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1/9/2012
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CES 2012: DIY, Custom-Fit Earbuds

Sonomax lets users make their own custom-fit headphones. The process is fast and affordable, but the quality is debatable.

CES 2012: Elegant Gadgets Abound
CES 2012: Elegant Gadgets Abound
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
I promised myself I wouldn't get tricked into looking at the latest earbuds at CES this year, but I accidentally stumbled across Sonomax, which makes Eers: custom fit, noise-cancelling headphones users make themselves. Custom fit headphones, like those from Etymotic, require an audiologist, time (weeks), and a bucket of cash. Eers require five minutes, and substantially less cash ($200 for the single-driver version, $300 for the one with tweeter and woofer).

The process, explained in the video embedded below, is fairly interesting. The actual headphones are delivered in a plastic fitting system (called Sonofit) packed with silicone, which gets mixed and pumped into a rubber cylinder that fits into your ear. The silicon never touches your ear, but you can feel it as it fills in the unique crevices of your ears. I sat through the process at CES: It's an odd, but not scary sensation that begins almost immediately, and while your ears start to fill up as the earbud membrane expands, sound is magically blocked away.

It is imperative to not move your jaw (so you can't talk--a particular challenge for me, but alas, I overcame it). The process only takes five minutes, and you can use the headphones right away.

[ Find out what to expect at CES. Read CES 2012 Preview: 16 Hot Gadgets. ]

I have two problems with Eers. The first is that the fitting system is big, bulky, and disposable. I wouldn't mind the "big" and "bulky" parts, but the system can be used only once. The plastic is recyclable, but that doesn't necessarily mean users will follow through on that. Making them re-useable could be useful if other friends or family members wanted to make custom-fit headphones as well (company CEO Nick Laperle said the company's industrial and military solutions are reloadable, so it's conceivable the consumer systems could be also). Concerns about health issues likely prevent the company from recycling the systems.

The second problem is the actual sound. I'm no audiophile, but I expected a little better. I've been listening to music through my custom-fit Eers for a couple of hours and the sound is a bit on the tinny side, although I witnessed some people at CES pledging otherwise. The fit, however, is snug and comfortable (much better than the standard iPhone earbuds for a workout, then), and so far it has done a great job of blocking external noise (to the annoyance of many of my colleagues). The flight home from CES will be a good test.

Note that Eers doesn't do some of the fancy active noise control that many noise-cancelling headsets perform -- it simply creates a physical seal against noise (a more passive form of noise control known as noise isolation).

Still, Sonomax was bombarded during a press event prior to the start of CES, demonstrating the appeal of inexpensive custom-fit headphones. The company got its start making technology for industrial markets, especially the mining community.

The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 25-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.

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