Introduction: Perfect Sound With Gel-Seal EarBuds (and Some Incredible Software)
I love the live presence I get from my analog stereo, but when I'm on the road, I have to resort to my iPhone and earbuds. There are already many good Instructables that walk through custom fitting earbuds, and I recommend that as the first step toward portable live presence.
The one I used is:
With the exception of putting straws down my ears, this is pretty easy to follow. There may be others newer and better, so check around.
I use Sugru and for me, feel that's the material of choice, but if you want to mix up your own goo, go right ahead. Also, make sure you only cover the OUTSIDE of the ear canal. You don't need to shove gobs of silicon down to your ear drum. The whole idea is to isolate the sound you want from the outside noise going on around you. Your ear is designed to funnel that noise into your ear canal, and if it gets that far, it's already too late to block it.
If you look at my earbuds, the Sugru ends where the metal part ends. The part that blocks the noise is the part having the increased surface area surrounding the outside of the ear canal.
Let me take a moment to explain what I mean by "live presence". Imagine you're at a live concert, sitting at the edge of the stage listening to your favorite band. Not only do you hear the sound, but you feel it as well. Not just the deep base, so popular at stoplights, but the click of the drummer's stick on the rim of the snare and the chords from the guitar at the instant they're strummed. All but the most muted and soft sounds effect your entire body, not only your ears. If your were able to reproduce that with perfect earbuds, all those pressures would still be running around inside your head, vibrating your skull at the music's frequencies and creating additional sounds even the totally deaf can "hear".
Speaking of which... I'm not a "spring chicken", as we old folks like to call ourselves. My hearing is poor, at best. I have to "fine tune" my music, to produce the same sound that you young people hear.
I think I've succeeded in this task, using a couple of apps available from the App Store (one free and one costing $2) and a unique earbud sealing technique that truly puts the sound pressure into my skull the same way sitting at the edge of the stage does in a live concert.
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Step 1: Ear Bud and Software Setup
I truly don't know how much better one earbud is over another. Since internet trade with China has become so well accepted, there's no truth to the old adage "you get what you pay for" anymore. They all advertise the same frequency response, so preference should come down to fit and color choice. I like inexpensive multiple driver earbuds, but I'm sure larger single drivers sound just as well or better. The choice is truly personal.
My earbuds only last very long, as I'm constantly ripping them out of my ears whenever the cords get within 10 feet of anything. I don't spend more than $75 on them and as little as $5 from closeout stores. I have a drawer full of unopened earbuds, waiting in line to be sugrued at a moment's notice and always carry a spare when I'm traveling.
Software is something else. EVERY new music player that shows up on the App Store or Cydia ends up on my iPhone... And usually, shortly after, in my deleted pile.
We all hear differently. As you can see by the test pictures, my hearing is pretty well shot, SoundBest, an app available for $2.99, will test your hearing, equalize your music, and set it up in an proprietary music player.
The concept is good, but the implementation is terrible. First, it adjusts the equalizer to the programmer's idea of what should sound good to you. Second, once you set it up, you can't make further adjustments to the sound and finally, the music player is, well, a piece of junk... And all this, for 3 bucks... Mega expensive for an app. Don't tell my wife I wasted money on this.
There are two other App Store finds, that together will do the same thing, only infinitely better. They don't crash and together, will only set you back 2 dollars. The player's called "HD Music Parametric Equalizer", and the hearing test, "uHear" is free.
The hearing test comes first. Take the test (Don't cheat... Why would you even want to?). Take a screen shot of the graph and use it to adjust the equalizer settings on Parametric Equalizer. Remember, if the hearing test curve goes up and down, set your equalizer settings to do the opposite... Go down and then up. Boost the frequencies you have the most difficult time hearing and keep or reduce the ones you hear just fine. The program allows you to make unlimited changes, so take your time and tune your music to fit your hearing and your style.
How I set my equalizer up and how it ended up are two entirely different things. After hundreds of hours, I've pretty much settled on two or three setups. My equalizer still follows the general curve of my hearing test software, but has "matured". My right ear is 30% worse than my left, so I boost the volume towards the right to adjust for the difference (I'm not connected to Parametric Equalizer but this is the ultimate app I've found. No other equalizing app, to my knowledge, is as good at left-right adjustment, nor so intuitive to use).
Step 2: Liquid WHAT!?
NOTE: Before investing in waterless hand cleaner, read the update in step 3
When you're done messing with the equalizer, you should have a good idea about how well your music can sound.
