Custom-Made Headphones: Listen Up Before It's Too Late

Yes, better headphones cost more. But they let in less noise, so you won't crank the volume

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Danny Kim for TIME

JH Audio JH5 Pro Their custom fit and complex circuits mean that music never sounded so good. Seriously. Price: $400

There was a time not too long ago when you could walk down the street without seeing white, brightly colored or bedazzled earbuds jammed into everyone's ears. Just as the iPod has revolutionized the way we buy music, the small, disk-shaped earbuds that come bundled with it have changed the way we listen to music. But not in a good way. Aside from being uncomfortable and prone to falling out, earbuds sit outside the ear canal and leave room for lots of ambient noise to seep in, leading many of us to turn up the volume dangerously high to compensate.

It's tempting to blame Apple and its überpopular iPod — more than 240 million have been sold since 2001 — for causing widespread hearing loss. But a federal appeals court exonerated the company in December, noting that Apple puts warnings on its packaging and iTunes site and offers instructions for how to set volume limits on iPods, which can be cranked up to 115 decibels (db).

To put that into perspective: the average individual can tolerate up to eight hours of sound at 85 db — think busy city traffic — before suffering hearing damage. "For every 5 db over 85 db, the exposure time before irreversible damage gets cut in half," says Beth Orliss, an audiologist in New York City. To sell iPods in France, Apple had to max out the volume at 100 db, which, by the way, is as loud as a motorcycle engine.

Setting volume limits is a good idea, but it won't block outside sounds. In-ear monitors (IEM) are better at isolating noise than earbuds are because they are inserted into the ear canal. Several mass-market brands, which range in price from $39 to $399, use gummy-bear-like coverings that can be squished into place. But the sound quality still isn't perfect, in part because, like earbuds, IEMs are too small to house complex audio circuits.

So what's the best solution? Custom-made IEMs. Get a licensed audiologist to take molds of your ears and send them to JH Audio. "The audio signature is tuned to the individual's ear-canal size and shape, allowing us to tune the audio for time, phase and accuracy," says founder Jerry Harvey, whose clients include Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga.

His boutique in Apopka, Fla., makes custom IEMs that start at $400, which might sound like a lot of money, but they fit perfectly and come with a two-year warranty. (Other makers of high-end IEMs offer only one year.) Harvey will even customize the exteriors with a choice of dozens of colors, and he also offers the option to inlay any image sent via JPEG.

"Ears are like fingerprints — everyone's are different," he says. If comfort isn't reason enough to persuade you to make the switch, then consider this: keep cranking up the volume on your crappy earbuds, and your next fitting could be for a hearing aid.