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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Horror of Earbuds

They fit wrong, they fall out, they get covered in gross earwax—can’t someone design something better?

human ear.
The prevailing earbud design involves silicone bulbs that jam deep into your ear canals.
Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Images via Shutterstock, Creative Commons
ately, I’ve been thinking a lot about products that penetrate our bodily orifices. No, not those. Or those. It’s okay that you thought of those. I'm not judging. But what I have in mind is a device that people use every day, in public, for all to see.

The modern earphone comes in two main types—both of which are deeply flawed. The prevailing earbud design (the kind often included with the purchase of, say, an Android device) involves silicone bulbs that jam deep into your ear canals, creating a seal. Some people have no problem with these small invaders. But many others among us—myself included—find them intrusive. Painful, even.

My informal survey of friends and colleagues found a passel of folks who are convinced that their ear canals must be abnormal, since those silicone buds simply don’t fit. The buds pop out while jogging, for instance. Or when you yawn too wide. Or, worse, they stay in but create more discomfort with each passing minute—until you joyously rip them from your ears like a splinter from the pad of your thumb. Also: This may be one of the more embarrassing admissions I’ve made in print, but … sometimes when I take this type of bud out I find it is coated in a thin film of earwax. Gross! Sorry!

Apple offers an alternative, as its earbuds (the ones that come packaged with iPhones) obviate these issues by resting demurely in the concha of the ear, making no attempt to rudely invite themselves into your canal. This style works so-so for me. But I do find I need to crank the volume on my iPhone when I listen to music in loud environments, like on the subway. And even then I’m not pleased with the result. Their distance from my ear canals and their lack of a seal means the Apple earbuds leak out a lot of music into the air and leak in a lot of noise from squealing subway car brakes. Friends report similar dissatisfaction, adding that even in quiet contexts the Apple buds offer only mediocre audio quality, and that they often slip out of the ears entirely during sweaty workouts.

Can’t live with ’em inside canals, can’t live with ’em outside. Sure, those big, over-the-ear headphones solve many of these problems, but they’re too unwieldy to tuck into your jeans pocket when you’re on the go. I want an earbud alternative that works for everyone. One that won’t jam too tight into my canals yet will stay in place, be comfortable, and provide good sound. Surely it’s out there?

As the first step in my search, I consulted with a pro. Brian Fligor is the chief audiologist for the 3-D ear-scanning firm Lantos Technologies. He used to run diagnostic audiology at Boston Children’s Hospital and taught at Harvard Medical School. According to Fligor, my delicate, narrow ear canals are nothing to be ashamed of. “Everyone's ear canal is as unique to you as your fingerprints,” he says, “and even within one person your ear canals are not symmetric. I do informal polls, and about a quarter of the people I talk to say earphones don't fit them.”

As long as I had Fligor on the phone, I asked him about my own weird ear canal phenomenon. When 
I use earbuds that create a seal, I can almost “hear” my footsteps in my head as I walk. The heavier the step, the louder I hear it, and the music I’m listening to completely cuts out each time my foot hits the ground. Fligor assured me this is normal. It’s called the “occlusion effect.” Vibration travels up through your body and, because the ear canal seal for me is shallow when I try to wear buds, there’s a big open airspace between the bud and my eardrum in which those vibrations rattle around. Phew. 

I’m not a freak. But I still can’t walk and listen to music at the same time.

Fligor favors an ear canal seal if you can hack it. The seal makes for the finest audio quality and the least corrupting outside noise, and it allows you to keep volume levels lower. For those who can’t tolerate off-the-rack silicone buds, he recommends visiting an audiologist to buy a custom-fitted “ear sleeve” that will snuggle gently into the precise contours of your canal.

Well, an audiologist would say that, wouldn’t he? I don’t at all doubt Fligor’s expertise or good faith. But even he admits two flaws with the custom solution. First: It’s expensive. A fitting might cost $100–$150 to get the sleeve, on top of the price of the earphones themselves. And on the other end, the sky’s the limit. Fligor told me his own custom-fitted “in-ear monitors” provide “outrageous” fidelity, but cost $750. (His counterpoint: You spend hundreds of dollars on your music player and on buying songs. You won’t spend more than 20 bucks on the things that actually produce the sound?)
And second: Custom solutions can be too good. The better the seal, the less you can hear from the world outside. That furiously honking oncoming taxi, for instance. “I tell people not to jog at night alone,” Fligor confesses, “because they won’t hear the mugger.” (His counterpoint: Some noise-canceling in-ear buds purposely allow in a small amount of external noise to remedy this problem.)