It will still be far from perfect. Every audio expert will tell you to spend your money on speakers. A $50 amplifier can sound spectacular with $5,000 speakers, while a $5,000 amplifier will sound terrible with $50 speakers. Live presence has everything to do with sound, not electronics.
So here's the jewel of this setup. Even with perfectly shaped earbuds hugging every wrinkle in your ear, there'll be some gaps that allow outside noise you don't want to enter, and heavy pressure waves you do want, to escape. No matter how expensive your earbuds are, you'll always lose some quality of the music you're trying to listen to, but you'll also be able to hear every word being spoken around you, every grind and screech of the subway you're riding and sadly... Probably think it's the best it will ever get.
What's needed is a "perfect" seal, which moving skin and rigid silicon won't provide. A perfect seal would be a "wetting agent" between the ear and the earbud. Liquid fills the tiniest openings and surface tension provides an air-tight seal between your ear canal and the earpiece.
Enter waterless hand soap.
I prefer non-toxic and biodegradable waterless hand soap, but it evaporates quickly if left out in the air for all but the quickest moment. If you're listening to music and you see your partner looking at you with his or her mouth moving, chances are he or she is asking you a question. Whatever you do, don't answer without knowing what the question was. Take your earbuds out and pay attention.
Afterward, you may need to re-apply the soap. I've tried cold cream, cleaners, makeup removers, money counting waxes and other, not so friendly concoctions. Nothing I tried made any difference, so I use a biodegradable, safe for skin, cleaning agent... Something I wouldn't mind sticking into my ear.
Smear a SMALL amount of soap on the inside portion of your earbuds. You won't need a lot. What this will do is seal the gap between your skin and the silicon earbud.
This "perfect" seal, will require you to yawn when you insert them, so you can equalize the pressure inside your ear. Once you do that, every one of the pressure waves created by your earbud will be transferred directly to your eardrum, rather than escaping via the path of least resistance between your skin and earphones.
You can sample what I'm talking about by soaping the rubber ear pieces of your standard earphones. Put on a well mixed song with plenty of interesting percussion (Money For Nothing is spectacular) and see if I'm not dead-on correct. Turning your ear pieces into custom fitting devices will bring the sound up a notch. Equalizing your music to fit your personal hearing profile will blast your socks off, but sealing the earbud to your ear with liquid sealant will take you directly to the place where the music was recorded.
Equalizing your music to account for your specific hearing range will not only blast your pleasure into the stratosphere, but, for years, I've been unable to hear any bass sounds with my right ear. All base came at me from the left side. With liquid-seal earphones, the cochlea in my right ear are still dead to those frequencies, but the pressure waves now vibrate the right side of my skull, short-circuiting my non-working ear parts, so those frequencies come through as clear as they were before I lost them. I have no idea why this works, but I can only say, it works for me.
Quiet parts are also perfectly heard. The Dire Straits album I mentioned above was recorded using analog equipment. Tape hiss is something the younger generation has no concept of, but with my liquid-seal earbuds, it can be clearly heard... Now, how cool is that?
Step 3: IMPORTANT... May, 2014 Update
I've been using soaps for sealing my earbuds for a couple of years now, and have found it's the easiest way to lose myself when I'm in situations I'd rather not be in (like airports where multiple numbers of people aren't aware they don't have to scream at the top of their lungs on their cellphones so everyone within 20 yards is submitted with way TMI about their personal lives).
For about a year, I've been using the liquid soap that's found in every commercial bathroom, including trains and planes because it's easy to come by and eliminates having to carry my own. Unfortunately, soap doesn't last more than 30 minutes to an hour before drying up, reducing the extended frequency perception and causing me to subconsciously increase the volume in order to keep up with the gradual loss of live presence. I usually don't become aware of the loss until I've got the volume pegged.
Then, earlier this week, I had an "ah-ha" moment when I had an ultrasound procedure done. As soon as I saw the gel that was used on the transmitter/receiver tip, my brain went; "Ultra SOUND... Hmmm". It's extremely important that ultrasound equipment is linked directly to the skin, sealing all gaps and allows the equipment to move about with no loss of efficiency.
As soon as I stepped outside the hospital, I was on the internet ordering ultrasound transmission Gel. This is over-the-counter material, inexpensive, water soluble and hypoallergenic. I ordered what amounts to a lifetime supply for $7 and free shipping. I'll go back to keeping a small amount of this gel, stored in the same small travel case as my earplugs. I'm wearing them now, and so far, it seems the largest advantage to the ultrasound gel is, my volume is now waaaay down, outside noise is still blocked, I still feel every bit as much in my own high fidelity world and I haven't touched the volume buttons in several hours.