Spending two to four times the cost of an iPod on the ear phones it drives will seem kind of strange—at least until you stick 'em in your ears. Then you'll hear why professional musicians from the Dixie Chicks and Joss Stone to Metallica and Mötley Crüe go to the California-based Ultimate Ears to squeeze the best audio possible from the ear pods they wear during live performances.
The company brings an extraordinary level of craftsmanship and audio expertise to the task of making custom-fitted earbuds for a demanding clientele; and fit is a major factor in the Ultimate Ears appeal. Each set is constructed based on a silicone mold of your ear canal, created by an audiologist or hearing aid center. The fitting process is odd but not unpleasant, as goop (the technical term is viscous silicone, but goop is close enough) is pressed into your ear, allowed to dry for a few minutes, and gently popped out. The benefits of custom fitting are two: comfort and noise reduction. You're free from the irritation and frequent adjustments common with over-the-counter earbuds, and you'll never have to worry about your buds falling out, whether you're exercising furiously or just falling asleep on the train. Furthermore, because the fitted buds seal your ear canals, outside noise is effectively blocked out. Yes, you can enjoy a similar effect with noise-canceling headphones, but any decent noise-canceling system is bulky and inconvenient to carry, whereas the Ultimate Ears tuck away in a pocket-sized pouch.
The fitted earbud houses two separate drivers, one each for high and low frequencies. Together they provide remarkable clarity in vocal tracks and a profound bass response that is strong but still musically precise. I've been perfectly happy with the least expensive custom-fitted Ultimate Ears model, the UE-5c ($550)—it delivers beautiful sound quality for a wide range of musical genres and offers the same sound-blocking performance as higher-priced alternatives. If you have golden ears or just feel the need to own the ultimate Ultimates, additional versions with higher audio specs are available at prices up to $900. No matter which model you prefer, you get to choose from a wide range of colors and enjoy the sanitary satisfaction of knowing your Q-tip-phobic kids can't borrow your buds.