Inexpensive In Ear Monitors and rigged up ear mold adapters

A while back, my friend Jason was telling me about some really affordable in ear monitors that amazon was selling. These seemed to have some buzz going online, and it sounded like other audio pros he knew had them or were interested in them as well. [Some review links here: rtings, Soundphile, Forbes, Audiofool]

The product in question is the KZ AS10, a Chinese import retailing at Amazon under $60. [https://amzn.to/2RaGWQ2This and other product links here are Amazon referrals. Feel free to search for them yourself if you don’t want to mess with it] They can be found even cheaper on Alibaba and other import sites if you’re willing to gamble with authenticity and long shipping times.

Stock photo from Amazon

I was a little curious, but I had no real need for IEMs, until I tried to practice using acoustic drums outside of a band context for the first time in some years. (shoutout to soundspace in Indy – If you need a rehearsal space downtown-ish, check them out) I tried playing along to a CD with my apple ear buds, but the drums drowned everything out. I used to have some sealed vic firth headphones that were better for this, but I couldn’t find them. I think I threw them out because they were so uncomfortable. For that session, I ended up having to blast the CD through a PA system to hear it, and even that wasn’t great.. This kind of practice seemed like a decent use for some $60 IEMs. So I bought em.

I’m no stranger to the world of “Chi-fi”. A few years ago I bought some of the much ballyhoo-ed Mrice E300’s, again, from Amazon. I think I paid less than $20 for those, and while I didn’t find enough a reason to use them for much more than a backup for listing to tv on the iPad while laying in bed, they aren’t bad, and the low price keeps me from feeling too bad about the purchase. I’ve heard them referred to as “beater ear buds for audiophiles”, which seems like a good way to put it. I don’t know, maybe they are just over-hyped, but not any worse than the stuff being sold for a lot more $$, IMO. [for in depth reviews of the E300 check out these links: Wired, AudioBudget, GadgetViper, Jan Beta]

Amazon stock photo

The KZs showed up in a modest but not totally useless box with 3 sizes of ear tips, and an over-the-ear cable with mini (1/8″) jack. They are pretty comfortable. I listened to some music, and played some video games through them and found them to sound pretty ok, if not actually good. I’ve heard of people saying they have a “burn in” period, but I haven’t taken the time to do anything like that.

I guess the real selling point with these is the low end.. the KZs have 5 drivers and they are all of the balanced armature type. I don’t know much about it, but apparently balanced armatures aren’t great at low frequency production, so other similar IEMs/headphones use a different kind of driver, dynamic drivers, for the low end. The KZ AS10 seems to be the first wave of products using a new balanced armature that can do the low stuff. And these did have some low end. The weak link in it all might be the rubber ear tips though – if you get a good seal by pressing the headphones into your ear and holding them there, the low frequencies sound great, but otherwise it’s kind of hit or miss. I’ve heard people say that the memory foam ear tips that you can buy separately work better.

One thing that I really like a lot about these is that they get loud without a ton of power, which I assume has something to do with the balanced armatures. A lot of the headphones I have need an additional dedicated headphone amp to drive at realistic volumes. The KZs had no problems here. Everything I plugged them into could push them just fine.

After I had used them for a bit, I got to wondering how they would do when connected to ear molds. I think for me, this idea is one of the more interesting parts of IEMs – stage use, and blocking out other sounds so you can completely control what’s in your ears. I have some old Sensaphonics silicone ear-mold “musicians ear plugs” that I got from Dawn at earEverything 10 or so years ago, and figured there had to be a way I could connect these to the headphones.. and there was..

The Senaphonics use filters made by a company called etymolic research to block sounds. I figured I could buy some extra filters and drill them to accommodate the KZ’s. I looked around, and found that the filters are kind of expensive.. ($30/pair) and then used this all as an excuse to play with some 3D modeling and printing. I modeled the exterior of the filter matching the originals, and made a channel through it that would fit the nozzle of the KZ. There are some little retaining barbs for the rubber tips, and I tried to design a groove for them, but didn’t anticipate it working really well since it was all pushing the tolerance of most 3D printers. And speaking of 3D printers, I don’t have one, and I don’t know anyone close by who has a real hi res one, so I decided to use this as an opportunity to try out Shapeways.com.

