Looking For Material Science Inspiration? Try Sex Toys

How one startup found a new way to build earphones, drawing inspiration from audiology, Japanese music experts, and sex toys

Daniel Blumer and Navi Cohen are both newlyweds. And when the hardware accelerator HAX Accelerator offered to let them spend four months in China refining their design ideas, they jumped at the chance — even though it meant flipping their lives entirely. “When we were accepted into HAX, my wedding had already been planned,” says CTO co-founder and materials scientist Cohen. “But we’d had this idea for a long time. If we were going to do this, we were going to do it right.”


Their new custom-fit earphone company launches on Kickstarter today. Typical custom-fit earphones are $1,000 and require a trip to an ear doctor. Blumer and Cohen’s base product retails for $169 and is made in 60 seconds—using advance materials and a kit you use at home. But what are those materials? And how do you build a earphone that really is different when there are already so many on the market? You look to sex toys.

First, some background on earphone technology: “With regular earphones you have to turn up the volume when they don’t fit well. By isolating sound, you can listen at lower levels,” says Blumer, CEO and co-founder. “We talked with audiologists—ear doctors—they said people are just wrecking their hearing.”

One of their first questions was how to get the custom-molded earphones to fit properly, feel good—and be easy to manufacture. Not as easy as you might think.

“When choosing a molding technique and a material for the [custom fit part of the earphone], we had a couple of problems. The inside of the inside of the ear has an organic shape—which in manufacturing is hard to do. Manufacturing prefers straight lines,” Cohen says. “There’s silicon molding, compression molding, and dip molding. Those methods lend themselves to irregular shape. I’d been working in 3-D printing and materials for a couple of years. I have experience with medical grade silicone, and I discovered that the industries that predominantly need that are sex toys and condoms.”

That led them to the (proprietary) gel-like substance that comes in their custom-fit kit–you put the earphones in your ear, press the start button on the companion app on your phone, and “in 60 seconds the gel-filled tips transform from their initial state into their permanently hardened, customized shape.” Really.


One the backend, the earphones have an external battery clip that attaches to the cord and pushes battery life up to 14 hours. “The challenge with wireless earphones is packing in as much electronics and battery life as you can into a small package, and doing that as elegantly as possible,” Cohen says. “We did a lot of creative circuit layout. At first we were trying to fit everything into a really small board–that’s not possible. Then we came up with a couple of ideas. We combined different materials some rigid, some flexible so you can fold the board–it’s essentially like having two boards taking up the space of one. And we built this battery pack extender that clips onto the back of the earphone wire.”

Typical Bluetooth earphones only have five hours of battery life. Theirs comes standard with eight hours of battery life. With the extender you can add another six hours of listening. “We’ve been flying back and forth to Shenzhen which is an 18-hour trip. We needed this battery,” Blumer says.

The earphones have external mics to mimic your natural hearing and an app feature that lets you control the amount of surrounding noise played back over your music. The reason? Safety.

“The mics on each earphone know what’s around you and which direction it’s coming from, like if a car horn is honking on your right,” Blumer says. “When we made this we talked to a lot of people. They loved isolating sound, but they just wouldn’t buy these for working out or being outside–you need to know what’s happening around you.” They call it an adjustable soundscape. What they really created was volume control over the outside world.

How do the earphones sound? That remains to be seen. But Blumer and Cohen did think it through. They’ve partnered with Onkyo, the 70-year-old Japanese company known for high-end audio manufacturing (and the Pioneer brand in the U.S.). “One of the things we wanted to make sure we got right was sound quality. It really matters. It mattered to us to pay attention to everything—the case, the wire clips, all of it,” says Blumer. “I got married last September. We flew back in October during our trip to China for Navi’s wedding. If we were going to be away from our wives for four months for this, we were going to do it right.”

About the author

Leah Hunter has spent her career exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and design. She writes about the human side of tech for Fast Company, O'Reilly Radar, Business Punk, and mentors tech companies.