Swedish company Ilicon specialises in replacing the ear tips on universal earbuds with their own 3D-printed silicone ear tips. The new tips are made after a moulding or 3D scan of the user’s own ears. This can be done at an audiologist – or directly at Ilicon in Jönköping, if you happen to be in the area.
I myself had the honour of testing Ilicon’s custom silicone ear tips, which in addition to providing a perfect fit actually improve the sound quite dramatically from our test sample of the ACS Evolve Studio Universal. Where the bass felt a little thin, it suddenly became more physical and dramatically tightened up. At the same time, the overall dynamics improved, thanks to a filter that equalises the pressure in the earplugs and also lets some sound out, removing the feeling of having your ears under water.
Ilicon with balanced diaphragm
Now Ilicon has gone a step further and created a pair of complete 3D-printed in-ear monitors. With two drivers in each, one of which is a 10 mm bass unit, while the other is a so-called balanced diaphragm, which supplies the ear with the upper frequency range.
A balanced diaphragm differs from a conventional dynamic driver in that it uses an additional magnet. Here, the diaphragm is suspended between two magnets, which alternately push the diaphragm in opposite directions. This is instead of using one magnet that both pushes and pulls from one side. The result is better control over start and stop, and thus better dynamics and cleaner sound.
3D printing technology
One argument against soft plugs is that drivers and internal wiring can be damaged more easily, unlike hard plastic where everything is completely stuck.
Ilicon has solved this with advanced 3D printing technology, designing silicone plugs with a complicated channel system. Instead of the components being moulded into the silicone, they are instead squeezed into place in separate air pockets. The wires run freely in the channels of the plug. So, should a breakage or other problem occur, it’s easy to repair the earbuds rather than having to make new ones.
Ilicon has chosen an unbalanced cable from Shure (EAC64CL); these use MMCX connectors, which are quite common among earplugs. This means you can easily swap the cable for a replacement of a different length, or if you want a balanced one, for example.
The extreme, molded UE 18+ Pro earbuds just got even more insane!
As with Ilicon’s 3D-printed earbuds, there’s a sound filter in each earbud. A pair of filters is included in the price, and you can choose how much to attenuate the outside sound. Black filter attenuates the most, turquoise attenuates the least. The white filter attenuates most linearly of all, about 15-17 dB over the entire frequency range.
In my experience, the white filter gives the most natural experience, especially as a musician on stage, because the sound of the audience and surroundings is attenuated evenly at all frequencies. I tried it myself during a concert with my band. The same goes for everyday use when listening to music; the surroundings are muffled, but sound more airy and natural than when you put in a pair of completely tight earplugs.
The sound of Ilicon hypƐar CIEMs
Once you’ve tried custom moulded earplugs, going back to universal plugs can quickly become a downer. Which fall out, aren’t properly sealed, and where it can be difficult to get the same sound in each ear.
Like other moulded ones, hypƐar CIEMs require you to twist them gently into your ear, but this is simpler with soft silicone than with hard plastic plugs. The process is also not painful, as it can be with hard plastic – if you don’t grease them first.
Once that’s done, just enjoy. What a sound! The music comes across with a great and lovely midrange, where rich singing voices are given a realistic nerve that needs to be experienced. The bass register is full and energetic, and both the bass guitar and bass drum sound both physical and real.
Need a bit of amplifier power
Admittedly, there are earbuds that are much more lightly driven than these, because with these you have to turn up the volume a bit to get loud enough sound. However, playing loud enough doesn’t become a problem, and if they were too sensitive, you’d hear more clearly the hiss from the wireless monitor receiver you use when playing gigs as a musician. Which is a challenge for the Ultimate Ears UE-18+ Pro, for example.
Earbuds tend to make some annoying ‘underwater’ sounds when you sink, but you avoid that here because of the filter. Very clever, and in addition it makes the dynamics sound more liberated.
Better dynamics with filter
When I replace the filter with a completely tight plug, everything sounds a bit flatter and tamer, although you can hear that it’s still the same earbuds. But the extra transient response you get with the filter is something I’ll gladly accept, as otherwise things get a bit cautious. The dynamics are still not quite in the same class as with the Ultimate Ears UE 18+ Pro, but on the other hand the price of the Ilicon is only a third.
More obvious is the comparison with the ACS Evolve. I only have the Universal version to compare with, but then that’s along with the Ilicon’s 3D-printed silicone tips. Not quite the same. Either way, the hypƐar CIEM’s provide a significantly more dynamic and vibrant sound.
As a bonus for musicians, much of the ambience of the hall is heard through the noise filter, eliminating the need for the monitor engineer to set up ambient microphones.
Ilicon hypƐar CIEM’s are a pair of extremely successful ear monitors. Soft silicone, 3D-printed after ear scans, provides a perfect fit. The sound is top-notch, whether you’re a live musician or just want some earplugs that sound really good with music.
The coolest thing about these earbuds, aside from the soft and comfortable fit that provides better seal when moving your jaws, are the valves with attenuation filters that equalize the pressure and let some of the audience vibe into your ear. So you’re not quite so far inside your own bubble when you’re on stage.