Since the iPod age, earbuds have evolved in two distinct, terrible ways. There are those like Apple’s (AAPL), which rest outside your ear canal, and there are popular retail models that use mushy bulbs to plug it up. Both styles are usually one-size-fits-all, so they often hurt, fall out, or become defunct when the silicon cushion comes off in your bag.
“Before these, if you wanted a custom fit, you’d have to go to a doctor,” Kaufman says. There, an audiologist would cast molds of your ear canal and, for upwards of $500, have earphones made by a third-party manufacturer.
Nikki Kaufman, formerly of the entrepreneurial platform Quirky, decided to solve these problems by building her own bespoke buds. To buy Normals—inspired by the idea that, like fingerprints, no two ears are identical—you download an app and submit a few ear selfies. These images are rendered at a New York storefront and fed into a 3D printer. In a few hours, out come plastic nubbins, which hook into the outer ear. At first, these feel invasive, as if someone’s pulling on your lobes. And you’ll have to face the reality that, symmetry be damned, your ears are two different sizes. The process accounts for that, but only one of my buds fits perfectly; the other is ever-so-slightly loose. The sound makes up for this—it’s crisp, cancels out most ambient noise, and has a deep bass that cheap models lack. And, after a week, I stopped noticing they were even there. Same goes for my chatty officemates.