There really are no two ways around it — custom in-ears will cost you somewhat more than universals. But you might, understandably, be wondering whether there might be a cheaper way.
There is — but it may not be for everyone. If, however, you're set on a multi-driver in-ear-experience, and looking at the popular universal fit Westone 4 and 4r, or the Shure 535, there's another option to consider — custom-fit eartips, which can run less than $200 (granted, the total package price with these ~$450 headphones is still high, but it doesn't get anywhere near the $1,000 mark).
In addition to the ES5s, S+V got in a pair of custom silicone eartips from Westone, the UM56 ($154), designed to be used with universal-fit in-ears like the company's own highly regarded W4 and W4r or the Shure 535. These are short, canal-only molds that take the place of standard foam or silicone tips. Shure suggest a somewhat different approach, a custom sleeve from in-ear veterans Sensaphonics; that design wraps the IEM itself in a silicone sheath and seems like it might provide a good alternative if your ears permit.
After many hours of comparison, I'd have to say that I found the custom tips a bit too fiddly for my taste. While most of the full-custom models make it very easy to get a solid fit and seal with minimal fuss, using a pair of Westone W4r universal-fit IEMs as my base, I actually found it easier in everyday situations to get a secure fit and good seal with the W4r using a pair of Comply TX-100 foam tips. Insertion was a lot more difficult (the 4rs with the Comply tips inserted nearly as easily as full customs, by the way) I felt like I was trying to make sure the 4rs were seated correctly with the UM56s installed far more often than I did when wearing the Complys; the distraction wasn't welcome.
This may well be an issue of my own ears, of course (as with any headphone review, you should keep in mind that headphone performance is a highly subjective area). Having fairly small ears and narrow ear canals, I've struggled with fit often; some time ago I'd had similar difficulty keeping a good seal with a pair of single-driver customs cast in a canal-only mold. It may well be that I need something that fills the concha as well to keep things in place.
Once they were seated, the UM56-tipped Westone 4rs sounded just fine — they don't, perhaps, provide quite as refined an experience as their big brethren, the ES5, but they offer more isolation than traditional tips without detracting from the sound quality of the out-of-the-box Westone 4r I tried them with — a good thing, since the 4/4r is one of my favorite multi-driver universals. Still, I doubt most listeners would find fault with the 4rs out of the box in terms of either sound or fit (they ship with a wide range of foam and silicone tips, by the way, which should suit most ears).
I'd say if you're interested in custom, unless you're absolutely in love with the sound of your universal fits or just want to investigate the fit possibilities of a custom mole, rather than purchasing custom sleeves you might be better served by one of the introductory single or dual-driver models from Westone, Ultimate Ears, or others — you can get into a less full-featured full custom for under $400 (not including the audiologist visit and impressions), which will just be a lot more comfortable, and thus should give you a better experience in the end, for not that much more overall investment.
So are these CIEMs for regular folks — and even audiophiles? If you feel like you're not getting what you want out of your current high-end universal fit headphones and you're ready to make the leap to the better seal (and likely better performance) a personalized fit will get you, there are more options than ever out there. You can get your feet wet with your current Westone 4s or Shure 535s with custom sleeves or tips like the UM56 from Westone, choose relatively affordable models from a wide range of manufacturers (not just industry stalwarts like Logitech, Westone, JH Audio Sensaphonics, and ACS, but newer names like Heir Audio, 1964 Ears, Cosmic Audio, and many others). The comfort and fit of CIEMs can't be beat, and though they may not look the part, they're actaully easier to get in and out of your ears than plain-old universal fits in most cases.
For those interested in the ultra high end, however, I can think of a lot worse places to put a couple of grand than a full-custom IEM. It'll give you a true audiophile experience that you can enjoy anyplace, without dragging along a pile of portable DACs and headphone amps (unless you choose to). If you don't spend most of your headphone listening time at home or at a desk, it may make more sense to put the money towards a pair of pricey CIEMs than into something like a full-size Audeze or HiFiMan or Sennheiser headphone.
The decision as to whether to go with Westone, Ultimate Ears's Personal Reference Monitor (or perhaps an ultra-high end from JH Audio comes down to personal taste and what sort of experience you're interested in. The PRM fitting and voicing gives you the sort of hands-on engagmement with your gear that you might appreciate — something akin to the appeal of building your own sstem. The ES5, on the other hand, is going to give you more dependably accurate sonics out of the box.
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