Introduction: Custom Full-ear Silicone Earpieces Via the Magic of Sugru!
I'm probably not the only one who thought this, but when I saw the magical material that is Sugru, this is the ONE project that I absolutely had to do. My trusty Shure E4 in-ear headphones are great performers, but I'm never happy with any of the earpieces - the foam inserts are OK but after losing them well beyond visual range in my ear canal a couple of times, I'm a bit hesitant to push them too far into my ears anymore. Aside from this, the rubber strain reliefs on both earpiece cables have long since fallen apart, and this leaves the cord vulnerable to breaking free internally.
Custom earpieces are the obvious answer to problem 1, but this is generally a somewhat expensive 2-step process - have an audiologist take molds of your ears, then send those molds off to have your earpieces cast for you. This looked like it would cost me approximately as much as the E4s did originally, and I'm not honestly sure how much life these things have in them anyway...
Enter Sugru! I've seen that a few people have already used it to enhance their earphones, but I wanted to do more than any I've seen so far. Sugru sets quickly and stays soft, and it's adhesive enough that I hope it will stay attached to my earphones (but is still removable if one makes a dedicated effort to peel it off). If this works right, I can cast my earpieces in a one-step process with just a few dollars worth of material. I hope that this general procedure will translate well to other makes and models of in-ear monitors, but I obviously can't be sure.
DISCLAIMER - Sugru's documentation warns that it may irritate skin, and prolonged skin contact is essential for this project. If your skin is sensitive, test the product first. This project involves sticking things into your ear which you may never see again. Try to remember what went in and make sure it comes out.
BE CAREFUL STICKING THINGS IN YOUR EARS.
Step 1: Preparations...
- In-ear headphones/monitors - ideally ones that are oriented to point directly into your ear canal
- Sugru! Pick your favorite color, I used 1 5g packet for each ear, and set some extra aside for reinforcement / alterations afterward.
- Some kind of human-compatible lubricant (petroleum jelly, etc.)
- Vinyl or latex gloves
- Cotton swabs
Clean well... I would suggest cleaning your ears and your earphones because stray ear wax may corrupt your earpieces. I used rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs to clean the plastic parts of my earphones, to give the Sugru a good chance of sticking in place.
Step 2: Optional?
I sacrificed my current set of foam tips because they have a nice flexible rubber tube in the center which I wanted to use to extend the ear canal tube a bit. I did a bit better than depicted in removing the black foamy bits, but it gets covered anyway so I didn't worry too much.
If you happen to have something in your parts&pieces bin that will accomplish this, go for it. I only extended it 1/8" or so, just wanted a bit more extension and diameter than the white plastic bit, and I liked the idea of a soft tip that I could trim afterward if necessary. If you play around with this part, make sure your extension is not so long as to poke holes in your eardrums or brain.
Step 3: Prepare to Mold!
After looking for notes on whether or not using my skin as a Sugru mold was advisable, one thing I noticed were a number of people asking "HOW DO I WASH THIS OFF MY HANDS NOW??"
Therefore I opted to proceed from here with clear vinyl gloves on.
Using a cotton swab, liberally and carefully coat your ears with petroleum jelly or your personal lubricant of choice in your entire outer ear area and about 1/2" into your ear canal. This will help the silicon slide into place when you push it in, creating a more accurate mold, and help it slide OUT of place when you're done. There are tiny hairs in your ears. They will stick to things unless lubricated. Make this part easier on yourself.
Cut open a packet of sugru, knead the contents in your fingers, and begin applying to an earpiece. I was sure to fully encircle the tip going into my ear canal, and leave a solid mass between the body of the earpiece and my ear. I don't see any reason to fully cover the outside of the earpiece. This is one full packet in the photo. Make sure your sugru does NOT cover the end of the tube by which sound will enter your ear.
Step 4: Go Ahead, Shove It in There.
Insert the earphone carefully, trying to make sure it enters your ear canal and sits where it normally would.
Use your gloved fingers to poke and prod at the sugru to fill the crescent-shaped contours of your ears. The better you get into the cavities of your outer ear, the more secure your fit will be. Note that Shures are designed to route the cords over your ears - whatever you use, just make sure everything is in the position you would normally use it. You shouldn't feel the hard plastic tip of the earphones scraping against your ear canals.
At this point I opted to plug into a music source and make sure the sound was clear and the ports were unobstructed.
Smooth the outer surface to however you'd like it to look. At this point I decided I'm probably going to have to revisit the outer area to reinforce my cords - I am honestly unsure how well 2nd applications of Sugru will stick to already set pieces.
Step 5: First Results!
I did this job one ear at a time, since I wasn't sure how it would work and didn't want to be completely deaf for 30+ minutes while the Sugru set.
Note that you are of course welcome to listen to music on your headphones (or write an instructable) while the Sugru is working its magic inside your ear cavity.
This is what I pulled out of my ear. As mentioned, it was still pretty soft - 30 minutes may have been a bit soon, perhaps because of limited exposure to air while in my ear, or maybe that's just how it works. Remove carefully by pulling on the plastic earphone rather than the Sugru and try not to deform your pieces.
Whether you do one or two at a time, the Sugru needs 24 hours to fully cure, so put them somewhere safe, where their own weight or position is not deforming their shape while they rest.
Step 6: Not Cheetos.
Here are the two earpieces together - no, they don't look alike and they probably never will!
In my case, the earpiece port appears to exit at an odd angle from the silicon piece corresponding to my ear canal - however they sound perfect and feel great, so perhaps this isn't a problem. I'll probably try again at some point to see if they turn out differently, but I'll work with these for awhile.
Step 7: Last Tweaks
I eventually decided to crack open my last orange packet of Sugru to reinforce the cords. I thought the odds of the new Sugru sticking to the old would be better before the 24 hour cure time is up, but that's just speculation. I probably should have worked harder to achieve this in the first molding step, but then trying to pull the piece out probably would have messed this area up anyway.
At this point, if you have any Sugru residue where you don't want it, a cotton swab with alcohol will get rid of it pretty easily.
Once everything sets up, you can cut/trim any excess or odd areas to suit your desires.
I'm going to wait until the 24 hour cure time is complete before attempting to re-insert these in my ears, but unless they suffer some very significant shrink during curing, they should fit as they did during molding, which was wonderful. I could see myself wearing these for hours without fatigue, and the noise isolation was excellent.
Good luck to all Sugru adventurers out there!