Building Ultimate Ears Custom In Ear Monitors Start to Finish

Last month, I visited Ultimate Ears Pro in Irvine, California for a tour of their office/facility, and to finally try custom in-ears for the first time.

The customs that I ended up receiving (full disclosure: as a complimentary press sample) were the UE Pro Reference Remastered studio reference monitors ($999). They were developed in collaboration with Capitol Studios and house three balanced armature drivers.


While getting my ears digitally scanned, I learned that I am part of the 10% of the population troubled by earwax. I use Deborox and hydrogen peroxide on myself bi-monthly (as recommended by a doctor), and sometimes even have to ask my general practitioner or audiologist to clean my ears out when it gets exceptionally bad. When Ann Mundell-Noel, the audiologist in this video, looked in my ear canals, she reported that the wax in my ears wasn’t shaped like a ball and did not resemble "true wax", but rather seemed like a "scuffing" lining the inner walls of my ears. My eardrums were slightly pinker than usual and she suspected that the wax had been keeping excess moisture from getting out, much like a moist rag. Basically, I might’ve been on the brink of getting a nasty ear infection! Very dangerous for an audiophile. Ann even mentioned that she had had patients who were allergic to silicone (even medical grade silicone) – a very difficult thing to diagnose. At the time, I was traveling a lot and exclusively listening to (not custom) in-ear monitors with various silicone and comply foam tips. While I had always noticed occasional discomfort after long listening periods, I never once thought it could be because of my wax issue, or because the silicone might be irritating my ears.

All this to say:

  1. If you have not recently seen an audiologist, I highly recommend that you do. It’s always a great idea to get your ears cleaned, learn about your ears, and monitor your hearing. Especially if you’re an audiophile.
  2. If you’ve been feeling minor discomfort when wearing universal fit, silicone tipped in-ears, then custom truly is the way to go.

I was always aware that customs created a better seal and were more comfortable for longer listening periods, but it had never occurred to me that they would also be better for the health of my ears. With limited personal experience with UE Pro prior to my visit, I had initially reached out to them for two main reasons: 1) proximity to where I was staying, and 2) Kanye and Skrillex are on their artist list. But after going through the entire process firsthand and spending a solid month listening to the UE Pro Reference Remastered, I’m left feeling thoroughly impressed. My thanks to Philippe Depallens, Jen Colacchio, audiologist Ann Mundell-Noel, and the entire UE Pro team for their hospitality.

Here's the video of my visit. Keep your ears clean!

Click to view on YouTube.

Ultimate Ears

Anton D's picture


When they were setting up your fitting, did they mention jaw closed, relaxed, partly open, or any certain position for your jaw?

When listening, have you noticed whether the sound changes with swallowing or moving your jaw?

This was discussed a little by Jim Austin back in 2011, but I was interested in their/your approach.

tony's picture

I've been in Manufacturing Plants over my entire life.

This place is nice, nicer than I expected.

It's like a German Instrument Plant or like Sennhieser.

I'd have confidence in ordering from UE and might just order one of their two driver units.

Thanks for taking us along.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I noticed the reflection of your Camera ( in the Front Door Glass of UE ), you need a JOBY GorillaPod Focus ( $150 ) for doing this kind of Video Work! See Casey Neistat's use and explanation. The $50 JOBY SLR GorillaPod will also work but is not as strong or reliable. Can't leave home without one!!!

MRC01's picture

I got a pair of musicians earplugs many years ago. Audiologist filling my ears with goo, wait for it to set, then pull it out and send it to a lab to get perfect-fitting medical silicone earplugs that go just up to the eardrum. Etymotic filters snap on to the outer part, giving 9, 15 or 25 dB of attenuation with flat frequency response. Very similar to this fitting process.

Over time, the shape of the ear canal gradually changes over the years, even for adults who are no longer growing. Thus the plugs will gradually lose their perfect fit. Does the lab give any estimate of how many years on average the fit lasts before needing to be re-done?

John Grandberg's picture

I imagine it's different for each person, but personally mine all hold up just fine in the long term. Even weight gain/weight loss hasn't done anything to mess up the fit, which really surprises me.

This morning, the oldest CIEM I can quickly find in my collection is about 8 years old. And guess what? It fits just as well as the day I first got it. I will have to track down the older sets and see if that makes a difference.

ednaz's picture

I happen to have a set. My ear canals are extremely tall, and almost rectangular. With regular IEMs I could either put IEMs in to get a good seal, so the best sound and isolation, or to be comfortable for more than an hour with not great sound and isolation. Etymotic's custom ear tip promotion got me to try a set and it was an astonishing improvement. Completely transformed the way they sounded, and suddenly I could wear them for hours, comfortably.