What if you don’t want to spend the time and money to go to an audiologist? Or just don’t want anything inside your ear canals, period? Are there other solutions?

You could replicate a custom fitting by doing it yourself, at home. A product called Decibullz lets you melt malleable blobs of plastic in a cup of warm water, cram them into your conchas, and then wait for them to set and firm. Voila: personally fitted earphones for only $59. The problem is, Decibullz employ a standard silicone bud for the part of the device that actually enters your canal. 

The blobby stuff just molds itself to the outside bowl of the ear, not to the inside tunnel—which eliminates some external noise but doesn’t solve any problems for narrow-canaled humans.

Instead, you could ignore your ears altogether by conducting noise through your skull. This is the approach taken by Aftershokz Bluez 2 ($99.95), which uses a headband that loops over your pinnae and rests on the outside edges of your cheekbones. The sound vibrates into your head, and the device even buzzes against your face during the most slamming of beats. (Not unpleasantly. It’s more a tickle, which creates a cool sort of physical connection to the music.) I was stunned by how clearly sound came through in this manner, and I loved that there was nothing blocking my canals. But a ton of sound leaks out. People sitting near me in the Slate office could clearly hear my music. Also, the bulky over-the-ear headband is less than ideal if you have long hair (which can get tangled) or wear eyeglasses (which can get in the way).

Maybe we should trust audiologists after all? EarHero ($149) was designed by a husband and wife clinical audiology team from Boise, Idaho. They wanted earphones that let listeners “maintain complete awareness of their environment.” The original target market was skiers, who craved musical accompaniment paired with situational alertness as they sped down slopes. But it turns out the product has been a hit with security personnel who use it for radio communication: EarHero claims that more than 200 Secret Service agents wear these earphones, attracted by their ability to let in other noise, their comfortable fit over long workdays, and their near invisibility to observers. But would they suit my purposes? They are indeed super comfy. They stay in place by means of a “concha lock”—a little flexible tail that springs against your ear bowl and braces the earbud in place. 

Perfect for my physiognomy. You almost forget you’re wearing them, as they are extremely small and light and barely touch your ear at all. But the sound is tinny. Terrific for listening to yakking—a Slate podcast, or a baseball game, or tactical chatter as you protect a Saudi royal—but not so good if you want to jam out to top 40 hits.

Yurbuds ($37.46) offer a printed guarantee they “will not fall out.” I believe them. Their plastic pods screw into the bowl of your ear—like an Apple earbud that locks in place. No silicone tip to invade your canal, so we’re good there. But the screw-in piece of plastic began to grate against my concha. The fit was way too tight. I felt like someone was trying to expand the bowl of my ear wider than it wanted to go. What a relief to pluck these out. I also found their audio quality way below par.

For me, the winner is any Bose line of earphones with “StayHear tips.” These tips are small, silicone wedges in the shape of shark fins that tuck under the eaves of your pinnae into the top edge of your concha to hold the earbuds in place. The mouth of the earbud itself extends down into your canal far enough that the music emits closer to your eardrum, which means you get a clearer sound even at lower volumes. But there’s still no seal necessary, which means there’s no discomfort and no diminished awareness of the world around you. These earbuds were a revelation for me. They have the comfort and stability of the EarHero, with far superior audio quality. Sadly, their price tag might be a dealbreaker: The Bose headphones with StayHear tips start at about $100—which is a hefty price to pay for something that, if past evidence is a guide, I’ll almost surely lose within the next six months.

I’d love to find a much cheaper version of StayHear tips, but I couldn’t find any similar products. (If you know of one, feel free to tell me in the comments.) Perhaps a better solution is on the horizon: A brand called Normal will let you take photos of your ears, send them in (the photos, not the ears), and receive back custom, 3-D printed earbuds that promise to fit you precisely. Sounds difficult to pull off, and I'll believe when I see it. Or hear it. Anyway, the company doesn’t start sending out products until next month. In the meantime, I’ll be that guy standing next to you on the subway in Apple buds, cranking early-’90s hip hop into the air for all around me to enjoy.

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