Photos: Getting fitted for Etymotic hf3 earphones with ACS custom fit buds
All earphones, no matter how advanced or expensive, share a common flaw -- none are actually designed to fit your ears. That's why we followed Formula 1 drivers, the world's best musicians and Jedward and got ourselves fitted for a set of custom fit earphones which, because they're moulded to the contours of your individual ears, promise significantly improved sound quality.
To join this elite club yourself, you'll need to buy a set Etymotic hf3 Customs from the Apple store (£129). Inside the box, you'll find a bunch of rubbish one-size-fits-most earbuds, which you may discard. Also in the box, you'll find a voucher redeemable from a company known as Advanced Communication Solutions (ACS). For an extra £70, these guys will create custom ear moulds which they believe will increase your listening comfort and pleasure.
Once you've forked over your cash, you'll need to visit an ACS registered audiologist, such as Boots the chemist, who'll check your lugs are free from infection, wax and woodland creatures. If it's all good in there, the ear person will insert a cotton bud with a string on the end. This will serve as a plug to stop the two-part silicone, applied next, from accidentally oozing into your brain.
The silicone insertion process isn't uncomfortable, but you'll feel as if you're being submerged in water as everything goes deathly silent. After a few minutes, the audiologist will remove the silicone, which will have moulded itself around every nook and cranny inside our ears, providing the perfect base for creating a set of noise isolating earphones.
Next, the audiologist will send your impressions off to ACS, who'll transform your waxy impressions into fully fledged earbuds in a colour of your choice (solids, swirls, glittery finishes and laser-etched lettering are all possible). Within 21 days, you'll have your custom tips back and the fun can begin.
In our opinion, the moulds are absolutely brilliant. They can be tricky to fit, but get it right (use the little tube of comfort cream, or ear lube, as we call it, or a bit of spit, Michael Schumacher style) and they'll fit so comfortably, you'll forget you're wearing them. Be careful, though -- their sound isolation properties are pretty immense. We found ourselves regularly walking into oncoming traffic because we simply couldn't hear any cars around us.
The sound quality of the hf3 earphones, to which the custom ACS earbuds are attached, is extremely good -- depending on what you're listening to. The hf3s seem best suited to vocal or instrumental tracks geared towards mid-range or high frequencies. Seal's voice in Love Divine sounds truly awesome, and we could almost swear Micky Bubbles was in the room when we cranked up his rendition of Georgia on my Mind.
Sadly, the hf3s usually fail to deliver when asked to drop some serious bass, even with the extra isolation provided by the ACS tips. Fling on some Many Men (Wish Death) by 50 Cent, and the sound is skewed towards the mid and high frequencies in a way we're sure rap fans won't really appreciate. The situation improves in cases where songs have been mixed specifically to highlight low frequencies (the hfs3s draw superb bass, for example, from Bonobo and Andreya Triana's Eyesdown) but if you like a bit of 'boom' to accompany your 'bap', these probably aren't the 'phones for you.
Ultimately then, the ACS custom fit buds and hf3 earphones are an excellent combination. They're hugely comfortable, sound mostly excellent and block nearly all the sound from the outside world, allowing you to enjoy your music as MC Hammer intended, without having to crank the volume levels up to dangerous levels. They're probably not the best option for anyone who enjoys ludicrous amounts of bass in their music, but for everyone else, they're are a winning combination.
First, your ECS audiologist has a good old poke inside your lugs to make sure they're not infected or clogged up with wax, termites and other gunk.
If it's all good in there, he'll then place a cotton bud with a string on the end. This will serve as a plug to stop the silicone, applied next, from oozing into your brain.
Here comes the silicone. It's all oozy to begin with, but hardens in just a few minutes.
Once it's hardened and contoured itself to the individual nooks and crannies of your ear, it's time to pull the entire plug out by the string.
There it is -- a perfect imprint of Rory's ear. Tasty.
Next, your moulds are sent away to ACS to be turned into earphone tips. Before that, you can choose what colour, or combination of colours you want your tips to be.
When your tips return, they'll look a bit like this. Or at least they will, if you have Rory's freakish ears. Jam them onto the end of your Etymotic hf3s, lube 'em up, jam 'em into your ears and you're good to go.
Here's all the guff required to make the custom moulds.