When it comes to earphones (or in-ear headphones, call them whatever you’d like) the single most important factor is fit. No matter how many drivers they have, how much they cost, or what brand name they carry, if they don’t fit well you won’t have a good listening experience. And, as it turns out, fit is a tricky issue. The pair that works great for me might not work well for you (not that I’d let someone else use my earphones) and vice versa, simply due to the shape of our respective ear canals. While the swappable inserts are helpful they aren’t a sure thing, so buyers need to shop around and find a brand that works for them. Of course, the best possible solution would be custom earphones built and fitted just for you. This isn’t a new idea, and companies like Ultimate Ears already do it, but they have typically been aimed at musicians and audio professionals. Prices have come down, but there are not a huge number of options out there, especially given the flood of people moving to earphones. The newest entrant to the custom earphone game is Altec Lansing who has teamed up with ACS, an experienced in-ear audio company. Their entry-level offering is the A1 Custom Single Driver Earphone, which sells for $500. It’s basically the ACS T3 single driver monitor with Altec branding and retail availability. By “retail availability” I don’t mean that you have an audiologist build your custom earphones in the store (like I did). Rather, you can find and examine the box in a store, like Manhattan’s J&R, and then you can buy it right there. After that you find a participating audiologist nearby, make a mold of your ears, and then within two weeks you’ll have your perfectly fitting earphones sent to your doorstep. The molding procedure is quite easy, and takes about 30 minutes to run though. You’ll have some silicone goop squirted in your ear and you won’t be able to hear much for a few minutes, but it’s a quick (and, needless to say, painless) procedure. The A1 earphones are a translucent black silicone, so they are low key and interestingly shaped. They have a cord with an L-bend that leads to a 3.5mm jack. The earphones had no extras — no iPhone-compatible buttons, no inline volume adjustments, or anything like that. That’s fine, but for $500 they really should have earbuds that are detachable from the cable. This way if (or more accurately, when) the cable breaks then the earphones — which make up the vast majority of the value of the product — can be saved and a new cable can be purchased. ACS’ people will tell you that their kevlar cable is tough and that it won’t break, but in my experience every headphone cable eventually cracks, usually at the connector, so I would have much rather seen them tack on a few extra dollars and use a solution like Shure has on their SE line. As far as the fit goes, I’ll start by saying that I have smaller-than-normal ear canals and I’m picky about fit. Generally I use products from Shure or Ultimate Ears, but I’m not generally a fan of Etymotic, V-Moda, or Skull Candy, just to pick some examples. I tend to use the smaller fit pieces as I appreciate a good seal and lower volumes with minimal ambient noise. That basically makes me an ideal candidate for custom earphones (though I suppose there are some people with oddly shaped ears that really need them). ACS/Altec use a soft earpiece, which has some flex to it, making it easy to insert and comfortable to wear, unlike some hard plastic earphones that can be comfortable, but can also be disastrous if not properly fitted. The larger point is that the A1’s fit quite well and, depending how firmly they are inserted into the ear canal they can provide up to a 26 db decrease in ambient noise (which is to say a very sizable drop). What this means is that you can get great sound and a huge drop in unwanted noise with the custom ear pieces, but these aren’t something you can insert and walk the streets with as you’ll be almost entirely unable to hear your surroundings. They are even too much for use at the gym, unless if you have no intention of hearing people talking to you. These are for use at home when you really want to listen to something and give it your concentration, without hearing your neighbor’s car alarm or your girlfriend’s television show. Sometimes it’s possible to create a total, suction-like seal, which can be a bit uncomfortable, but there is generally a very good fit. The key is keeping the earpiece clean and not pushing it in too firmly. The sound quality on the A1 earphones is very good. They have a clean, crisp sound that is a noticeable improvement over typical earphones — people used to the standard $150-$200 models will notice a significant difference. A major part of this, of course is the fit, so more analytical buyers will have to take that into account, though the custom fit the silicone ear pieces offer cannot be rivaled by off the shelf units. The seal on the earphones and the depth they go into your ear canals means that minimal volume is needed to produce sufficient sound levels. The main upside of this is that you are free of the distortion that often accompanies high volume levels.The A1s and their single driver offer nice clarity, which shines when coupled with the near-complete blocking of ambient noise. They aren’t at all bass heavy, but when playing deeper notes they serve them up well enough. Their sound does seem to lack a certain depth to it. Even at concert-like volumes, it doesn’t have the weightiness to it that I’d like to get from something in this price range. That said, considering their small size and lightness (13 grams) they are still offering a full package. I’ve heard talk of bass-related distortion, but I’m not listening at volumes where that has been an issue. Altec is offering up three models based on their partnership with ACS. The A1 is the $499 single driver model, after which comes the dual driver A2 and the (you guessed it) triple driver A3, which go for $749 and $999 respectively. Each of those are considerably larger than the A1, so what you get in sound quality you tradeoff in affordability, price, and discreetness. If you are looking for high-end earphones you should at least consider the custom route. This makes the Altec Lansing A1s a reasonable starting point. They are quite comfortable, they offer up really nice clarity, and (for better or worse) you’ll hear a lot of stuff in your music that you didn’t know was there. Plus, offering up a -26 db isolation means you get a product that you could practically use on the shooting range (you know, next time you go to target practice). The bigger point is they offer a really solid fit which helps the perceived sound quality and minimizes outside annoyances. Of course, you can’t really go too wrong if you are spending this much on headphones/earphones, so while you won’t be able to shop around for custom earphones you should know that options exist. The soft silicone material of the Altec Lansing A1 earphones is a win in my book, but just like non-custom earphones, everyone will have a make and model they prefer. My biggest single problem with these is still, as mentioned above, the fact that the main cable is not replaceable. kevlar or no, I’ve ruined too many pairs of earphones to go into a purchase like this without some insurance. All three models of the Altec Lansing custom earphones are available at retail locations all over. You’ll still have to visit an audiologist, but you’ll be able to see the package in a store, give them as a gift, or use that gift certificate you got over the holidays on them.