New York City-based Normal has a good pitch: With just a few photos, it can 3-D print headphones that are customized for the contours of your ears. And it can do it for far less money than typical custom headphones.
Normal is not just some over-ambitious crowdfunding wannabe. The company has raised more than $5 million from investors, and it’s turned its Chelsea office space into a consumer showroom and 3-D printing factory. With that storefront and serious pedigree — its founder Nikki Kaufman comes from Quirky, the crowdsourced product outfit — Normal doesn’t feel like your typical infant startup.
As someone who’s always on the lookout for the perfect pair of headphones, I was intrigued almost from the start. And after spending a few weeks with the startup’s customized headphones, it’s clear to me that the company is on to something.
But for $200, there are also plenty of other headphones worth considering. And while Normal’s headphones are indeed uniquely built for your ears, they’re still not as exacting as pro-grade custom earbuds, like Logitech’s Ultimate Ears custom line and Etymotics’ custom fit earmolds.
A decent fit, but they won’t block out the world
Normal’s headphones are composed of two major parts: an inner plastic portion that houses the sound driver and a 3-D printed arm that fits precisely in your ear.
Unlike more expensive customized headphones, they don’t require a visit to an audiologist for an ear mold. Instead, you just need to hold a quarter up to your ear and snap a few photos using your smartphone and Normal’s app. But while that process is more user friendly than the professional alternative, it also means that Normal’s are only customized to a point — just those 3-D printed arms.
Normal’s app lets you choose the color of the 3-D printed portion, as well as the length and color of its cable. The company can get your headphones printed and delivered to you within 48 hours.
It took some time for me to find the best position for my Normal earbuds, but once I did, I was surprised that they felt practically weightless in my ears. The 3-D printed portion assures that the earbuds don’t move much, while the inner cabinet serves as a decent anchor.
I haven’t had much experience with higher-end custom earbuds, but their proponents often brag about their ability to block out plenty of external noise. That’s something that Normals, unfortunately, don’t offer. They’re what’s known as open-air earbuds, like Apple’s EarPods and the original iPod earbuds, which let in outside noise (and conversely, leak out music at louder volumes).
With the rising obsession with noise-canceling headphones these days, it’s surprising to see a new company launch a flagship pair of open headphones. They also took some getting used to for me, as I’ve spent the past few years collecting earbuds that block out external noise (I’ve owned a few pairs of Etymotics and Logitech’s Ultimate Ears, and I currently use a pair of RBH EP2 as my go-to earbuds).
For some, the Normal’s open-air design alone may be a deal breaker. It makes listening to most things difficult in loud environments. I’ve lost a few minutes from podcasts while loud subway trains rolled by, and the Normals were difficult to use during a few flights. Even now, as I’m writing this review in a coffee shop, the incessant hum of the air conditioner is getting in the way of my music.
Their open design also makes Normals difficult to use in quiet environments, as there’s a good chance you’ll end up disturbing people nearby if you listen to music at loud volumes.
Normal is working on a closed earbud model, Kaufman tells me, but it will likely be a while until that’s available.
Great sound in the right environment
So, after all those caveats, how do Normals sound? In a word: solid. That is, once you’re listening in a quiet spot.
Across a variety of music, they had just the right amount of mid-range and high-end detail to separate them lower-end headphones. And I was surprised to find that they also delivered a decent bass kick, something that you don’t typically find with open headphones. They sound comparable with other earbuds I’ve listening to in the $100-$200 range, though they pale in comparison to a pair of studio headphones like Sony’s classic MDR-7506.
While I can point to a few other cheaper earbuds that will deliver comparable sound, the Normal’s focus on personalization could be worth the extra cost for some. Once secured in your ears, they’re pretty comfortable and don’t come out easily. That makes them ideal for people who get fatigued with normal earbuds, and for anyone who moves around a lot.
Tired of throwing out headphones after your cables get frayed? That won’t happen with Normals — you can easily pop out and replace the cables if they become worn. That also opens up other options for customizability, such as different cable colors when you get bored of your initial choice.
You can also rotate the direction of Normal’s cables, which makes them equally comfortable for people who like to wear headphone cables over their ears (no, I will never understand them).
A problematic remote
One of Normals’ most frustrating aspects is the remote, which sits towards the center of the cable line. Given the way I typically wear earbuds (I like to slip the cables under my shirt), the remote was always slightly out of reach, and its placement also made it tough to take phone calls on the go.
I also had issues with the remote’s button design: It’s one long rectangular bar, which makes it hard to tell if you’re hitting the middle button (for play/pause) or one of the volume buttons on the ends. The ideal headphone remote should make those things distinct, otherwise it could lead to messy incidents like accepting a call when you’re trying to mute your ringer.
Kaufman says the company will eventually offer a cable with a remote closer to the ear. But I also hope the remote’s buttons also get a complete do-over.
Verdict: The cheapest path to custom headphones
If you’ve been dreaming of a pair of headphones custom-fitted for your ears, Normals are quite likely your only option at the moment.
At this point, they’re tough to recommend widely. You can find plenty of comparable-sounding headphones for half the price, and many people may prefer earbuds that block out sound. But if comfort and customizability is your goal, or if you just want a headphone that’s completely unlike what all of your friends have, then they’re a solid choice.
Normal is also yet another sign of the viability of hardware startups. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that a startup could deliver custom headphones that actually sounded decent for $200. But now, with the rise of 3-D printing and the surprising resurgence of the headphone market, it’s a reality.