Snugs uses 3D scanners to build you bespoke earbuds

Whether in-ear 'phones cost £10 or £1000, nearly all come with the same three sizes of rubbery buds you use to wedge them in your trophy handles. UK company Snugs, however, offers a more personalised approach, measuring the unique curves of your ear canals to tailor bespoke buds that promise the best in noise isolation and comfort. Before, a Snugs fitting would entail earfuls of fast-setting paste that cured into a mold the company could use to create custom buds. Now, though, Snugs is making the jump from physical models to 3D scanning technology, in order to make the whole process quicker, better and more accessible to you and me.

Custom earphones are nothing new. In fact, many top musicians and other professionals use bespoke in-ear monitors that are created the Snugs way; or rather, the old Snugs way. The company was established specifically to bring this level of personalisation to consumer earphones, which it's been doing for around two years now. It's a niche, expensive and luxury product, but beyond that, having silicone paste pumped deep into your ears isn't everyone's cup of tea. The process is invasive, labourious and simply not possible if you suffer/have suffered from various ear-related ailments. Recently developed 3D ear scanners, which use lasers to map out the twists and turns of your ear canals, aren't burdened with the same issues.

The scanning process still has an almost clinical feel to it, but even the more squeamish of customers needn't be too apprehensive. Constructing a digital model of an ear takes roughly five minutes, and only a small portion of that involves a shallow, perfectly comfortable probing. Being less invasive isn't the only benefit of the 3D scanning method, though. Custom earbuds produced off the back of a 3D scan are basically the best they can be, since there's a much lower chance of minor imperfections creeping in. Between making a physical impression, shipping it off to get digitised and producing bespoke buds from the scan, each step has a small but inherent margin for error (kind of like photocopying a document over and over). Jumping straight to the scanning stage simply makes for less steps and thus, a more accurate image.

Removing the physical mold from the process also means turnaround times can be improved. What used to take roughly a week now takes only three or four days, since a 3D scan can be sent to a manufacturing partner instantly. Also, should you want another set in the future but are based in Asia by that point, for example, Snugs can shoot the archived scan over to its ally in that region, rather than having to mail the original models. Eventually, Snugs expects to be able to go from scan to completed product overnight, but for that to happen, it needs to reduce its reliance on out-sourcing production.

Currently, scans are sent to third-parties that then make the bespoke buds on industrial silicone 3D printers, before hand-finishing and shipping them out. For now, that makes sense, but before the end of next year, Snugs wants to move production in-house. The hope is that with the simpler, less invasive 3D scanner method, an increase in interest and orders will allow the company to do this. The relatively small outfit is under no illusion that the custom earbuds market is going to explode overnight, though, which is why it's only piloting the use of 3D scanners in London right now. Should business pick up, the plan is to roll them out to the rest of the UK, and perhaps beyond.

It's something of a chicken and egg scenario. The fact is, Snugs are really expensive. Book an appointment at a local scanning centre, and a set of buds will set you back £159. Want a VIP house call? That'll be £209. And remember, we're talking purely about silicone earbuds here -- you still need a set of in-ears to pair them with (though Snugs do offer a few bundles). In time, the company expects to cut the price of its service significantly, but that'll only be possible if it can take over the responsibility of actually making the things.

The next step is to open a bricks-and-mortar store in London, which Snugs is planning to do later this year. With a silicone 3D printer in the backroom, the company wants to create a one-stop shop where scanning, manufacturing and finishing is all done under the one roof. The end goal, Snugs tells us, is to have its own locations and a presence within other stores, particularly those that deal in mobile phones and the like. Using 3D scanners instead of silicone molds makes this vision way more achievable, and having stores equipped to deal with walk-ins would greatly improve consumer accessibility. Who knows? One day we could all be walking around with our own unique set of buds, but for now at least, they're reserved for audiophiles with a wedge of spare cash to play with.