CES 2011’s best: Sonomax’s SoundCage 4-minute custom earphone

Recently, I Hanseled my way around CES 2011 looking for a place to sit. On my quest to find a comfy chair, I managed to lose myself under a pile of crumby marketing handouts, and half naked girls dancing to show off the features of a … wired router. Amid crappy tablets and massage chairs, I also managed to find Sonomax‘s booth and discover what I think is the coolest thing to come out of CES: 4-minute custom earphones. Originally, my mate said this Canadian company were batting with a custom earphone that is fully cured in 20 hours and sets in 4 minutes. Hmmm, I thought, that reminds me of SoundCage, a company that made a 20-minute custom a few years ago, and that is also from Canada. Well, it turns out that the SoundCage I discovered whilst getting impressions for the Sleek Audio CT6, and Sonomax are either good mates, or better bedfellows.

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Sonomax’s Montreal base is hardly a bagel’s toss from TouchMyApps’ petting zoo in Canada’s most quaint city: Woodbridge, Ontario. What success! Imagine meeting a fellow country mate half way around the world in … Las Vegas. What it means is that when I get back to the land flowing with Maple and poutine, I might just pay a visit to their HQ since their HQ made the long trip to the City of Sin and cheap ass beer.

Sonomax’s sculpted eers, or Soundcage, or whatever the full marketing term is, is an excellently marketed product. For less than 200$, you can walk away from a Sonomax distributor with a fully custom earphone. What’s more, the curing process takes just four minutes. Usually, the making of custom earphones is a lengthy affair involving a trip to an audiologist to first get your ears squirted with impressions. Those impressions are then sent off to Westone or ACS or Jerry Harvey or Sleek Audio or Fit Ear, among others, to be bored out and filled with good earphone innards. They come as cheap as 300$, but most cost much more, often tilting the scales at more than a grand.

Thus when my mate said that Sonomax were Canadian, I clued in. We’re a somewhat chintzy society; we don’t like to pay and arm and a leg for something – unless it’s income tax. Sonomax have been making 20 minute custom earphones and hearing aids for years and have contracts with many companies around the world for thousands of their products. The sculpted eers is the culmination of that experience.

Getting fit
The fit experience is – interesting to say the least. First, a Minority Report-esque ‘sound cage’ with pouches that stick into your ears and inflate with what becomes your ear impression. Those go like wet Willy’s, into your ear holes and there they stay for about four minutes.

It doesn’t hurt, but half way through, there is a loud pop. Then, the fun starts. Like a storm coming from afar, you’ll hear rumbling as the pouches fill up with some patented liquid. During that time, you should sit rather calmly to let the impressions cure. Painless, really.

The end result is as you see above and below, tiny moulds of your ears, and sucked into their centres, nice, phat earphone drivers. I say phat, because dat bass is chubby. A good fit will ensure that low notes roar out from a dog whistle. Yes, the SoundCage 4 is a little dark, but with a good fit, it is reasonably laid back, decently spacious, and even well extended in the top end. Similar to a former love, the Futuresonics Atrio M5, they do lack magic in the midrange, however. I’ve been sitting with these in my ears for hours now, and, as much as I love their sound with slow electronic, I can’t vouch for the overall quality of your favourite rock and jazz music unless you fancy slightly bashful vocals. On the other hand, percussion is great even if it tends to rattle at odd times. Guitars, though, what happened to them? Poor Jesse Cook’s famous fingers lose some of their speed and grit. Oh well, nothing is perfect in this world apart from the freakin’ incredible bass output of these earphones.

All that said, I LOVE what I hear.

Sound isn’t the whole story, however. I mentioned that you must get a good fit in order to get that bass. My left ear has perfect fit, my right, anything but. The fitting process, you see, leans on a few fine variables that if ignored, or simply bunged, will result in a one-ear-on, one-ear-off salute to Simon Says. One is that you don’t move. Another is that you don’t smile. Laughing is right out. Finally, the sound cage has to be positioned perfectly, and here is where I see the majority of problems arising. I sat still and tried not to flirt with my companions or the naked router girls. But, no matter how religiously devout my composure, I got a bad fit in one ear even though the sound cage was placed by Sonomax. Probably what happened during fit is that the sound cage popped out a bit and filled all the wrong spots of my ear.

clever little bugger just won't fit

So, my sitting went poorly. But, I really like the brain-massaging sound of the left ear enough to want to get this earphone re-fit. Sadly, I cannot do it via Sonomax (at least not yet). Maybe ACS will do it, who knows. Well, being the intrepid (and impatient) audiophile that I am, I gloried when the right side got squished a bit too much and tore. Great: a chance for the stems to show themselves! After a bit of stretching, the Monster Turbine tips fit perfectly, and despite attracting no love from me when stuffed onto Monster’s own earphones, work great with the Sonomax.

Anyway, everyone’s head is shaped differently. The sound cage may fit the majority of heads, but it won’t fit perfectly on all heads. Now, if the fit process goes well, I heartily recommend these earphones. You don’t need ear pieces, they should please hip hop and electronic fans to no end, and they feel great in the ear. The cable is good quality and the slider works well. Overall, the product is very well thought out. But, and this is a big-ass but, problems WILL arise with this system.

Currently, it’s a one-shot-Finch ordeal. If the fit is bunged, there ain’t a second chance unless you want to dish out for a new earphone. When Sonomax officially launch in the spring, I hope that second chances come cheaply, or are included in the box. On the plus side, sculpted eers should be available at distributors who likely have experience with custom earphones and may get you a good fit.

Tagging along to the fit issue is another concern: safety. Customs in general are fine and dandy. The impression is the most dangerous part. If the material goes in too far, it can damage your ears. That is why degree-holding audiologists check your ear canals and carefully set gauze in your ear holes. They care about your hearing and health. Sonomax do too, but I can’t vouch for distributors who may just want to sell another earphone. More importantly (and probably least likely to happen) is in the fitting process, there is possibility that the pouch bursts and the silicon compound leaks into your ear. There is NO method in place to protect against this unlikelihood.

A finger to Mother Nature
The final issue that Sonomax need to address is one that my colleague brought up: sustainability. Sonomax are marketing a product that has more bits than any earphone I’ve ever seen. One use and the entire sound cage and massive packaging go to the bin. The same goes for inevitable ‘oops’ fits. The leftover plastic from one sculpted eers could make dozens of earphones and probably skin a small netbook.

So, where do we go from here? I think this is a unique product with a lot of promise. But at the moment, there seems to be more promise than result represented by the 199$ it costs to scrutinise Sonomax’s word. The sound, I dig. The idea, I suck down greedily. The execution, and possible mishaps, however, leave my throat a bit dry.

Sonomax, if you are reading this article, please take steps to address: fit issues, Mother Nature, and potential, though unlikely, injuries.

Your SoundCage system is an audiophile’s wet dream and probably a chink-chink sounding echo in the wallet-minded imaginations of potential distributors. I’d like to see this product make a proper, clean splash as I love what I am hearing and believe it to be the most interesting thing that came out of CES this year. For now, though, I’d rather buy the earphones without the custom portion and forgo all the possible problems.

Check out Sonomax’s website for more information.

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