Ultimate Ears – A Look at the Lab that makes $1000 Custom Earbuds

Patrick Nosker August 23, 2011 0
Ultimate Ears – A Look at the Lab that makes $1000 Custom Earbuds

Unlike most earbuds, Ultimate Ears’ top of the line products aren’t made in China. In fact, they’re made right in one of the wealthiest areas of the United States: Orange County, California. Being in such a location is convenient for many of their customers– musicians, Hollywood stars, athletes, and audiophiles with a little bit of money in the bank.


Instead of being located in a high end shopping mall or in downtown Los Angeles, Ultimate Ears is found within a corporate complex sharing a building with a shipping company. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but what’s inside is what’s truly impressive. Inside the Ultimate Ears building in Irvine, California is where some of the best sounding and highest performing in-ear monitors used on stage by many of the top artists are made.

The UE Foyer

When you first enter the Ultimate Ears lab you will notice how musically centered it is themed.  The first room you enter when you are considering a set of their top in-ear monitors is the studio room with a full band set. Several guitars, both acoustic and electric, bass guitars, keyboard, and drums are all present with mic setups all around. In the middle is a coffee table filled with magazines that have featured their products. On one edge of the room is a computer with a headphone amplifier attached. Also present is a universal version of every one of their high-end custom in-ear monitors so you can try each one and figure out exactly what you want. On the opposite side of the room is a chair for you to sit in while you have impressions made. The process of getting impressions made will be covered by us next week, so make sure to check back and learn more!


The first step in turning your silicone impressions, or mold of your ear canal, into a high performance in-ear monitor is performed by essentially smoothing the surface and removing the excess silicone material. A tip similar to one you might find in a Dremel tool set is used to wear away at the impression making it smooth and imperfections are filed down.  Next, the newly refined impressions are dipped in wax in order to slightly enlarge the impression so your new monitors will fit with a tight and perfect seal when you use them. The wax covered silicone impression is used to create a mold shaped like the inside of your ear. This mold is made of clear silicone.

A UE employee refining ear impressions


A closer shot of the tool used


A good look at both finished and unfinished impressions


After the clear mold is created, the proper color acrylic resin is chosen to create your shell. While body-colored monitors were previously the most popular, clear is now the top choice for artists on stage. The chosen color resin is poured into the silicone mold and exposed for a set amount of time in a UV curing machine to solidify the outside.  The resin on the edge of the mold cures first so that the entire mold does not fill with solid acrylic.

Clear silicone mold made from the impressions


Impressions covered in wax in front of the wax machine

Afterwards, the acrylic shell is removed from the silicone mold and finished so that it smooth and does not have any edges. They are then paired with the wax-covered impression with your information and a box and moved to the next step for assembly.

Entire color spectrum of possible shell colors with the secret color mixes


Acrylic shell in mold


Hardened acrylic shell


Acrylic shell baking machine


All of the molds and shells are moved along together

The next station of Ultimate Ears efficient manufacturing system is the driver assembly area. Here, individual balanced armature drivers are mated, soldered to the appropriate extremely thin wire, attached to the crossover necessary, and finally attached to the proper clear tube used to transmit sound. All of the parts necessary are so tiny but somehow the UE team is skilled enough to have no trouble. All employees are trained to be efficient at multiple tasks, so in case one is sick, on vacation, or otherwise unavailable another can take over and remain as effective without reducing production potential.

Internal driver assembly


The driver assembly process

Across the bench is the driver tuning station where driver combinations are tested for the proper sound signature of the product being made. Here the driver assemblies are plugged into a machine and the connector is connected to a computer. Then some software is used to see the different measureable statistics of the unit such as frequency response and phase.

The driver assembly test area

After the drivers are chosen and properly mated, they are then inserted into the proper shell and attached. The faceplate is attached to the rest of the shell and mated together. The unit is then tested for quality control in order to ensure the proper sound signature for the product. The same system from the driver assembly step is used to measure the attributes of the in-ear monitor to ensure that every UE18 sounds the same along with every other product made by Ultimate Ears.

IEM testing machine for quality control


A nice tested but unpolished IEM ready to get shiny

The in-ear monitor is now ready to be finished and is subject to an extreme polishing step which takes the dull and unfinished monitor to a very glossy shine with true beauty.  Here the unit is taken to the next step and begins to really look like the finished product.

Ultimate Ears has one of the best artwork departments in the business. With a large catalogue of stock art and a great, extremely expensive, laser-aligned 3D printing system, they can make just about anything. From custom earbuds featuring your favorite logo to embedded gold leaf or titanium faceplate, the team is skilled at making essentially in-ear jewelry. One notable artist ordered a set with over $30,000 in diamonds embossed on the faceplate. While UE doesn’t source expensive gems themselves, they can refer you to a couple top end dealers and arrange for them to be shipped for inclusion on the monitor.

UE's super expensive 3D printer uses lasers to make some really beautiful art

One benefit of Ultimate Ears’ new printing system is that it can print white on a dark background. Because there is additional acrylic material put on the in-ear monitor there is no worry about bleed through.  The resolution and precision of the laser aligning system allows the tiny jets to deposit exactly the right amount of material on to create almost unbelievable levels of detail. Even the smallest text can still be read– even inside your ears!

Finally the finished product is checked off by quality control. A checklist over a page long is used to make sure everything is included with your shipment. Even the color of your monitor is referenced to a table filled with every stock color and made sure that the monitors are the correct shade. If you lost your IEM you could order the exact same set again and they would be identical.

UE order check bench


UE color chart to make sure it's exactly what you wanted

That’s all there is to it. With a custom product like Ultimate Ears’ custom in-ear monitors there is a high level of care and precision that takes audio to the next step. Of course it’s time consuming to make each monitor, but that’s why the price of them is so high. With the least expensive product at $399, you can now really see why they are so special. New to UE since their acquisition by Logitech are some new videos to make you feel more familiar with the product and part of the UE family. When impressions are received a video featuring an artist is emailed to you telling you that your impressions were received.  When shipped, a message saying that you will get your custom in-ears hopefully within 5 business days and short instructions on how to use and maintain your new product. Of course this builds excitement for the product often getting customers interested again just before arrival.  A few weeks after they arrive a follow-up video will be emailed to you as well.

Ultimate Ears has really made a push to be better for pre and post-sale support and it really shows. They remain committed to their customer and it was a really great time seeing how it’s all done. Thanks to Ultimate Ears for inviting me to the Irvine, CA location to see it all happen!

Ultimate Ears has been generous enough to provide our readers with a coupon code for any custom in-ear monitor. If you are interested in getting a set yourself now, this will make them a little bit more affordable for you. Interested? Check out our reviews of two of their best products, their In-Ear Reference monitors used by recording studios and their top-of-the-line 6 driver per ear UE 18. You can order via their website at www.ultimateears.com. Make sure to enter our coupon code to save some money!

The coupon code is good for 15% off a set of customs. It expires 9/15. Enter pnosker at checkout to get the discount!

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