Shapeways worked out pretty well.. I did 2 of the filter “blanks” each in two types of material, just to see what it would be like. The total came to $30, which for such little things, seemed like a lot of money, but hey, it’s an experiment. They somehow only delivered 3 of the 4 pieces, which was kind of annoying, but thankfully, I got both of the ones in the material that I liked better.

Shapeways print on the left, etymolic research filter on the right

The blanks fit in my ear molds fine, but the channel for the KZs was a little narrow. I busted out the Italian file set and opened them up pretty quickly. The fit is snug. I had imagined that the fit wouldn’t be that tight and I’d need to put some rubber cement on to seal them, but it seems to be unnecessary. Re: the retention barbs – the barbs didn’t seem to cause a problem, though I suspect the ductility of the headphone tube is the cause of this, and may fatigue if I take these on and off frequently.

When connected to the ear molds, the whole thing sticks out from my head quite a bit, but the ear-loop cable still goes over my ear and at least so far hasn’t been uncomfortable. The overall seal of the headphones is definitely better and the low end more prominent. I do have some concern over the ear-molds and adapter altering the sound passing through them. the adapter’s channel has a reduction in it. I guess the place to start on figuring this out might be Kirchhoff, but it’s all stuff beyond me, and I really don’t have the interest.

ear-mold on KZ AS10 earphone using adapter
the headphones stick out a little further from my ear when used with the ear-molds and adapters

I’m toying with the idea of making a pile of these and selling them, but I’m not sure. If you’re interested, drop me a line.

Sound comparisons from my experiment:

I used the first couple tracks off of Hum’s Downward Is Heavenward as a reference, played lossily from Spotify through an Avid MBox mini 3. I listened with Sennheiser HD600’s and Mackie HR824 nearfield monitors for comparisons. Take all these opinions with a grain of salt, because I certainly am no Golden Ear.

Listening to the KZs with the earmolds and adapters, the bass was definitely more present than with the rubber tips, or in my monitors. Bordering on Metallica – ..And Justice For All level “whoomping”. It didn’t necessarily sound unrealistic or over accentuated the way Beats headphones sound, but I think these just go lower than any of my other references. Overall, the music didn’t seem to have the “glue” that it does when listening on other devices. Maybe more mids than usual, but I don’t know if that’s true or me second guessing myself.

I switched to the HD600’s. Whoa.. these really make the high end come forward in a crispy way, though I don’t think I necessarily like it. A little more of the glue that was missing with the KZs/ear molds. Nothing going on in the low end, which isn’t surprising since these are open backed.

I switched to the KZs with the rubber tips installed. The low bass is gone. There are still lows and more than the HD600s had. Glue is still missing. Highs are less prominent/affected than the HD600s. I had the same questioning of the mids.

Finally, I brought up the Mackies.. Probably the reference I’m most used to, and it shows. None of the low low stuff. The glue is here. The highs seem “normal” and not accentuated in any way.

These comparisons all may be for naught because honestly, IEMs aren’t for critical monitoring, they’re for the stage. Well, I guess they’re for whatever you want them to be for. It would be nice to compare them to one of the more traditional IEM options like the Shures or Westones, but I don’t have any handy. At the very least, the KZs are an interesting toy for $60 and maybe the option of a rigged up ear mold configuration adds to the novelty.

Style guides

This is surely something from the boring side of design, but I figured it was worth throwing up here.

As a part of my thesis work I’ve come to a point where it seems prudent to develop a style guide. I’ve done one of these once before for a student data management web app, but it was a pretty low impact affair. The one I’m doing now is a little more robust, and kind of spans the two different types of style guides that I’m aware of – Brand and Layout.

Both of these have some bleed into each other, but I think each is important for it’s own reason. For my project I’m doing a slight re-branding, something that the company hasn’t really thought about for 40 years. This is particularly important because the company doesn’t have a mission statement, and their existing brand is a little watered down by a non-specific name and failure to adapt the brand when the core product/service changed.