So while I have a few sets of regular IEMs - generally cheap ones that if they get wet or lost, it's no big deal - that I wear to the gym or just to listen to a different sound, I've stuck with CIEMs for in-ear listening.

As to changes in the ear canal - mine seem to change during allergy season. My ACS silicone CIEMs don't fit well during allergy season - uncomfortable, and the deep tips cause drop outs due to my ear canals being inflamed (I guess that's what it'd be called.) My other CIEMs don't go in as deeply and I don't have problems season to season. I've had my Ety custom tips for over 12 years now and they still fit great, and my Westone CIEMs from 8 years ago are also a great fit still. So FWIW, my ear canals haven't changed in a long time, other than during allergy season.

John Grandberg's picture

I'm right there with you on this. Universal IEMs are great.... for about 30 minutes. After that it's pure irritation. Comply tips are better but even then I only get maybe an hour before the pain kicks in.

I also have mild changes due to allergies. It's not enough to ruin the fit of a CIEM, but definitely noticeable.

MRC01's picture

My deep custom fit musicians earplugs fit and sealed perfectly for the first 8-10 years. Now after 15 years they still fit but the seal is slightly off so they are not as effective. There is no deterioration of the silicone or shape, just seems that my ear canals have changed shape a little over the past 15 years.

If they were IEMs instead of filters, by now I'd be getting loose fit sound artifacts like loss of bass response. Part of me says 10+ years is a long time, it's probably moot since few people use the same IEMs for 10+ years. But then I've had a pair of HD-580s for the past 18 years. Despite several earpad, headband pad and cable replacements they still work great, sound like new.

I'm curious what audiologists think is the normal expected life of a fitting. Does gradual change and eventual mis-fit happen faster or slower for some people?

John Grandberg's picture

A 15 year situation like yours is very rare, since the CIEM market really didn't start taking off until roughly 9-10 years ago. That's when the original LiveWires and FreQ products offered more attainable prices than the expensive UE, Sensaphonics, and Westone models of that era (which were primarily marketed towards musicians).

Those companies folded before getting very big, but led to more newcomers like 1964 Ears and Unique Melody which became pretty popular. That ultimately drove Westone and UE to offer somewhat more affordable offerings in order to compete in that space. By then a ton of new companies started popping up, making CIEMs fairly wide spread among enthusiasts.

All this to say that most people probably purchased their CIEM within the last 5 years or so. Maybe 7 or 8 years for early adopters. So there just isn't a lot of data about fit gong back further than that.

In any case, reshelling is always an option if the fit gets bad enough. The cost is vaguely equivalent to what you'd pay for upkeep on your HD580 over the span of a few decades - perhaps a bit more, but not by much.

castleofargh's picture

the amazing adventures of super shy girl vs gentle aliens trying to probe her ears. will she be able to fend them off and run away? learn more by watching the video. ^_^

Bern L.'s picture

From the article..."While getting my ears digitally scanned, I learned that I am part of the 10% of the population troubled by earwax."

Maybe time to give those Z1R's another shot?

tinyaudio's picture

different reviewer.

jpelg's picture

This video is awesome! I am quite impressed with the UE facility, their process, & their employees. Clean, state-of-the-art technologies, etc. all look top notch. Kudos to Jana for being brave enough to share her raw experience getting fitted for her IEMs, including her earwax challenges. Thanks.

bluejimbop's picture

Some of us are tryin' to eat out here.

ednaz's picture

I remember a friend of mine once educating me at great length (against my will, but we were in a car on a long trip) about how because he was Asian, his earwax was different than mine, and all the implications of that. Dry versus wet as I remember. More generally, earwax problems are special cases rather than the norm. My mother in law needed her ears cleaned professionally twice a year. Mine - never. Genes - what amazing things.

Looking forward to your opinions on your new CIEMs. I have one set that developed serious electronics problems after 8 years, and have been thinking about the UE Pro Reference as the replacement, since I'm a flat signature kind of guy.

amyanderson's picture

I was given a couple of musicians earplugs a few years in the past. Audiologist filling my ears with goo, wait for it to set, then pull it out and send it to a fused silica lab to get ideal-becoming scientific silicone earplugs that go just as much as the eardrum. Etymotic filters snap onto the outer component, giving nine, 15 or 25 dB of attenuation with flat frequency response. Very just like this fitting procedure.