CES Show Report: Day One, In Which I Learn A Lot About My Own Ears
The sheer volume of consumer electronics on display at the International CES in Las Vegas can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing because pretty much any product that falls, however vaguely, under the umbrella of “electronics” is on display somewhere in Sin City this week. And a curse for exactly the same reason. So when you have very specific interests – as do I when it comes to products designed for the custom installation market – you can visit literally hundreds of booths and see a lot of neat stuff, but virtually nothing that appeals directly to your specific interests.
That was the case for me yesterday as I explored the bottom floor of the South Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center. There were some fantastic gadgets on display, and some really cool DIY control solutions, but the one thing that really stood out for me in terms of nifty integrated technology was a new product from Korus (whose wireless speakers I look forward to reviewing next month), which brings your TV or projector’s sound into the company’s wireless audio ecosystem. The Korus wireless system usually relies on a dongle that plugs into the bottom of your smart phone, and serves as an alternative to Bluetooth or Airplay for multiroom music distribution. The advantage it has over Bluetooth in particular is increased fidelity, as well as range – you can get a good 65 feet of wireless range inside, or as much as 250 feet if you’re using it outdoors.
The new TV Baton is an itty bitty little box that does the same for your TV, so if you don’t have (or don’t want) a full-blown surround system, you can give your thin display a serious kick in the pants when it comes to audio quality, without the hassle that comes with wires, and it all works with the same wireless multiroom speaker you use for music distribution.
Oddly enough, though, by far the most “custom” experience I had today was with a headphone manufacturer called Westone. Which seems counterintuitive, right? You normally don’t associate tiny little speakers that you shove into your ear with anything remotely personalized. But Westone had an audiologist on hand to perform custom ear impressions, from which you can order one-of-a-kind in-ear monitors designed specifically for your unique auditory anatomy.
I’ve struggled with in-ear headphones in the past because I have extremely sensitive high-frequency hearing, which makes the sound of most “earbuds” unbearable for me. The high frequencies literally cause me excruciating pain. And even with foam tips, I have trouble finding a good fit. I explained all of this to Robert Munoz, who was performing the custom ear impressions, and he took a look into my ear canals to see what was up.
What he discovered is intriguing and enlightening. For one thing, my ear canals actually make a 90-degree bend straight upward, which is unusually to say the least. Every ear is different, of cours, but most people’s ear canals lean “forward” a bit, for lack of a better word. Mine don’t, which is why I struggle so much with the fit of in-ear monitors. Secondly, my ear canal gets progressively smaller the further into my ear you venture, which goes a long way toward explaining why my hearing is so sensitive.
But it doesn’t explain the pain I experience with most earbuds. The explanation behind that, as it turns out, is twofold. When he was examining my inner ear, Munoz asked me if I had ever experienced any significant head trauma. In fact, I had. I had forgotten about it, but I actually cracked my skull in a car accident as a teenager. “I can actually see that from looking into your ear,” he said. And once the impressions were taken he showed me. It looked like a broken toe that had healed crooked.
But that’s not the whole explanation, because not all in-ear headphones cause me said pain. The ones that don’t are usually rolled off in the high frequencies – what most people would refer to as a “dark” or “dull” sound – but the Westone in-ear monitors that I auditioned before my ear impressions featured truly sparkling high-frequencies, and there was no pain. As it turns out, Westone’s higher-end in-ear monitors don’t actually rely on dynamic drivers (basically just miniature cone drivers) like most in-ear’s do. Instead, they use what are called “balanced armatures” – an array of them, in fact, each one tuned to cover a limited range of the entire audio spectrum. As a result, they don’t require the sort of artificial boosting that most dynamic drivers need to deliver high frequencies. And what we think we’ve figured out is that it’s the artificial boost that causes my pain. The boost introduces distortion, and that distortion is amplified by the peculiarities of my ear canal, specifically the awkwardly healed crack in my skull just above my left ear.
It’s a problem I’ve discussed with headphone designers and audio engineers on numerous occasions over the years, with no real resolution. Five minutes with the right professional, though, and we got right to the root of the issue – and found a solution! Munoz made a mold of the inside of my ears, and I’ve ordered a set of truly custom monitors that are being designed for my noggin and my noggin alone. The result will hopefully be a product that not only actually stays in my ears without undue discomfort, but that will also allow me to enjoy my music with better isolation, at lower volumes, thus better protecting my ears for years to come. I’ll report back with detailed listening impressions once they arrive.
Today, I’m off to the Venetian Towers to gets some hands- (and ears-) on time with new products from Paradigm/Anthem, Kaleidescape, Peachtree Audio, Meridian, and more. Stay tuned!
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