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.

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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.