Fox Business News 2008

Ultimate Earphones Pack An Ultimate Price Tag

From the subway to the treadmill and most places in between, the earbud has become nearly ubiquitous since the inception of the iPod. Not all in-ear headphonescome packaged free with your MP3 player, though.

Ultimate Ears has taken in-ear headphones a step further with their UE 10 and 11 models, which retail for roughly $1000 and come with the warning, “for serious audiophiles.” 

But just how much better can these pricey earbuds be?

“The free earbuds are universally kind of bad for two reasons,” said’s Editor-at-Large Brian Cooley. Earbuds are “usually round or some symmetric shape. But if you look in your ear canal, there’s nothing symmetrical about it.”

Not to mention the sound quality is often lackluster. “Most people don’t know what correct music really sounds like and don’t really care,” he said. But, “for the critical listener, it’s important.”

The Ultimate Ears solution is to send customers off to a certified audiologist for a mold of their ear canals. Dr. Dominick Servedio, a New York-based audiologist chosen to represent the company in his region, says the process generally costs an extra $50 and the silicone mold takes only five minutes to set before they can be sent along to the Ultimate Ears laboratory. The result is a pair of completely personalized headphones that won’t fall out or become uncomfortable with extended use.

Add Studs to Your Buds

By making a custom model of each user’s ear, the Ultimate Ears can cancel background noise out mechanically, simply by not allowing sound to make its way around them. With an industry-leading 26 decibels of noise cancellation, Dr. Servedio calls these models “the gold standard for ear monitors, and what everyone else in the industry is trying to attain.”

There is also concern over hearing loss and tinnitus that comes with extended use of earbuds, but with products like the Ultimate Ears, said Servedio, “it is actually the opposite.” With the superior sound quality, “you tend not to make them as loud. It attenuates background noise to a point where music is not competing with the sound around you.”

 While the UE 11model ($1150) is geared more toward stage performances, the UE 10 ($900) allows customers to add their own artwork to the casing, and is marketed toward music enthusiasts. But in a flagging economy, just how many of them are willing to drop nearly a thousand bucks to replace something that probably came packaged with their MP3 players?  

Acording to Dr. Servedio, roughly 60% of the patients he fits for ear molds are indeed recreational listeners. Mindy Harvey, a founding partner of Ultimate Ears, added, “Our popularity doesn’t follow general market trends simply because our custom-fit earphones are so specialized.” 

Some over-the-ear headphones, like the Bose QuietComfort 3, also get high marks from CNet editors for their noise cancellation, but according to Cooley, Ultimate Ear’s ability to pack “spectacular” sound into such a tiny package means in-ear products will continue to be innovative. 

“In the heyday of stereo in the 1970’s, people would have the biggest headphones for the biggest price. Enormous over-the-ear headphones came to signify great audio,” Cooley said. “But today, you have to think small. Just like the device, the iPod, the tops of this field have gotten smaller.”