (nor would you want to; you will see your own ear gunk from time to time). They also don't feature a little set of controls to adjust the volume or skip tracks on a smart phone like some lower-end earbuds do, though you can add that on as a separate adapter. And no matter how great they fit, there are some people who are just never going to be comfortable with a foreign object shoved that far into their ears.
But much like Apple's high-end laptops, the cost of admission largely has to do with the presentation and the experience. The Ultimate Ears packaging is beautifully crafted, the earbuds themselves are sturdy and handsome, and the customer experience -- from the pink goo to the actual listening -- makes you feel like you're luxuriating.
Yes, it's extravagant, especially in this economy, but for music lovers and musicians who need a little pampering, it doesn't seem like that crazy of an expense.
At least that's what I'm telling myself right now as I listen to them, bobbing my head to be the beat of an Underground Kings song off Spotify. Whatever you just said, I couldn't hear it.
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