Personal Tech | September 22, 2022 12:30 pm

Review: UE DROPS Are Customized Earbuds to the Extreme

These buds are molded and hand-shaped to each individual’s ears

UE DROPS, a new customized earbud from Ultimate Ears
UE DROPS, a new customized earbud from Ultimate Ears
Ultimate Ears/Getty Images

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Long before UE DROPS, about six years ago, I had a so-so experience testing out customizable earbuds (well, really, in-ear monitors). It involved a trip to an audiologist and a final product that I found bulky and a little too snug in my ear canals.

Ultimate Ears wants to change that personalized experience with its latest earphones. Since I’d given an enthusiastic review of the audio brand’s customized UE FITS a few months ago — which used light technology to “mold” a unique earprint for each ‘bud — I was curious how much further they could take the custom-fit tech with UE DROPS.

Turns out, quite a bit. UE DROPS reminded me of those in-ear monitors from a few years back, as the process required 3-4 weeks of waiting after getting a custom ear molding. The difference? I could do this molding at home by myself — although my “fitting” took place an Ultimate Ears launch event and was overseen by an on-site expert.

Still, the process of DIY-ing your bespoke earbuds isn’t that difficult. UE sends you an at-home FitKit, which you use to capture 3D measurements of your ears. There’s also an app that provides step-by-step instructions. 

Ultimate Ears is upfront about pointing out the difference between what they do and what others (like professional musicians) would do to customize these earbuds — and UE, we should note, does offer these pro-level custom earbuds. The latter would, much like I did years ago, involve heading to an audiologist and getting “highly detailed, medical grade impressions that reach the second bend of the ear canal to provide a ‘locked in’ fit.” For DROPS, the company captures your unique earprint, but only goes into the first bend of the ear.  

For doing this at home: The box contains molding tips in two sizes, a mirror, a fitting device, a power adapter and a return shipping label. The app will help you choose the correct molding tip size, using the fitting device and connecting your phone. After inserting the tips in your ears, the app triggers the impression process and the molding tips begin to warm up. The molds change shape and begin to harden as they capture your ear geometry. After 60 seconds, you remove them and your impressions are complete. Then, send ‘em back with an included shipping label, and wait a few weeks to get your custom-fit earphones.

UE DROPS in case on table; UE DROPS in ear
A closer look at the earbuds in their case; the DROPS in this writer’s ears
Kirk Miller

The specs:

  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • 8 hours stream time (6 hours in transparency mode)
  • 22 hours stream time total with case
  • Wireless charging case
  • Can pair with up to eight different devices and two paired Bluetooth devices at the same time 
  • Passive noise isolation and transparency mode 
  • Siri/Google Assistant compatible

What works:

  • One issue I had with the UE FITS came from the odd design: Those T-shaped earbuds stick pretty far out in your ear. While the DROPS are definitely bulkier earphones and they also stick out a bit, they’re also more aesthetically pleasing once they’re inside your ear (before putting them in, they admittedly look rather aggressive, but remember that most of that bulk is fitting inside your ear canal). The sapphire and rose quartz colorways certainly help. 
  • No need for active noise cancellation here — the custom fit means you’ll get the same “shut out the world” sound that ANC earbuds offer. And the transparency mode lets in just enough sound so you can easily interact with the world around you (or not get hit by a car).

What kind of works:

  • The cases, while larger than your average earbuds holders by 2-3x, offer wireless charging. And inside there’s a magnetic pull on your earbuds, so they’re easy to put away correctly.
  • I was confused at first by the touch controls, but once I realized that the earbuds utilized both tactile button clicks (for starting/stopping songs) and taps (for going between passive noise cancellation and transparency mode), I got used to going back and forth. And those push/tap controls are customizable in the app. 
  • The sound is exceptionally clear and punchy, although the sound “profiles” UE offers in their app are not customizable and rather limited in scope — I pretty much kept my profile on “Loudness” but you also have choices of Podcast, Bass Boost and Balanced, which are exactly what their names sound like (note that I found Balanced a bit too “distant”). 

What needs work:

  • Through modest use and purposely not charging my headphones every day for a few days, I noticed a slightly faster-than-usual loss of charge than other earbuds I use (I couldn’t tell you if the stated 8 hours of streaming power, or 22 hours with charging case, was an accurate metric). 
  • My customized right earbud fits perfectly. Snug but not tight, feels like it’ll never fall out, excellent sound, comfortable enough that I didn’t notice it too much. My left? On about day three, I put it in quickly, and felt some discomfort. The next few days, even after very carefully placing it in my ear, I couldn’t have it in for more than 30 minutes before a dull pain appeared and I had to take it out. A week later, that left ear now seems to be fine, although it still feels a bit “stiff” in my ear canal.  
The customization kit for UE DROPS
The customization FitKit for UE DROPS
Ultimate Ears

Final thoughts on UE DROPS

I haven’t seen other reviews of the UE DROPS online (even the Ultimate Ears site doesn’t have any) so I can’t tell if I’m the only one who has had a one-off issue with an earbud fit — which, again, after a few days of non-use, my left earphone feels more comfortable, albeit not to the perfect level of the right one (UE does offer a perfect fit guarantee and a 30-day risk-free policy). 

If you’re comfortable with the fitting process — which is certainly more involved than the inexpensive (and recommended) UE FITS — and fancy yourself a budding audiophile, the UE Drops offer an elevated take on everyday earbuds but a cheaper, less-involved alternative to professional ear monitors. Just be sure to get that fit right the first time.