You're glimpsing the future of manufacturing. Launched in August 2014, Normal sells one type of custom-made earphone out of its headquarters retail store and factory in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Users download an app that snaps photos of both ears (because they are not mirror images of each other), lets them choose one of seven colors, and uploads the data to the company. Within 48 hours a bespoke pair of handsome, great-sounding earbuds is sent to your home, with your name etched on the case. If they don’t fit, you can send them back for a refitting, free of charge.
The Good: A workout-friendly, custom-made, 3-D-printed earphone that you order via a smart and entertaining app. The novelty would mean nothing if the tailored fit didn’t make a real difference, and the tailored fit would mean nothing if the sound weren’t exceptional.
The Bad: Two hundred is pushing it for a pair of earbuds. Environmental sound gets in; some users might prefer better noise cancellation. Not wireless (though fitting that technology in would have been a tall order).
The Verdict: A very well-made earphone by any measure; throw in the pure fun of 3D printing, a fit that will make them yours for a lifetime (unless your ears are still growing), and well-rounded audio quality, and they’re worth the price—especially considering the lifetime guarantee for repairs, even if you dunk them in water.
- Driver: 14 mm Neodymium Dynamic
- Sensitivity: 109 dB/mW
- Impedance: 32 Ohms
- Frequency Response: 20 Hz-20 kHz
- MSRP: $199 (includes tax and shipping)
Anyone who puts a premium on quality audio as well as on being able to do crazy stuff like get out of one’s chair and move around. For years, earbud makers have been trying various designs of rubber wedges, clamps, and looping cords to keep them in place, but once the sweat starts rolling, no one I know has been a stranger to the Big Slip, followed by the Great Exit and the God-Damn-These-Things. It’s not because any of us have oddball ears—Normal named themselves that because everyone has unusual ears. There is no normal—or, the only normal is abnormal.
There is no other product on the market like this, but the obvious comparison is with custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) like the ones made my Etymotic and Westone. Those professional-grade earphones require a visit to the ear doctor, who makes a silicone mold of your ear canal and ships the mold off to the company, and a few weeks later your monitors arrive. These therefore run to $1,000 or more, which means they’ll always remain something best suited to music professionals, not us denizens of the backcountry.
In this price range, the closest competition is a premium sports earphone like the Bose SoundSport or Bowers and Wilkins’s C5. Both come with various rubber attachments or looping cords that are good attempts at the holy grail of a secure fit but don’t come through in the end. But the clincher is that Normals sound just as good as those premium brands—maybe even better, because the speaker sits at just the right position, directing sound into your ear canal, and are very immune to the jostling that frequently causes other models to get displaced—out of position and pointing their sound into your skin, or pushed in too far, causing a sweaty seal to form and causing that obnoxious mix of squeak and muffle.
I wore the Normals on trail runs throughout the spring in Tucson, Arizona, where temps at 9 a.m. were already scorching by March.
The first thing I noticed—and have kept on noticing—is that the Normals nestle right into the lower-back pocket of the ear, unlike everything I’ve ever tested, which typically utilizes the ridge over your ear canal. This results in an immediate and dramatic improvement: As I run, any inadvertent tugging, which comes from below, only pulls them into the lower contours of my ear, and nothing bad happens. The connector also swivels to further foster movement. As gravity and sweat conspire to try to overthrow this beautiful arrangement, again, the perfectly fitting molded earpiece goes nowhere. Which is exactly where it’s supposed to go.
I’ve tested the pro-grade in-ear monitors, and they do sound amazing, but the trade-off is that they sit much further in, only millimeters from your eardrum. Any accidental full-volume blast from your music device could easily cause damage to your hearing, and if not damage, then some sharp pain.
After three months of using the Normals to play Alt-J, Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, and many bands that don’t start with an A, I had no loss of audio quality. Some users have complained of crackling, which probably means that with enough tugging they will start to short out, but I didn’t have this problem. And frequent encounters with moisture (including head dousings when the temperature shot past 90) didn’t cause damage—which is not to say that you should try to swim with them.
A cool feature that I wasn’t aware of until I visited the store in Chelsea is the reconnectable cord. Let’s say you’re tying your shoes and you accidentally step on the cord; when you stand up, something’s gotta give, and with most wired earbuds, that means disaster. With the Normals, the cord disengages from the earpiece, and you just snap it back in. You can also swap out your old one—should your miniature dachshund chew her way through it—for a replacement at no cost, and you can even choose from two sizes: 44 inches or 63 inches. The cord also houses an inline mic and call control so you can take a call without breaking a stride.
And did I say they sound fantastic? Deep, smooth bass that doesn’t distort, very good midrange, and crisp highs. The drivers even seem to offer a different kind of dimensionality that approaches the sound of those expensive IEMs: Because they sit a little closer to your eardrum and direct sound to just the right place, you can pick out the clanging of a high hat from the strum of the lead guitar as if they’re coming from different places.
Like Apple’s little round ear saucers, Normals let external sound in, which can be good or bad. If you’re looking for noise cancellation, these don’t have it, and those expensive IEMs do have a big edge when it comes to creating an intimate space that lets in nothing else. For me, this is not a concern except perhaps when I’m on a plane; I’d rather be able to hear what’s coming up from behind me, especially if I’m on a mountain bike (and I never listen to music on the road). Also, you decide: Is it weird that they enclose a card, signed by the engineer, that says, “You have lovely earholes”?
Is this my new go-to earphone for trail running? Call it a tie. My other favorite is the long-discontinued Jaybird Sportsband—a lightweight pair of on-ear Bluetooth phones that, after six years of use, still sound great. They pop onto my noggin and stay there, the controls are built into the earpiece, and I am liberated from the tyranny of the cord. In a future review, I’ll make a case for its resurrection. But if, somewhere down the road, Normal is able to fit a Bluetooth receiver into these custom-made wonders, then the tie would be broken.