I Hate My Earbuds. So I Searched for Something Better.

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July 21 2014 9:30 AM

The Horror of Earbuds

They fit wrong, they fall out, they get covered in gross earwax—can’t someone design something better?

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What if you don’t want to spend the time and money to go to an audiologist? Or just don’t want anything inside your ear canals, period? Are there other solutions?

You could replicate a custom fitting by doing it yourself, at home. A product called Decibullz lets you melt malleable blobs of plastic in a cup of warm water, cram them into your conchas, and then wait for them to set and firm. Voila: personally fitted earphones for only $59. The problem is, Decibullz employ a standard silicone bud for the part of the device that actually enters your canal. The blobby stuff just molds itself to the outside bowl of the ear, not to the inside tunnel—which eliminates some external noise but doesn’t solve any problems for narrow-canaled humans.

Instead, you could ignore your ears altogether by conducting noise through your skull. This is the approach taken by Aftershokz Bluez 2 ($99.95), which uses a headband that loops over your pinnae and rests on the outside edges of your cheekbones. The sound vibrates into your head, and the device even buzzes against your face during the most slamming of beats. (Not unpleasantly. It’s more a tickle, which creates a cool sort of physical connection to the music.) I was stunned by how clearly sound came through in this manner, and I loved that there was nothing blocking my canals. But a ton of sound leaks out. People sitting near me in the Slate office could clearly hear my music. Also, the bulky over-the-ear headband is less than ideal if you have long hair (which can get tangled) or wear eyeglasses (which can get in the way).

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Maybe we should trust audiologists after all? EarHero ($149) was designed by a husband and wife clinical audiology team from Boise, Idaho. They wanted earphones that let listeners “maintain complete awareness of their environment.” The original target market was skiers, who craved musical accompaniment paired with situational alertness as they sped down slopes. But it turns out the product has been a hit with security personnel who use it for radio communication: EarHero claims that more than 200 Secret Service agents wear these earphones, attracted by their ability to let in other noise, their comfortable fit over long workdays, and their near invisibility to observers. But would they suit my purposes? They are indeed super comfy. They stay in place by means of a “concha lock”—a little flexible tail that springs against your ear bowl and braces the earbud in place. Perfect for my physiognomy. You almost forget you’re wearing them, as they are extremely small and light and barely touch your ear at all. But the sound is tinny. Terrific for listening to yakking—a Slate podcast, or a baseball game, or tactical chatter as you protect a Saudi royal—but not so good if you want to jam out to top 40 hits.

Yurbuds ($37.46) offer a printed guarantee they “will not fall out.” I believe them. Their plastic pods screw into the bowl of your ear—like an Apple earbud that locks in place. No silicone tip to invade your canal, so we’re good there. But the screw-in piece of plastic began to grate against my concha. The fit was way too tight. I felt like someone was trying to expand the bowl of my ear wider than it wanted to go. What a relief to pluck these out. I also found their audio quality way below par.

For me, the winner is any Bose line of earphones with “StayHear tips.” These tips are small, silicone wedges in the shape of shark fins that tuck under the eaves of your pinnae into the top edge of your concha to hold the earbuds in place. The mouth of the earbud itself extends down into your canal far enough that the music emits closer to your eardrum, which means you get a clearer sound even at lower volumes. But there’s still no seal necessary, which means there’s no discomfort and no diminished awareness of the world around you. These earbuds were a revelation for me. They have the comfort and stability of the EarHero, with far superior audio quality. Sadly, their price tag might be a dealbreaker: The Bose headphones with StayHear tips start at about $100—which is a hefty price to pay for something that, if past evidence is a guide, I’ll almost surely lose within the next six months.

I’d love to find a much cheaper version of StayHear tips, but I couldn’t find any similar products. (If you know of one, feel free to tell me in the comments.) Perhaps a better solution is on the horizon: A brand called Normal will let you take photos of your ears, send them in (the photos, not the ears), and receive back custom, 3-D printed earbuds that promise to fit you precisely. Sounds difficult to pull off, and I'll believe when I see it. Or hear it. Anyway, the company doesn’t start sending out products until next month. In the meantime, I’ll be that guy standing next to you on the subway in Apple buds, cranking early-’90s hip hop into the air for all around me to enjoy.