You probably don't think "top-tier audio" when you ponder the wonders of Colorado Springs, but sure enough, one of music's best kept secrets is headquartered there, camped out slyly in quite the nondescript building. A few months back, we were granted unprecedented access to Westone's lair (just a year and change after visiting Klipsch's HQ), and they even let a film crew in for good measure. The goal? To show you, the budding audiophile, exactly how a set of custom in-ear monitors are crafted, and what kind of work goes into creating one of the planet's most diminutive speaker arrangements. We've whipped up the entire experience there in the video above, but if you're looking for a more textual perspective, head on past the break.
Westone's certainly not the only headphone company that'll concoct a set specifically for your ears -- in fact, it doesn't even offer average consumers the option of strolling into its headquarters to get the process started unless you're a reputable artist. So, how does a simpleton go about getting a set of custom ES5s, or decide if it's even worth the coin? Glad you asked.
The vast majority of folks simply roll down to their local audiologist and get a set of impressions made. Easier said than done, but really, it's not nearly as bad as it probably sounds. Most docs charge between $50 and $100 to get it done, and it rarely takes over a half-hour from start to finish. As we found out, it's actually a fairly weird sensation -- prospective customers have a wad of silicon squeezed down their ear canal (after a stopper is situated at the far end, of course), and are then forced to remain motionless for two to three minutes
If all goes well, what'll emerge is a semi-hardened impression of your ear canal, with every nook and crannie perfectly replicated. From there, you'd have your doctor ship 'em off to your headphone company of choice. We'd recommend putting in an order ahead of time, of course, so they can immediately match up your ears to a to-be-built set of 'buds. That's where things get really interesting...
Building the monitors
It's hard to say if every single custom audio maker goes through the same painstaking process as Westone, but the sheer quantity of manual labor that goes into making a single set of ES5s -- as we found out -- is staggering. Once your molds hit the lab, a tedious workflow begins. They're shaved down, tossed into a cube of wax (that's where the negatives are created) and then preserved -- you know, in case you need a second pair after leaving 'em backstage in Reno. The negatives are then passed through a top secret lab, and after a fair bit of magic (read: we couldn't pry the specifics out of 'em), a couple of earbuds materialize. You're able to pick the color and cabling, and somewhere along the way, a number of drivers (five for the ES5) are popped into each monitor and wired up for action.
After you've got a workable product, round two begins. We witnessed no fewer than three folks take our monitors under the magnifying glass and shave off bits and pieces until the edges were perfectly smooth, and the fit was left perfect. Once the craftsman in charge deems 'em fit to move on, your gear is hooked up to a frequency analyzer in order to prove that it passes muster from an internals standpoint. We actually asked what happens to IEMs that fail this particular test, and we got a pretty straightforward answer: "they're ripped apart, rewired, and subjected to the entire assembly process once more."
After the hard work's complete, your cables of choice are strapped on, your serial numbers are etched in and a carrying case finds a new set of friends to hold. Oh, and then it's dropped off to FedEx, where you're encouraged to pray for safe travels.
It shouldn't come as any surprise, but a $900 set of in-ear monitors sound amazing. Better than a set of $350 non-customs? Definitely. But let's be honest -- at this point, you're firmly into fanatic territory, and if you aren't absolutely obsessed with portable audio, there's nothing we can say to convince you that there's value here. The real kicker, in our estimation, is the silencing capabilities that natively ship with a set of earbuds that were made for your ears only. Rather than relying on noise-canceling wizardry, customs seal out ambient noise by simply fitting perfectly. We used these to quiet our lawnmower, tune out a monster engine on a 757 and mute our bunkmates at band camp. Needless to say, it worked satisfactorily well in the two of those three situations that we actually engaged in.
Getting your own
Ready to splurge on yourself? We know, you deserve it. You'll find no shortage of high-end audio companies eager to trade you a set for a few of your hard-earned Benjamins, but we'd recommend turning to Westone, Ultimate Ears, JH Audio, Alien Ears and LiveWires to start. Your best bet is to settle on an exact model, place the order, and then make an audiologist appointment. Oh, and take a vacation day when those things finally arrive -- you'll need at least 24 hours to just to comprehend the aural subtleties that you're hearing for the first time.