Are custom earpieces worth the money?

There are many advantages to using an earpiece for your radio as opposed to having the audio broadcast through a speaker everyone around you can hear

There are many advantages to using an earpiece for your radio as opposed to having the audio broadcast through a speaker everyone around you can hear. The biggest downside for most users is that the earpiece itself is bothersome. It isn’t long before the things itch and irritate the ear canal. Sometimes the irritation can get so bad that the earpiece can’t be worn for several days, or the wearer has to alternate ears to keep the tissue from becoming too inflamed.

Custom earpieces fix most of these problems. A custom earpiece fits your ear canal exactly, so there are fewer pressure points and the tissue doesn’t have to stretch to conform to the insert. The close fit makes for a better seal, so the earpiece doesn’t come loose accidentally. The fit is so close that most users have to “screw” them in, turning the earpiece upside down and then rotating it as it goes into the ear.

I’ve always hated having anything stuck in my ear, and the earbuds supplied with most cell phones and music players are just misery for me. I was attending a police trade show when I came upon a booth operated by an affiliate of E.A.R. Inc. They make both generic and custom earpieces and adapters for public safety radios and many consumer electronic devices. They had the gear and the trained personnel to take the necessary ear molds at the booth, and I took the plunge.

The process is quick and painless. An audiologist or other trained technician fills your ear canal — both of them, if you’re getting one for each ear — with a thick liquid silicone compound, and you sit there for five minutes or so while it sets up. They pull the finished mold(s) out of your ear(s) and take your order for the earpiece(s) you want. You generally need to know the model of radio or earphones you’re intending to mate with the earpiece.

A few weeks later, you get your custom earpiece and the original molds in the mail. The molds are supplied in the event you want to re-order — if so, you won’t need to have another mold made. You just send in the originals with your order and they fabricate new earpieces for you.

I had my earpieces made for a Shure headset (similar to this one) to be used with my smartphone. Shure furnishes the headset with different sized ear gels, but none of them were comfortable. E.A.R. Inc. made the inserts of my earpieces to fit the Shure earpieces, sans ear gels. They slid into the custom earpieces for a friction fit.

The difference was amazing. There was little or no irritation, and the sound from the headset was clear and crisp (the smartphone also functions as a music player). They don’t come out of my ears until I remove them. One aspect that might not be ideal for police use is that they block external sound almost completely. Some custom models can be ordered with a channel partially open to the air, so the wearer will still hear some ambient sound.

There was a problem with the earphone occasionally coming out of its receptacle in the custom earpiece. The friction fit wasn’t quite strong enough to hold it in against a tug. Since I wasn’t going to use these with any other headphones, I coated the plastic with silicone adhesive and stuck them into the earpieces, wrapping the assembly tightly with plastic food wrap until the adhesive had set — about 24 hours. I’ve had to do this a couple of times now, but I recently found an alternative solution, which I’ll cover in my next column.

If the earpieces are worn often, they should be cleaned properly. Alcohol will dry out the silicone and make it brittle. Hydrogen peroxide works just as well as a disinfectant, and won’t damage the material.

Cost for the two earpieces and the custom mold was around $125, but I’ve never regretted the investment. If I was wearing this every day for work, I think I’d feel even more strongly about it. These are also excellent for people who work in high-noise environments and need ear protection. Rock musicians wear custom earpiece monitors, so they can hear the mixed music but don’t overwhelm their hearing.

You can get the molds made at most any audiologist’s office, although the costs will vary. Once the molds are ready, a custom vendor should be able to fabricate the earpiece(s) for you. E.A.R. Inc. is a reputable vendor, and there are others I am sure are also excellent, but with whom I have no personal experience.

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