High-Tech In-Ear Monitors Are Better Than Ever With 3D Custom Fitting and Printing

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ult3It is the rare professional musician–at least the ones who have achieved a reasonable level of success–that doesn’t sport a pair of in-ear monitors (IEMs) during a performance or a recording session. Previously, musicians on stage relied on monitors that looked like boxy speakers. The monitors were on the stage with the performers and directed toward them so they could hear a mix of audio sources. The monitors–called “wedges” or “floor monitors”–could be sophisticated and ultimately help the performers do what they do best. If, however, they were of lesser quality or the music was particularly loud, the monitors could be more distracting than helpful.

This was the case with the heavy metal band, Van Halen. Apparently the monitors were causing hearing loss in band member, Alex Van Halen, so Jerry Harvey, the group’s monitor engineer, created what’s referred to as a “passive crossover” (don’t require power) in-ear monitor (IEM). Harvey kept refining the IEMs and they caught on. Eventually, the company, Ultimate Ears, took up the audio gauntlet and began making custom IEMs.

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Ultimate Ears has sold more than 50,000 IEMs and their customer base has expanded from primarily musicians to devoted audiophiles. Now Ultimate Ears Pro, the company is engaging 3D technology to improve their process for producing custom-made in-ear monitors. UE Pro’s Director of Sales, Mike Dias, relates how the company justified the transition from traditional manufacturing of the made-to-fit earpieces, to 3D imaging, design, and printing. He explained that the technological leap wasn’t about saving money. In fact, Dias noted, “Bringing this process in required a tremendous investment of capital, time, resources and training.”

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Acquiring the necessary software, equipment, and know-how was not an inexpensive endeavor. However, what Ultimate Ears Pro can now provide are in-ear monitors that fit their wearers even better than the ones they manufactured prior to introducing 3D technology. The big sell where 3D technology is concerned for UE Pro was not a quicker turnaround time for customers–that was cut by almost 50%–it was the capacity for improving the quality of the fit (and thus the overall sound) by taking customization to the digital realm. Now, the artisans at UE Pro can tweak their digital models rather than making refinements in the silicone pieces used previously.

Much of the initial customization process has remained the same. The customer still has to see an audiologist for the fitting. Each of the user’s ears is injected with a silicone material, which hardens and eventually becomes a solid mold. Afterwards, a precision, 3D scanner is used to produce CAD files of each mold. Digital artists tailor each model so that it fits and seals flawlessly into the user’s ears and, finally, the models are sent to the 3D printer.

After the shells are printed, they are checked for quality and then the electronics are embedded and they are fixed with face plates. Turnaround is approximately 7 to 10 ult2business days from the day UE Pro receives the digital file from the audiologist. Ultimate Ears Pro actually began using 3D technology over a year-and-a-half ago, but ever conscious of quality, they waited for feedback from customers before making their most recent innovations public and more broadly available. According to Dias, reviews have been excellent. Some customers have insisted that the sound quality is even better than before.

UE Pro’s IEMs are not for the struggling, shoestring-budget musician or the middle-of-the-road audiophile. Dual driver sets range from about $400 to $1,350. They also require something of a time commitment as the user still must see the audiologist for the initial scans. However, Dias says that one improvement Ultimate Ears Pro hopes for is to place 3D scanners in local music stores so users can get their scans and place their orders on the spot, thus bypassing the audiologist and probably cutting the cost a bit as well.

Discuss this story in the Ultimate Ears Pro forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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