At any electronics store, you can buy stereo earbuds that sound good. It’s a lot harder to find earbuds that feel good, and won’t fall out when you’re jogging or dancing to the music.
Lantos Technologies Inc., a Wakefield company spawned at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says it has solved the problem with Uvero, a line of earbuds that are customized to the precise shape of the user’s ears.
“Our tailor-made earphones give people easy access to superior sound and a custom fit,” said Brian Fligor, a biomedical engineer and the company’s chief audiology officer.
Lantos executives also hope the earbuds will someday protect the ears of American soldiers in combat.
Uvero earbuds went on sale this month at a store in Burlington Mall, and the company plans to expand gradually to other outlets. The buds can’t be sold over-the-counter or via the Internet, because each earpiece must be custom-fitted. They cost $269 a pair, putting them at the high end of the earbud market.
The Uvero system relies on technology developed by an MIT mechanical engineering professor, Douglas Hart. An expert in image processing, Hart invented a method of scanning teeth to help dentists create accurate molds for making crowns and bridges.
Uvero uses a similar technique to scan ear canals. A technician with a futuristic-looking device slides a rubber membrane into the subject’s ear, then inflates it with fluid so the membrane fills the ear canal. The feeling is surprisingly pleasant, like a small, cool water balloon gently squeezing against the inner ear.
Inside the balloon, a digital camera takes pictures of the inner membrane, which firmly presses against the ear canal so that its exact shape is visible. The image data are transformed into a model of the inner ear and relayed to a 3-D printer that creates a silicon earbud designed to fit each ear perfectly.
The earbuds deliver clear, brisk audio, though the midrange and bass quality in a pair created for a Globe reporter did not measure up to that of a pair of standard Apple iPhone earbuds. But whatever the sound quality, they were an excellent fit. The buds were snug and comfortable and stayed in place even when the wearer was running. In addition, the Uvero buds blocked a lot of unwanted ambient noise.
There’s nothing new about custom-made earbuds; they’re popular with professional musicians. But Fligor said that other custom earbuds are made by injecting silicon directly into the ear. “It’s something that’s not altogether safe,” he said, adding that the Uvero method is harmless.
But will consumers pay such a steep price for earbuds? According to data from IBISWorld, a New York market research firm, Americans will spend $1.6 billion on headphones this year. About 51 percent of the total goes for earbuds, which tend to be cheap — often as little as $10.
However, the more expensive over-the-ear headphones comprise about 30 percent of the market. The success of high-priced models from companies like Apple Inc.’s Beats Headphones and Framingham-based Bose Corp. shows that many listeners are willing to pay for quality.
“What we’ve seen in the headphone market is definitely this trend upward toward premium products,” said Benjamin Arnold, consumer technology analyst for NPD Group, a research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.
A bigger challenge, Arnold said, is the complex process of buying Uvero earbuds. A customer must go to a retail store to get his ears scanned, then come back in a day or two to pick up his new phones. He warned that many consumers won’t want the hassle.
Lantos’s chief executive, Jeffrey Leathe, is more optimistic.
“I think we’ll expand quite dramatically,” he said. In any case, he said, the company is investigating the possibility of putting 3-D printers in its retail locations to make the earbuds while customers wait.
Lantos is also scoping out other potential markets.
The company’s ear-mapping technology could improve the quality of hearing aids and industrial hearing protectors, Leathe said.
And the US military might become a major customer. According to data from the Defense Department, hearing loss is one of the most common military injuries, with 250,000 soldiers from the Persian Gulf wars reporting hearing loss and 350,000 reporting persistent ringing in the ears.
Uvero earbuds could enable soldiers to receive radio messages while blocking much of the noise of gunfire and explosions. Leathe said that while the military already offers various hearing protectors, soldiers often don’t use them because they’re uncomfortable. “If they fit well, people will wear them,” said Leathe, who believes his custom earbuds could save the hearing of thousands.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.