Among some of the other resources I used to try and figure out what should go in here was this article which provides links to several corporate brand guides that I thought were pretty useful.
20 Inspiring Brand Guides

From this, the key elements that I’m including in the brand guide are:

brand values
a new logo and usage guide
colorway and usage guide
type faces

Layout is another very important part of my thesis, as I will be designing a website, interactive touch screen displays and in-store signage. In fact, these needs are really the impetus for taking on a style guide, as it should make it quicker to churn these out with consistency. This is also a little bit of a headache, as I’d originally hoped that I would be playing the role of designer in a strict way for these parts – with output being hi fidelity photoshop/illustrator mockups. This would have freed up _a lot_ of my time, but my committee, probably rightly so, requested that I actually build out functional stuff. What this means for a layout oriented style guide is that it’s going to be more of a CSS pattern library. Here’s an article I found that was a pretty good example. Creating Style Guides.  I would love to find something that’s a little more verbose as far as a bullet list of elements I need, but this is highly dependent on the project I suppose so it might be a tall order.

So far here are the sections I’m working with:

web site (incl component CSS patterns)
touch screen
signage

Anyway, I had better get back to it. Just wanted to post those links because I thought they were useful.

sometimes services / products require context to understand.

So I’m in San Diego for the summer working on an internship. As I tend to be an observer of things, I’m taking lots of notes on things that are different (than Indiana/the midwest) out here. One thing that I’ve noted is that the Fandango iPhone app is much more useful here than it is back home. I’ve used the app for many years, just to look up show times. Admittedly when I’m at home, I fall back on looking up times on the theaters website. When I’m not already out and about, there’s no reason. All of the theaters in my town are owned by the same company and the show times are all on the same website.

Fandango also offers a “buy your tickets from app” option, which seems to be the real reason that the app was created. Theaters in Indiana have signs about this service, and some of the bigger ones, say, in Indianapolis even have fandango ticket redeeming stations.. that are never used. I never understood the point. it was just an extra step in a process that wasn’t terribly painful.

In San Diego, things are different. When I get to the theater at 12:45p to see a movie that starts at 1:00p, I am finding that not only is the showing I want sold out, but so are the next two. (at home you can go 5 minutes late and still get a ticket, without exception) Additionally, the lines for the ticket booth are usually really long. I used the Fandango app last week and was able to skip the line. The ticket taker scanned my phone and I was in.

I still like the Indiana way better, but this solves the mystery I had as to why people would want to do use this service.

backpack roundup

There are two products that I have a weakness for. Jackets and backpacks. I don’t know what that’s about, but I’ve seen some cool backpacks lately and wanted to share.

Madpax Blox Backpacks

Madpax Blox Backpacks

First the Madpax Blox backpacks from thinkgeek. I like the look of the multilayered blocks. Who know if the pack is designed well from a use standpoint though.

Galaxy backpacks

Galaxy backpacks

Next up the galaxy backpacks from sprayground.com. These guys glow in the dark, and might be the perfect accessory if you already have black milk’s galaxy leggings or galaxy shoes. Sprayground has backpacks in some other fun prints too, like bandana print and stacks of money. they even have one that looks like it’s made entirely of gold lamé.

Timbuk2 Uptown

Timbuk2 Uptown

Moving to the more utilitarian side of things, I noticed this week that Timbuk2 has a few new offerings. The Uptown backpack looks pretty sharp and has a nice array or storage options. They’ve also got a new Race Duffel that looks nice. However, it doesn’t look quite as practical as my OGIO Endurance 9.0, but the Timbuk2 offering is definitely the better price point.

Timbuk2 Race Duffel

Timbuk2 Race Duffel

So what am I using lately? For everyday, it’s the OGIO Module. It’s the perfect size. It holds two moleskines, my iPad and wireless keyboard, with a zippered storage on the front that holds an array of pens, chapstick, audio recorder, pill container, eye drops and usually some other junk. It is a great size for carrying on the motorcycle or the bike. Best bag purchase I’ve ever made.

OGIO Module

OGIO Module

I also have a couple of bags from Everki. I’ve had the Beacon for over a year now. It’s a great bag, although probably overkill for my uses. It is one of the few bags that will fit my ASUS G2P laptop. plenty of extra storage in two front pouches and two size, waist pouches. My only complaint is that the shape, placement and openings of the front pockets makes them kind of difficult to use. I also have the Urbanite vertical messenger bag from Everki. It’s a great bag, but was way too big for my needs. It has whole lot of storage options.

Everki Beacon

Everki Beacon

Everki Urbanite

Everki Urbanite

“Art and advertising (and skateboards and design)” OR “some cool documentaries”

This post will be a little tangential, but bear with me.

