In a long-standing quest to avoid dropping several hundred dollars on a pair of in-ear monitors, I've made a few attempts to make my own and have the satisfaction of doing it myself rather than simply clicking 'buy' somewhere on the internet. This is the latest and most successful.
As a musician in a church with an in-ear monitor (quiet stage) environment, I have a need for good quality in-ear monitor drivers. I've looked at some of the 'professional' ears but a pricetag of $400 or more is very intimidating. Since I'm a hacker at heart and get more thrill from making things than having them, I figured I'd take a swing at making my own.
Step 1: Step .5 - Research
Before you start cutting things up and molding other things together, do a little homework to familiarize yourself with the common shape of stage-quality in ears. I'll refer you to manufacturers such as Westone, Alien Ears or Ultimate Ears. Go to their websites and peruse the image galleries, which will provide you numerous angles and give you a pretty good idea of what the final shape will be.
Step 2: Step 1 - Collect Materials
There's not a lot you will need for this project, other than a little ingenuity and some patience. The obvious materials are as follows:
Small earbud drivers (I chose a pair of Sonys for their sound quality)
Two 5g packs of Sugru
Sharp Xacto blade (preferably brand new)
iPod or some other audio source that can keep you entertained for an hour or more
I tried to document my progress with pictures along the way, but for a few of the following steps you'll need to use your imagination since both my hands were busy forming things and I didn't have an assistant.
The sound quality is as important as the fit for something like this, but you won't be able to try out earbuds before you buy them for obvious reasons. This is why I went with the Sonys, and also because they're white. (I wanted the Sugru to match the wire and not look silly). You can pick up a pair of buds for as little as $5, but if you're going to be using them on a regular basis, or if you're an almost-audiophile like me, then you'll want to pony up a little bit and buy something a little nicer. I believe the pair I purchased was $30.
Step 3: Step 2 - Begin
To start, you'll need to modify the wire port on the earbuds. Most athletic buds such as these have a design that has the wire coming straight down from the driver. For an in-ear to work and fit properly, the wire will need to exit the ear chamber (I'm not a doctor or an audiologist, so I don't know the exact terms) at the top, above the small cartilage tab covering the actual ear canal. After exiting there the wire will go over and behind the exterior of the ear, which provides a bit of a safety mechanism for keeping the earbud in place. Use your Xacto blade and carefully remove the extra tubing around the wire, being cautious not to cut into or otherwise damage the wire. In the image above you can see the cable on the right has already been trimmed.
Step 4: Step 3 Continued
*Before putting anything in your ears, especially white Sugru that you want to remain white, clean out your ears with the alcohol and Q-tips. If you've never done this, be warned that it might have a slight burn, but it's good for you. I promise.
As previously mentioned, this step doesn't have any pictures.
Once you have the cables on both drivers trimmed, you'll need to break out the Sugru. Portion out a small amount (a ball maybe 1/4" in diameter), and once it's been kneaded, roll it into a tube and wrap the cable where it exits the driver. Insert the driver into your ear, being sure to insert the driver as fully as it will go. This will ensure that you get best sound quality and the maximum level of outside sound suppression.
It's a good idea to have your buds connected to your music player while doing this, to ensure that you get the same sound out of both sides/channels. A small discrepancy can make a huge difference here, and if it's not corrected now it will drive you nuts.
With the buds inserted in your ear, route the cable along the outside of the lower ear chamber (again, I'm not a doctor) towards the notch above the cartilage flap over the ear canal. The Sugru there will help it stick, but it won't stay very long. Start building up the Sugru to fill the lower chamber about 75% full.
Step 5: Step 4
The picture above shows a good fill of Sugru, but you'll need to keep the edges of the plug (the Sugru holding everything together) away from the edges of the ear chamber, or else your buds will have a goofy looking flange all the way around, which will also make the in ears fit incorrectly. This can be alleviated by building up the Sugru in small amounts, and towards the middle instead of the edges.
Once the chamber is appropriately filled, you can opt to smooth the Sugru using the method described in the included booklet. I used soapy water to achieve a smooth finish. After you have the texture you're after, you'll need to let the Sugru cure for at least an hour before you try taking the earbuds out. If you still have your iPod connected, dial up some good tuneage and go about some business for a while. DO NOT touch your earbuds while they are drying, or else you'll have evidence of your impatience every time you use your ears.
After your earbuds have cured (an hour or hour and a half should be good enough so that you can pull them out, but they'll fully cure in 24-36), you can take them out by pulling straight back on your ear. You'll feel some tension as the Sugru releases your skin, but a few pulls and they should pop right out. Do your best not to take the earbuds out by pulling on the cable or prying them out with your finger, as they aren't fully cured at this point and will deform ever so slightly if you put too much pressure on them. This will result in discomfort for future uses, and ear pain is ... well, painful, so be careful.
Once they're removed, hang them somewhere that they won't touch anything (or each other) and let them cure overnight before using them. If they touch anything while they're curing, you'll again have a reminder, so just be conscious.
Step 6: Step 5 - Done!
To insert your ears, put the driver side in first, and then give gentle pressure on the outside of the body until they lock in. The notch at the top (which is formed by the notch in your ear) will help with the natural locking tendencies to keep the ears firmly in place.
To remove, gently pry on the backside (opposite the driver and the 'lock notch') until they pop out. Sounds complicated, but quickly becomes second nature with a little practice.
Your earbuds will provide you with loyal service, and if you take care of them they'll last for years.