Ultimate Ears and the Magical Process of Creating a CIEM – RMAF 2014

Mold with screen

Michael Dias of Ultimate Ears has a voice that could calm a wild beast. Honestly, his delivery is so soothing I would probably fall asleep if what he was saying wasn’t so interesting. His presentation at this year’s CanJam at Rocky Mountain Audiofest really showed how things were heating up around IEMs in a big way for UE.

Their approach is noticeably different from many other manufactures within this space. Mike doesn’t dive into product techs and specs, in fact, the company’s CIEM line has remained relatively untouched for the past year. There isn’t much talk of cramming more drivers in each ear, or pushing out a new refresh just so audiophiles can say they have the newest model. Michael and UE have vision. His presentation hovers around big thinking that is quite a departure from the all-to-often awkward “just listen to this” reaction of manufacturer to reviewer.

UE Wide

“So what is the biggest problem with getting a custom done these days?” he asks me. The response is covered by a simple answer, but a complex solution. Its a pain to get them done. Most people need to go to a professional audiologist to get the molds made, the molds are then shipped out, then there is a wait (and in the case of some of the more popular CEIMs, more waiting) and then refits… and then more refits. Michael’s vision sees this process simplified and streamlined to the point where the pain is relieved and the timeline is reduced. Could CIEMs be refined to the point where they could be accepted by the general population? Only time will tell, but UE has started to take steps to get us there.

UE 3d machine

The new news here is really two updates to the CIEM process, the first of which really takes place on the back end. After impressions are sent in molds are usually made and acrylic is poured in and then smoothed, sanded and refined. The new 3D scanner on display at the UE table updates the process by removing a few of the steps. A 3D scan of the impression can be refined digitally, then either 3D printed or shaped from solid material by a machine. Since the process includes a digital step, transferring, storing and manipulation all can be done much easier. What does this mean for the end user? A quicker turnaround time. Michael hinted that he might like to see product turnaround as quick as 3-5 days! From feedback from all the CIEM manufacturers at RMAF it appears that technology that scans your ear canal accurately enough to meet the standards necessary to get consistent impressions is not quite upon us just yet. However, when it becomes available UE simply needs to drop the file into their current process and they will be off and running.

UE Screen

The second piece of news-worthy updates is one of those things you never knew you needed, but once you’ve experienced you can’t image how you ever did without. UE has developed hardware and software that allows you to check out each their entire product line of CIEMs without ever having to remove a pair of universal fit IEMs from your head to do so.  The software above lets you simply click on the IEM you want to hear and boom, you have a quick A/B exchange.

UE Tester IEM

The coolest thing about the setup is that it doesn’t incorporate a DSP or other digital manipulation to achieve the individual sound signatures. Via a custom black box and IEM the hardware actually switches drivers, so what your hearing is the actual CIEM’s sound signature.

UE Black Box

All in all the experience is mind-blowing for someone who is interested in finding a specific sound.  Its also shows that UE isn’t only concerned with selling its top model, they want you to have an experience that is customized for you. I polled a few people who had taken the test what their top choice was. And while many still chose the flagship 18 Pro given the opportunity, not everyone did. There were a few votes for the more neutral-sounding Reference Monitors and even one for the middle-of-the-road 7 Pro.

The sum of everything here is a big step in the right direction, even if technology hasn’t quite caught up with demands. Heck, its a small niche market to begin with. But perhaps in this lifetime you may be able to walk up to a mall kiosk and get your ears scanned, then watch as your pair custom IEMs gets prepared automatically in front of you. It may be just a dream, but its all part of the vision.