The Custom IEM Story


During the last few months I have been thinking of doing a comparative Custom IEM review as more people seem to be investing in customs and have been asking us to do some product line-up reviews “Headfonia-Style“. I soon found out this wouldn’t be easy, not to say impossible, at all… Lots of the companies I contacted didn’t even bother replying and others just stated not being interested.

I decided to mail a close by company to see if they would be interested in doing a review with us and I also proposed to do a “How it’s made” like on Discovery Channel. Pretty soon after having sent the email I got a reply from the CEO himself asking me to give him a call a few days later as he was at the Frankfurter Muzikmesse in Germany at that time.

With my hopes up high, I picked up the phone and while I was expecting much, the outcome wasn’t quite as I had hoped but I had an interesting talk with a real “insider” and I would like to share the basics here, as I liked his honest opinion and view of the market.

First of all, if you buy their brand in the EU there is a big chance they will have been made by that specific company. For the last decades they have been on top of the market for everything concerning hearing protection, communication and audio. My custom made ear protection is also made by these guys and I couldn’t be happier with it.

After a short introduction about Headfonia and a reminder why I was contacting him we started talking and even though it was obvious pretty quick that he couldn’t help me with what I was looking for (a custom iem line-up review) he shared some interesting things:

– They get requests each day for test samples by all kind of people and companies. One of the problems is that these are customs and that after they have been made, the finished monitor is useless to someone else. It’s quite the investment to do and afterall, there are already too many reviews around. He admitted preferring reviews of one product by several people and not just one person’s view, and with customs well that just ain’t possible.

– He told me (I’m not sure if it happened at last weeks expo) that their secured customs at expos got stolen. People just cut of the earpieces from the cable to get hold of the monitors. Who would do such a thing? A consumer who doesn’t want to pay for a unit or maybe one of the competitors who wants to get a closer look at the product of one of the original iem makers? It’s hard to tell, but the fact is that competition in the business is tough with a growing market in which everyone wants a piece (preferable without doing all the research and development themselves?)

– That was also one of the reasons for not doing a detailed “How it’s made” documentary. They don’t really want to share how exactly they make their products, it would only make it easier for the copycats and afterall the general how it’s done is pretty much known by everyone by now (just check Google). They have been in the market for years and have invested a lot of money in development and research of the speakers and the materials to use. Most important is the positioning of the speakers, and sharing that in detail with colleagues doesn’t seem like a good idea. He believes their products are still the best, using a different fabric to create a hard shell with a soft tip for the ear canal. Other companies use different materials and in his opinion these materials don’t allow the best positioning of the speakers, and they make it almost impossible to do repairs in case of defect with some brands.

– While they have been working intensively with the speaker companies from scratch to build good tuned speakers, the trend now is that those speaker builders are also making their know-how and speakers available to other companies.  I can very well understand from their business point of view but they do have a point about it being their money, etc.

– Customs are for artists, not audiophiles. This one kind of surprised me. Of course they are right, a custom monitor is made and developed to be used by an artist on stage. The tuning needed for that purpose is completely different from the tuning needed for listening in normal circumstances. But seeing that more and more audiophiles want customs, why not make one specially tuned for them?

In my opinion it is clear they are very much aware of the competition and they are somehow upset of other companies profiting of their money and work, which I think is justified. New brands are popping up and they are selling custom monitors at a much lower price. When we asked another very famous iem producer why I should buy their monitors and not one of the competitors units at half the price, they told me this: I know that our products are tied properly and are on time and phase which is essential for top end extension to 16k. I really doubt the xxxxx units are (name edited out) . Also their triple driver is a knock off of my 7 that I designed in ’98. I always go with the innovator vs. a knock off myself.

Finally it is up to each customer to decide how much money he wants to spend and if he wants the real deal or a so called “knock off”. My quest for an interested iem maker willing to do a review on the other hand, still continues…


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Lieven is living in Europe and he's the leader of the gang. Coming from a musical family he's always been interested in good sound. Unlike his family members the only musical instruments he plays are amps and DACs. He loves playing with old tubes and discovering new products while staying faithful to the good old Sennheiser HD650.

  • Jeff Kong

    Interesting project going on there. Thanks Lieven!

    • L.

      Yeah, we’ll see where it goes. Glad you liked the read. For once it’s not a review, so not sure what readers will think

  • This is really interesting, because the most affordable customs I could think of at the moment are 1964 Ears with the Triple Armature model at $400 and the head-fi community definitely has much praise for them

  • Another great write-up. I for one put my money into innovators because they put it into research. And research may get me a more awesome product to enjoy.

    • L.

       Thanks man, glad you liked it.

  • Excellent write up. I own a pair of custom in-ears from Ultimate ears. I paid around $800-$1000 for them (I am a vocalist) and they are honestly the best personal monitors that I have ever used. I use them when I am not only singing but when mixing live tracks as well. They are flat. Whatever is EQ’d on the console that controls the sends to my ears is exactly what I hear. I however do not use them for everyday music use as most music that is not mixed well sounds like well…garbage. I think that those who are looking for an accurate reproduction of what the engineer and artist intended will love these. It’s just the price. I had to save for a bit as I am a young recently married broke audiophile on a non-existing budget. 🙂

    Would I recommend them? Absolutely. Best in-ear monitors (can’t call them headphones) that I have ever used.

    • L.

       Why specifically did you choose UE, if I may ask? And thanks 🙂

      • Sorry for the WAY too late response, just realized how this system works now. I chose UE mainly because of how warm bodied they sound while performing live. The low end tonality is fantastic especially when listening to a finely tuned kick drum and a good bass player. My only issue with them is the sibilance when I hit a high note or when the drummer sits on his cymbals. I am mixing forty eight channels to my personal mix but that is no excuse for such sharp high end.

        • L.

          Thanks for the reply. what’s 9 months, right? 😉

  • kongmw

    Very insightful story! That is great investigative journalism! Keep it up. I really enjoyed it.

    • L.

       Thanks man, we might start doing more of these non review posts but of course we’ll keep you all updated on that

  • sygyzy

    I am rarely on head-fi but I am wondering if anything you said reads as a surprise to someone even lightly familiar with IEM’s? I certainly appreciate the insight but most of this stuff seems like it’s pretty common knowledge to even the casual observer, no?

    • Lieven_V

      I never said it was grounbreaking news. Just a story to share, no one has to read it if they know or think to know the story 😉

      • sygyzy

        Again, no offense meant. Thanks for reporting.

  • Great read, Lieven. I think you guys should do more of these casual, story like posts more often. They’re quit an enjoyable read if  do say so myself. 🙂

  • Nice write-up! thinking about customs myself to upgrade from the 535s but not sure. Will audition some JHs at Jaben this month to get a sense of the sound

  • I have the cheap ($70) Etymotic MC-5 IEMs that I use at the gym because with the triple-flange tips and deep insertion, they offer 42db of noise isolation from what is happening on the very LOUD gym floor. I have been intrigued that Etymotic has a program to let you have custom ear molds made for them or $100, and wondered how much sonic difference that might make. Maybe something along those lines would make for an easy A/B comparison of IEMs and customized IEMs.

    • I have tried something similar to that, a custom molded tips though not by Etymotics. I went to a local hearing-aid center and asked them to make me something like the Etymotics custom molded tips. Well at the end I still like using the stock triple flange better (it was for my Etymotics ER4), and still it doesn’t change the sound of the ER4 too much.

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