So today, I’m sitting in Design History class watching Art & Copy for probably the 6th time. [If you’re not familiar with the film, it’s a documentary about advertising. It’s really much more interesting than it sounds. You can watch it free on youtube. If you care about art or design at all you’ll probably enjoy it.] I think I had an “A-HA” moment. Not “take on me” but an idea about my career in design. Lately I’ve been looking down the throat of an internship hunt, and in the process realizing that I don’t fit the mold of any of the internship positions that my educational track mandates. It’s been a great source of stress and driven me to do a lot of soul searching on the topic of “what am I good at”. After hearing David Kennedy [of Wieden+Kennedy, the design firm that hosts the “basket” as seen in portlandia] say that he hated advertising and the love/hate situation he and Dan Wieden had with the advertising were what drew them together forming the firm, a light bulb went off for me.

I’ve traditionally hated the idea of advertising. It seems manipulative and dirty. It causes people to do things that aren’t good for them. ..and lets not get started on child targeting advertising. I’ve always felt, rather unfortunately, that I am built for such work. I’m fascinated by social science. I have a good working knowledge of human cognition and how it relates to design and persuasion. I’m also a pretty good communicator and have an ability to distill ideas down to easily manageable nuggets. These strengths aren’t yet doing a lot for me in Industrial Design and Interaction design. Well.. they are, but not enough to give me leverage over my competition. I’m currently going through an entrepreneurship certificate program, another area that I have some negative opinions on, and seeing my skills working in that arena as well. Seeing these guys with the same concerns I have, and managing to move forward in spite of them was kind of inspiring. Rich Silverstien and Jeff Goodby had some good things to say as well. To paraphrase, it’s not crappy when it’s done right.

Ok. Time to jump the tracks.

Bones Brigade documentary

Bones Brigade documentary

All this thinking about advertising reminded me of the excellent Bones Brigade documentary that Lauren and I watched on Netflix a while ago. Aside from being a really cool story about a team that really defined the sport of skateboarding, this film covered some of the art behind the brand. At the time, skateboard ads were this bland, pseudo-sporting goods style that showed average kids in full on, ugly colored safety gear. Bones Brigade brought in this artist called Craig Stecyk, who started doing all this off the wall (sic) design for the print ads. Most didn’t feature skateboards at all. They had fire, taxidermied animals, etc. To paraphrase the explanation given in the film, they were selling ideas, not skateboards. Such a great commentary. It was so amazing to me to learn the genesis of this style of art in advertising. I was not a skater growing up, but I rode BMX, which experienced a similar, but not as pronounced change in advertising. This kind of art was ubiquitous to me in my semi-suburban, 90’s highschool years. I remember seeing art from skateboard magazines early on. It seemed so acceptable even though it was kind of out there. I remember one particular Toy Machine ad that had little claymation figures that I tore out and saved. The disruptive format that Bones Brigade put out there is still in use today.

So, anyway.. where I’m going with this is that this film is great, especially if you grew up in the 90’s and had exposure to skateboard culture. I really love being able to trace ideas back to specific points. This is the most solid example of that that I’ve encountered.

Before Bones Brigade

Before Bones Brigade

After Bones Brigade

After Bones Brigade

 

Mike Doughty is bringing me down. (or, “The future reality of playing music for a living”)

I used to have an interest in the music industry. I think I actually believed that I could potentially, eventually get a job in that mucky muck. With the passing of such ideas, I still have a vague interest in the music industry. Mostly I’m appalled at the way businesses have failed to adapt to the advent of the Internet (suing your customer base for fun and profit) and simultaneously I’m curious to see how things will shake out once the sinking ships finally go down.

There has recently been an exchange in the media whose honesty is one of the more accurate reflections of the current situation of making money off of music. It all started with a blog post by Emily White, an NPR intern, titled “I never owned any CDs to begin with” in which the author brags about the amount of music she has acquired illegally, rationalizing her acquisitions by way of the venerable “artists don’t get any of the money from record sales” argument.

Emily’s blog moved a lot of people to write about it, including almost 1000 comments, a commentary from an NPR staff member, a post from a talent agency co-founder and most importantly for my little narrative, a reaction from David Lowery, the singer from Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker who now teaches music business courses at the University of Georgia.

