An inside look at a $2,200 pair of custom headphones

The Ultimate Ears Live in-ear monitors use hearing aid tech for super-precise sound.

headphone technology
Sound investment. Ralph Smith

Normal earbuds have just one, sometimes two speakers on each side. But those micromachines must handle a wide range of sounds, from Mariah Carey’s high register to Barry White’s silky bass, so they struggle to faithfully reproduce all the right acoustic details. The $2,200 Ultimate Ears Live headphones are different. Each in-ear unit contains eight speakers, and each of those is tuned to a specific part of the audio spectrum. Built for professional musicians who play massive stages, the buds produce a rich, true depiction of the tunes. This is what makes them sing.

1. Vibrating metal

Seven of the speakers rely on a filament called a balanced armature, a type of tech common in hearing aids; metal vibrates between a pair of magnets to generate sound. Two armatures ring the low tones (like for a bass), four do the mids (think: guitars), and one hits the highs (e.g., cymbals).

2. Moving membrane

A magnet inside a rounded metal enclosure causes a 0.2-​inch-­diameter diaphragm to pulse, displacing air and pushing audio toward your ears. This eighth speaker produces sound at the lower end of the spectrum, adding a visceral bass thump that you feel more than hear.

3. Bespoke ear fit

Tubes made of ­medical-​grade PVC funnel sound from each of the speakers into one channel. To get a perfect fit, Ultimate Ears molds the housing to match a model of your ear canal. That snug connection offers the same external sound reduction as industrial-­strength earplugs.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 Tiny issue of Popular Science.

Stan Horaczek

Stan Horaczekis the senior gear editor at Popular Science and Popular Photography. His past bylines include Rolling Stone, Engadget, Men's Journal, GQ, and just about any other publication that has ever written about gadgets. For a short time, he even wrote the gadget page for Every Day With Rachel Ray magazine. He collects vintage cameras, eats pizza, and hopes you won't go looking at his Tweets even though the link is down there.