But they’ll cost you
“True wireless earbuds hand-shaped for your ears only”. That is the claim of the new UE Drops, and given Ultimate Ears’ proven track record in audio, we’d happily place our hopes, dreams and a fair bit of money in the Californian brand’s capable hands.
But before we get onto the sordid topic of coin (and we do need to speak about that), let’s get into what UE just brought to the table because they could just turn out to be some of the best true wireless earbuds made for the mass market we’ve seen.
Ultimate Ears went a bit quiet for a while – where are the summer 2022 UE Bluetooth speakers and where’s the Wonderboom 3? – so it is great to see this innovative brand return to form. And it looks as if Ultimate Ears is finally coming good on its name by fashioning earbuds made for your ear canals only. It’s as if everything has been leading up to this moment.
UE Drops earbuds are available in three pearlescent colors – but that’s not the important bit. What makes them special is that once you’ve ordered a pair, Ultimate Ears will send you an at-home FitKit. You use this kit to capture 3D measurements of your ears from the comfort of your room, under the step-by-step guidance of the company’s UE FitKit iOS App (opens in new tab) or Android App (opens in new tab). Then, you return your completed FitKit with the prepaid label and you wait… which UE says could take three to four weeks, once the company has received your impressions.
When the UE Drops have been shaped to you and you alone, Ultimate Ears will send them to you ready to wear – and unlike other options, they’ll fit right in their charging case.
Opinion: if Ultimate Ears can fulfil demand, it’s got a hit on its hands
Look, it’s not the first time we’ve seen custom-fit earbuds: UE says that if you already have a custom ear print (for a pair of its UE CSX or UE Pro in-ear monitors, say), you can save time and use the same measurements for your UE Drops – as long as the impressions are less than five years old.
But those older and more expensive products (the Pros start at $549) are aimed at the professional or dedicated audiophile – and more importantly, they are wired earphones.
UE Drops are pitched squarely at the more general music-loving consumer and offer the convenience of true wireless listening – ergo, the product so many of us have been waiting for.
It’s also not the first time a company has tried to personalize something many of us either want or already own; check out Avery, a US company that makes customized buds to simply slip over practically any in-ear headphone you currently have, thus transforming and personalizing the fit, security, fidelity and isolation in your Apple AirPods Pro, Bose QuietComfort Earbuds and many more.
A deep-dive into custom earpieces
Colin Doyle at Avery (who reached out to us recently, to extol the virtues of Avery’s solutions) explains that actually, there are two forms of impressions you can get for a custom earpiece: shallow and deep.
Shallow – the company sends you a two-part silicon impression kit, you ship back the impression you make, and in a few weeks you get your earpiece. Shallow impressions offer better noise isolation than any “stock” bud, are easy to put in and take out of your ear, and are suitable for low-impact tasks.
Deep – Avery provides a medical description of what it needs and you take that to the ENT (read: ear, nose and throat doctor or audiologist) of your choice. Deep impressions apparently take a day to get used to because of the deeper feeling and getting them in and out of your ear smoothly, which suggests they’re quite invasive, but the listening experience is allegedly transformative – especially if your earbuds feature active noise cancellation.
Given the description above, UE is clearly providing shallow impression custom-fit earbuds. But here’s another thing: the big drawback when sticking something third-party over your current earbud is that some on-ear controls you’re used to may cease to work, and the buds won’t fit back into their neat little case. With UE Drops, the customizable controls and case are unaffected, because engineers have taken all of that into account.
Elsewhere, you’re getting a standard rather than excellent 22-hour total playtime (8 hours on the buds, 14 hours on the case) although the case supports Qi wireless charging. The buds are also sweat resistant and there’s a transparency mode – but no active noise cancellation.
Oddly and a tad disappointingly, UE Drops come bearing the older Bluetooth version 4.2, and you’re only getting plain old vanilla SBC codec support (no aptX, no LDAC) which means that even with all of the custom-fitting wizardry involved here, you cannot get higher-resolution streaming. As a result, audiophiles may simply move on – but then again, we’ve yet to try them. It’ll be a good one for the fit-versus-features debate for sure…
And the price? Customization doesn’t come cheap. UE Drops cost $449 with free shipping (around £375 or AU$653) which makes them $50 more expensive than the high-end Bowers & Wilkins PI7 and considerably more than the splendid Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 (opens in new tab) (at $299 / £279 / AU$499 or thereabouts).
Are they worth it? Time will tell. But if you’re willing to shell out for something tailor-made for your unique ears, Ultimate Ears should probably be your first port of call.