Lowery depicts the current music industry situation by tracking the flow of end user money; when users download illegally, their money goes to internet providers and manufacturers of computers and phones _instead of_ musicians. While I can see his point, it’s not waterproof, as downloading legally still requires that you buy a laptop and internet service. Regardless, his ultimate point stands – musicians don’t get any money. This is backed up by the fact that most musicians do not, as many lay people suspect, make all their money from touring. He goes further to insinuate that music stealing makes depressed musicians commit suicide; kind of a low blow.

The next step in this conversation of comments comes from Mike Doughty, who in a blog post agrees with Lowery’s description of the situation and takes it a step further in the form of the equation:

less money to record labels = less tour support for bands = fewer bands

Doughty drives this home by positing that a band like Radiohead wouldn’t have survived if they had to deal with this new industry economy. It’s a depressing picture. Not just because of Radiohead, but because there will be fewer creative bands.

I agree with many of his points, but I can’t help but think that his equation is only good at predicting the short term. We’ve already been seeing the fallout of diminished recording industry revenues. What it amounts to is the big labels not gambling as much on quirky acts, and instead banking on the sure bets. This manifests in an abundance of over-produced, good looking pop singers and little else. I feel like this is what Doughty is describing. We’re already there.. My feeling is though that this strategy wont sustain the music industry, or if it does, it’s neglect of all the other non-cookie cutter music will spawn new avenues for bands that don’t fit the mold. Sure, these bands wont be able to tour the way that they have in the past, but does that mean they can’t be successful? I feel like new avenues for music discovery will develop as people who like music other than whats on the radio grow discontent with the Katy Perry’s and Maroon 5’s of the world.

What will these new distribution avenues and taste makers be? I have no idea. That’s for someone else to think up. I think there is plenty of room for it though. Technology has not only given people the power to steal music, but it’s also given people the power to create web streaming and pirate broadcast stations with little financial cost. The web has given us a huge network of self guided discovery, and interactive discovery. You can’t shortchange that. At an even more basic level, will the death of the “getting signed” dream keep people from making music? Yeah, right. Less people will be able to make a living playing music, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Music is a big part of the human experience. I wouldn’t mind seeing it de-commercialized a bit. It doesn’t cost as much now to “be a musician” as it used to. You can buy instruments at Walmart. You can record your music on your laptop at home and distribute it on the internet. Yeah, you wont get Radiohead level famous doing this, but why do you need to be. If the “get rich” factor is removed from the equation, I can’t help but think that cooler, more interesting music would surface. 

 

Note: I’m not deriding any of the authors mentioned above, or trying to say that they are wrong. We’re all just trying to see the road map of the future of music.

 

My everyday carry and future plans

Surprisingly, my one previous everyday carry related post on this blog draws quite a bit of traffic. The whole concept of EDC as recently manifested in ultra expensive handmade tools is pretty interesting to me in a business sense. There are a lot of forums and websites devoted to this topic, and a lot of boutique crafters successfully charging a whole lot of money for their items, but it looks like established companies in this product area really haven’t caught on. I can’t help but wonder if they think its a fad, or if their product design life cycle is just so slow that nothing has hit the market yet.

Anyway, I figured the topic was worth revisiting. I’ve been ruminating over what I carry, and what might be more practical in the future. I also feel like the vast majority of EDC related sites only show ultra high end, “rich guy” pocket dumps. I can’t help but question the apparent number of people who carry only a gun, a $2000 pocket knife and a car key. I don’t know what kind of lifestyle they have, but it’s pretty far from my own. As such, I wanted to show my everyday stuff, which I feel is pretty average.

My "everyday carry"

My “everyday carry”

iPhone 4S. (not pictured) Currently enjoying it sans case after my Speck CandyShell case broke.

Black paw bag. I got this in Chinatown in NYC. The design is great, but the material kind of sucks. I was carrying a laptop in it for a while, but it was so heavy that it started tearing the material below the strap.

Notebook.

Moleskines. One is my sketch book, and the other is for miscellaneous writing.

Kindle 3 & Acase.

Keys. On my main key ring, I keep my car’s key fob, a house key and a key to my bike rack. On days that I take my bike, truck or motorcycle to work, this keyring is swapped with another that has a truck key, a house key and a garage key.

