I’ve seen the future of hearables – and it involves a lot of lube

By Adam Westbrook 6 January 2017

These 3D-printed earphones promise to stay put even when you run.

When I meet Paul Jobin, the founder of Snugs, he already has a great elevator pitch to hand.

“We make little Savile Row suits for your ears,” he beams.

In his hand he’s holding his own tailored ‘suits’: two colourful blobs of soft silicon, moulded from the shape of his own ear.

The shape of our ear canals is unique to each of us, he tells me, even more so than our fingerprints. This is why your average pair of earphones keep falling out, have poor sound quality, and a habit of sharing your music tastes with everyone else in the train carriage.

It’s a problem that technology has already solved – if you have the money. Professional musicians and newsreaders have been using custom-made in-ear monitors for decades. What Jobin and his team at Snugs have done is use new laser and 3D-printing technology to knock a zero off the price tag.

“[It’s] all the benefits that rock stars have had for years with their custom in-ear monitors, and by using the latest technology we can create something completely bespoke and custom for you at an affordable price,” he says.

That price starts at £199, which seems like a cornflake-choking amount for a pair of earphones, but in a market where a pair of Bose or Dr Dre Beats headphones sell for £200 and more, it’s not outrageous.

The question is, are they worth it?

Down the rabbit hole

To find out, I first have to get my own ear canal laser-scanned. For this I go to see Jack Price, a “scanologist” from Snugs.

I’m a bit apprehensive – not that it will be painful, but that Jack might discover something in there that will make him reconsider his career. He assures me there’s nothing he hasn’t seen before.

Far from painful, the scan – which takes about five minutes – is actually rather therapeutic as the laser probe begins in my ear canal and eventually takes a scan of each ear lobe. On a laptop beside us a 3D model of my ears is assembled, which is then sent to a lab, via Dropbox.

Lube Up

It’s about an eight day wait for my own Snugs to arrive and they come in a colour of my choice and their own carry case.

What I’m not expecting is the small tube of white cream.

This, the instructions tell me, is the lube.

Now, of all the orifices in my body I ever thought I would find myself lubing-up for penetration, my ear hole was not one of them, but trying to fit my Snugs without it is uncomfortable.

Personally, I have found fitting the Snugs tricky. The process involves carefully positioning them against my ear, wriggling them about and attempting a sort of push and twist motion. Sometimes, after much wriggling, I’ll think I’ve got them in, only for them to fall straight out.

Eventually, I feel a previously untouched part of my ear make contact and the Snugs fit, well… snugly, into place.

The good news is that once in, these earphones do not fall out. Running, walking, all sorts of head and neck motions cannot dislodge them. After a lifetime of constantly picking up my earphones while working or walking, this feels satisfying.

But on the other hand, they’re so much more tricky to put in that I find myself reluctant to take them out at all. With Snugs, my earphones aren’t something I quickly pop in and out, but something that takes a noticeable effort.

Despite this, I have found myself getting used to them and eventually wearing them every day. Tested alongside a standard pair of earphones, the audio quality is better: I can get clear sound with the volume turned right down, even in the street or on the train. They are not completely noise cancelling, but they take the edge off (and I’m not sure I’d want to walk through life unable to hear my surroundings anyway).

And, of course, there are some problems they don’t solve. They’re not comfortable to wear while lying with the side of your head on a pillow and the cables are still annoying and will, I’m sure, eventually fray. That said, the company produces a range of wireless earphones and even some you can wear while swimming.

A hearables future

Hearables – any technology that uses your ears – is an industry with a big future, Paul Jobin says, and not just for fancy headphones.

Your ear canal, with its clear reading of pulse, body temperature and even blood pressure means we can expect to see plenty of health-related wearables in the in the months ahead. They might even be used as a form of biometric identification.

So expect to hear a lot more about Snugs and companies like them in the future.

(I’d also invest in the lube industry if I were you.)