Ultimate Ears All-Digital IEM Production Process

by George Petersen
in Road Tests

Ear scan shown during capture process.Every once in a while, I encounter some product or technology that represents a major paradigm shift in defining the future, and I recently had just such an experience at the 2015 Winter NAMM show. While Ultimate Ears all-digital production system for measuring and creating custom in-ear monitors is not currently available to the general public, it’s definitely on the near horizon.

Best of all, this sidesteps the somewhat barbaric process of having an audiologist squirt silicone goop into your ears to create custom ear impressions, replacing that step with a non-invasive laser scan that accurately maps your ear canals in a few minutes. The scanner output is transferred to a computer where the collected data is optimized and then sent to a 3-D printer that creates earpieces that precisely match your own ears for fit, comfort and an effective seal. And the entire process happens over a matter of days.

Ultimate Ears is no stranger to digital processes for IEM creation, and last year began using a 3-D scanning of conventional earmold castings, which then could be replicated using computer optimization and 3-D printing. However, incorporating the Digital Earscanner from United Sciences (unitedsciences.com) into the production chain paved the way for an IEM creation system that’s all-digital from start to finish.

The Process

The road begins with the Digital Earscanner, which uses three ultra-miniature cameras and a laser beam — all built into a 3.2mm probe. The subject wears a “headset” with calibrated circular disks that surround the ear area. Aligning the Digital Earscanner with markings on the disks sets up algorithms that measure the ear canal as the laser moved around the ear. The system central camera (inside the ear) reads the reflections and refractions of the blue laser and processes the data in real-time, stitching it into a seamless 3-D representation of the ear canal than is stored on a local computer.

But the laser measurement is just the beginning. The 30 GB’s of high-resolution laser ear canal measurement data is reduced a smaller file, and transferred to Ultimate Ears, where the result is detailed, smoothed and optimized — essentially sculpting and “grinding” the 3-D digital ear model in the digital domain for a better, more comfortable fit. Customers that have existing earmolds (or no access to the digital earscan) can send their silicone impressions to UE, where these can be scanned in 3-D, with the process continuing from there, with the same application of the digital detailing process. Alternatively, digital ear scans from customers in Japan or Europe can transfer those to UE for IEM creation.

The laser scanning process is fast, accurate and non-invasive. An optical scanner (shown here in desk holster) is used to digitally capture ear impressions.

Next up is going from the digital domain back into the analog domain via a 3-D digital printer which sculpts in liquid acrylic, where rather than being poured into a reverse physical mold, is built up by a laser that cures the shell a few microns at a time. That manufacturing step takes about 90 minutes, resulting in a precision shell based on the customer’s ear, with added tweaks for comfort added by the techs.

As the scans indicate the exact depth of the tympanic membrane, UE then uses that measurement to tune to balanced armatures to the exact distance to the wearer’s eardrum. This is individually adjusted for each client’s IEM’s.

A major plus of the scanning system is that it doesn’t need to be done by an audiologist and supposedly someone — at an audio/music retailer, for example — could be trained to do digital earscanning in about an hour. And it’s FDA approved. With a network of centers offering ear scans in remote locations, the results could be sent to UE for processing, which could dramatically cut down the traditional time lag between getting impression and final product, while making the process of ordering custom IEM’s easier and more streamlined. And by simply eliminating the step of making impressions by injecting silicone goop into a customer’s ears, the industry should react positively to the concept of the digital ear scan.

3-2-1... Ready For My Earscan

Having heard about the process last month, I arranged to meet with representatives from Ultimate Ears during the Winter NAMM show and give it a try. The procedure starts off by a quick swab to clean the ears, which makes a lot of sense, as the last thing you need is to create an exact precision model that would include an wax or dirt wad in the ear canal.

That accomplished, I sat in a chair, donned the circular ring alignment headset, chomped down on a (thankfully disposable) biteblock and awaited the scan itself. Within a matter of minutes — like three — the scan was done. Perhaps the most interesting part of the experience was watching on a computer monitor as the scan unfolds. The net effect is like “painting” the inside of the ear canal with light and with each stroke of the Digital Earscanner’s tip, more of the ear passageway was revealed.

In fact, any empty white sections on the screen simply indicated that was an area that needed to be scanned, so it seems this process of scanning the entire area is straightforward, simple and relatively foolproof and the chance of the operator missing part of the ear canal is unlikely. Another fascinating past of the scanning procedure was seeing the total picture render — in fully rotational 3-D, revealing the features both of the outer ear and ear canal with a high degree of detail.

From that point, my part was done, other than waiting for my finished in-ear monitors, which put the digital representation of my ear canals onto a pair of UE’s Reference Monitor drivers.



Click on image for FOH-TV demo of the UE All-Digital Production Process

In They Go

The next day, the IEM’s were ready as promised. A rep from UE gave me a quick how to wear lesson — start with the earpiece upside down and gently press in as corkscrew themselves into the ear canal. Amazingly enough, they fit just fine, with an effective, snug seal and no need to get “used to” the fit. I was offered a choice of drivers and rather than opt for models with more specialized voicings such as the UE VRM (for male or female vocalists), the UE11 (for LF-craving bassists and DJ’s) or the UE7 (offering a midrange bite for guitarists), I selected the UE Reference Monitors.

The latter are a three-armature design with a more perceived flat response and were developed and tuned in collaboration with the Capitol Studios engineering staff. In true form, these actually are quite flat sounding and provide a wide 5 Hz to 22 kHz response. The UE Reference Monitors are non-fatiguing, comfortable and offer -26 dB of isolation and — with a short extension on the 3-foot TRS cable — would be a great choice for sealing out the world while concentrating on soloing channels or working on a virtual soundtrack mix. They also ship with an indestructible carry box and include a reward (payable by UE) to the finder if they are lost and returned. Works for me, and the fast, easy and convenient turnaround for custom IEM’s is something that’s a real game changer.


The UE Reference Monitor IEM.At A Glance

Ultimate Ears debuts an all-digital system for creating earmolds that eliminates the need for audiologist silicone injections for ear impressions and follows it up with precision 3-D molding of custom earpieces, making for simpler, hassle-free customer experience.


PROS

No need to inject goop into ears for impressions; audiologist not required; fast, non-invasive scan process; reduced time between impressions and final product.

CONS

No current network of scanning centers; pricing not set at press time, but should be substantially lower than audiologist impressions.

More Info: http://pro.ultimateears.com