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?

human ear.
The prevailing earbud design involves silicone bulbs that jam deep into your ear canals.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Images via Shutterstock, Creative Commons

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about products that penetrate our bodily orifices. No, not those. Or those. It’s okay that you thought of those. I'm not judging. But what I have in mind is a device that people use every day, in public, for all to see.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

The modern earphone comes in two main types—both of which are deeply flawed. The prevailing earbud design (the kind often included with the purchase of, say, an Android device) involves silicone bulbs that jam deep into your ear canals, creating a seal. Some people have no problem with these small invaders. But many others among us—myself included—find them intrusive. Painful, even.

My informal survey of friends and colleagues found a passel of folks who are convinced that their ear canals must be abnormal, since those silicone buds simply don’t fit. The buds pop out while jogging, for instance. Or when you yawn too wide. Or, worse, they stay in but create more discomfort with each passing minute—until you joyously rip them from your ears like a splinter from the pad of your thumb. Also: This may be one of the more embarrassing admissions I’ve made in print, but … sometimes when I take this type of bud out I find it is coated in a thin film of earwax. Gross! Sorry!

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Apple offers an alternative, as its earbuds (the ones that come packaged with iPhones) obviate these issues by resting demurely in the concha of the ear, making no attempt to rudely invite themselves into your canal. This style works so-so for me. But I do find I need to crank the volume on my iPhone when I listen to music in loud environments, like on the subway. And even then I’m not pleased with the result. Their distance from my ear canals and their lack of a seal means the Apple earbuds leak out a lot of music into the air and leak in a lot of noise from squealing subway car brakes. Friends report similar dissatisfaction, adding that even in quiet contexts the Apple buds offer only mediocre audio quality, and that they often slip out of the ears entirely during sweaty workouts.

Can’t live with ’em inside canals, can’t live with ’em outside. Sure, those big, over-the-ear headphones solve many of these problems, but they’re too unwieldy to tuck into your jeans pocket when you’re on the go. I want an earbud alternative that works for everyone. One that won’t jam too tight into my canals yet will stay in place, be comfortable, and provide good sound. Surely it’s out there?

As the first step in my search, I consulted with a pro. Brian Fligor is the chief audiologist for the 3-D ear-scanning firm Lantos Technologies. He used to run diagnostic audiology at Boston Children’s Hospital and taught at Harvard Medical School. According to Fligor, my delicate, narrow ear canals are nothing to be ashamed of. “Everyone's ear canal is as unique to you as your fingerprints,” he says, “and even within one person your ear canals are not symmetric. I do informal polls, and about a quarter of the people I talk to say earphones don't fit them.”

As long as I had Fligor on the phone, I asked him about my own weird ear canal phenomenon. When I use earbuds that create a seal, I can almost “hear” my footsteps in my head as I walk. The heavier the step, the louder I hear it, and the music I’m listening to completely cuts out each time my foot hits the ground. Fligor assured me this is normal. It’s called the “occlusion effect.” Vibration travels up through your body and, because the ear canal seal for me is shallow when I try to wear buds, there’s a big open airspace between the bud and my eardrum in which those vibrations rattle around. Phew. I’m not a freak. But I still can’t walk and listen to music at the same time.

Fligor favors an ear canal seal if you can hack it. The seal makes for the finest audio quality and the least corrupting outside noise, and it allows you to keep volume levels lower. For those who can’t tolerate off-the-rack silicone buds, he recommends visiting an audiologist to buy a custom-fitted “ear sleeve” that will snuggle gently into the precise contours of your canal.

Well, an audiologist would say that, wouldn’t he? I don’t at all doubt Fligor’s expertise or good faith. But even he admits two flaws with the custom solution. First: It’s expensive. A fitting might cost $100–$150 to get the sleeve, on top of the price of the earphones themselves. And on the other end, the sky’s the limit. Fligor told me his own custom-fitted “in-ear monitors” provide “outrageous” fidelity, but cost $750. (His counterpoint: You spend hundreds of dollars on your music player and on buying songs. You won’t spend more than 20 bucks on the things that actually produce the sound?)

And second: Custom solutions can be too good. The better the seal, the less you can hear from the world outside. That furiously honking oncoming taxi, for instance. “I tell people not to jog at night alone,” Fligor confesses, “because they won’t hear the mugger.” (His counterpoint: Some noise-canceling in-ear buds purposely allow in a small amount of external noise to remedy this problem.)