Chums chumois lens cloth. My glasses are all crapped up a lot of the time. I used to carry a microfiber cloth to clean them but it was hard to keep it clean enough to work well. I’ve been using this solution from chums for a while, and I really like it.

Second set of keys. This key ring holds 3 keys for my office, a key to my work locker and a key to my Mom’s house. Right now it’s attached to the lens cloth, but sometimes I keep this key ring on a carabiner.

Burt’s Bee’s lip balm. I got in the habit of peeling the label off these so I could Identify my own since the brand is so common.

Motorola S305 bluetooth headphoneI wanted the Moto S9 headphones for a long time, but the bad reviews of sweat damage turned me away. The 305 was a lot lower in price and has been great. They certainly aren’t audiophile, but they are good enough for using at work or during workouts.

Prisma marker. black

Micron pens. .03, .05, .08

bic atlantis pen. not fancy, but it is smooth. good for sketching and note taking.

Jimi wallet. I’ve been using these for several years. I first got one through a chase bank facebook promotion. It’s very practical for me. I prefer to keep it in my front pocket, while I keep my phone in a back pocket. The only weakness of these is that it features several “living hinges”, which eventually (like 2 years +) break.

San Disk Cruzer 32G flash drive.

iPhone headphones. 

Short iPhone sync/charge cable.

Usb mini/micro cable.

Umbrella. (not shown) this fits into one of the size zippered pockets of my bag.

Leatherman Micra. (not shown) This is sometimes handy to have, but I feel like many of the tools are extraneous or too small to be useful. When my motorcycle died recently, I tried to use the philips screwdriver on the micra to open the fuse box.. it wouldn’t and the tool actually bent. Pretty disappointing. I’m looking to replace this somehow.

Glasses. (not shown) I really hate wearing contacts. I got into the habit of using glassescrafter.com several years ago. super prices and they cut lenses better than most of the places I’ve used locally.

 

 

 

Future Plans:
My current bag based setup seems to be a pretty good basis to build around, but I’ve been considering other things. One idea I had was to focus on items shaped like pens, and use something like a Niji roll to carry them. The rolled up form would be a lot smaller than my current bag. Unfortunately I wouldn’t have room for rectangular things like my notebooks or kindle.

Niji Roll

Niji Roll

I’ve also flirted with the idea of going with one of the Maxpedition storage solutions. The “Neat freak” seems cool, but has bad reviews. The “Fatty” seems to be particularly popular amongst EDC enthusiasts. I think it might be overkill for me though, unless I was planning on some extended outdoors time or making a zombie survival kit. Check out this video to see how much junk you can cram in one of these packs.


Another idea I’ve been experimenting with is using a pocket protector as a sub-carry device. I can put my pens, flash drives and other stuff in it, and then put it in my regular bag. if I don’t need my notebooks, etc, I can just pull the pocket protector out and take it with me. I found one at good will that’s got provisions for connecting a lanyard to it, which seems kind of practical. I could see such a set up being really useful for collaborative projects like 48.2.

As far as items that I’d like to add to my carry, here are a few things I’ve been looking at”

NY-LA wallet. As fond as I am of my Jimi wallet, I’d really like to minimize more. The NY-LA from CountyComm seems to fit the bill.

Streamlight 65018. I already have this piece, given to me by my ex-father in-law, I just haven’t used it in a long time. AAAA batteries are kind of hard to find locally. The pen form factor makes this easy to fit in any of the storage solutions I mentioned above.

T Driver. As frequently as I use a phillips screwdriver, I figure I should have something of the sort in my carry that’s not as weak as the phillips head in my Leatherman Micra. Survival Resources has this T Driver that fits the pen form factor, but folds for more leverage.

Pocket square. This is something in many of the “rich guy” carries I’ve seen that I could actually use. My recollections of handkerchiefs are usually gross, rough fabric with dried boogers stuck to them. Lately though there seem to be a lot of pocket squares made of soft, quality fabrics that would be great for mopping the sweat off my brow.

Leatherman wave. I like the small size of the Micra, but it sure doesn’t offer much leverage. I also wouldn’t mind having a set of pliers handy.

Contact stuff. I have yet to find a conveniently shaped container of contact solution. Squat cylindrical bottles waste space and are lumpy in my bag. Why aren’t these pen shaped? Same for lubricant eye drops.