Scott Smith and Tadd Swanlund of Comply: High-Tech for Headphones, Part One

Scott Smith and Tadd Swanlund of Comply: High-Tech for Headphones, Part One

Written by Russ Welton

Continuing our series on in-ear monitors (IEMs, also known as in-ear headphones or earbuds), we now speak to two key people at Comply, makers of memory foam eartips for IEMs. Comply is the flagship brand of Hearing Components, Inc., which also makes other products for consumer, military, and industrial use. (The first installments in this series appeared in Issue 182 and Issue 181.)

My first personal experience of Comply Foam eartips was via the RBH Sound EP3 noise-isolating earphones. I was particularly impressed by their sound quality and decided to find out more as to what was making such an audible difference.

Comply Foam eartips have become the most popular choice for the discerning audiophile. What has contributed to their effectiveness, success and popularity over the years? We asked Scott Smith, Comply Global Business Manager, and Tadd Swanlund, Director of New Product Development and Engineering, what makes for a premium-sounding product and what technologies have gone into producing their eartips.

Russ Welton: What were the origins of the Comply Foam concept as originated by your founder, Dr. Robert Oliveira, PhD.?

Scott Smith: Our story began in 1990 when biochemist and inventor “Dr. Bob” Oliveira, PhD founded Hearing Components, Inc. Dr. Bob had previously worked at 3M company and his expertise [in] how the ear canal operates helped to lead the team responsible for developing the first FDA-approved cochlear implant. Dr. Bob leveraged his knowledge of the dynamics [of the] ear canal to create solutions for [remedying] ill-fitting and uncomfortable hearing aids and earbuds, as well as enabling clear communications for critical missions required by military forces around the world with the world’s first, patented memory foam eartip, and other products. The Hearing Components mission is, “We protect and preserve hearing while transforming how the world listens. We seek to be the world’s number one connection to the ear where our customers experience no hearing loss, no sore ears, and hear exactly what they want, wherever they want, and for as long as they want.”

Over the years, our team of chemists and engineers have developed numerous proprietary earbud tips and earphone seals that are compatible with thousands of devices. Comply Foam tips are compatible with more devices than any other manufacturer of foam tips. They were the original, and are still considered the gold standard in the industry.


Scott Smith, Comply Global Business Manager.


RW: What are some of the sonic properties of memory foam as a chosen material for ear tips?

Tadd Swanlund: Seal is everything when it comes to IEMs/earbuds. Without it, you’ll never achieve the acoustical performance the device was designed to provide. Comply Foam tips can seal around the smallest of obstacles and dynamically react to the changes in the ear canal, which is constantly shifting in shape and form throughout the day due to factors such as jaw movement, eating, drinking, and physical activity, [which] can dislodge silicone tips or custom-molded devices. The challenges presented by the “dynamic inner ear” are the driving forces behind our memory foam tips, and were a key focus of Dr. Bob’s research on the human ear canal.

Certain formulations such as those used in Comply Foam tips can outperform many other materials when it comes to noise attenuation. The first property of Comply Foam that is important from a sonic perspective is its slow recovery characteristic. At room temperature, if you compress the foam it takes a while to recover fully. However, at body temperature, the foam recovers much more quickly. Without [this] slow recovery it would be difficult to get the eartip fitted properly in the ear canal. Otherwise, if you rolled the tip down it would spring back right away. This is especially important with deeper-insertion devices like in-ear monitors. The slow recovery allows you to compress the tip and position it in your ear before it heats up and springs back, to create a robust acoustic seal.

One characteristic of viscoelastic materials is their ability to absorb energy. Have you seen a mattress demo where they drop a bowling ball on the bed, and it doesn’t bounce? Something similar can happen acoustically. However, instead of damping the falling ball and converting its kinetic energy into heat, acoustic sound energy is converted into heat within the foam. This is why foam earplugs can achieve higher hearing protection scores compared to their silicone counterparts.


Tadd Swanlund, Comply Director of New Product Development and Engineering.


RW: As memory foam wants to revert to its natural state, how is it possible to mold it into different form factors?

TS: When you roll down a Comply Foam tip and it is allowed to recover, it will expand to fill the finest details in the ear canal. A simple hair can often be enough of an obstacle to prevent a silicone eartip from sealing properly. The engineers at Comply have performed acoustical measurements and recordings to demonstrate this. What they found is what countless Comply customers experienced the first time they tried the tips – that the foam tip will create a seal when other tips cannot. Comply Foam tips will conform so well you can see your fingerprint on them momentarily after handling. If you remove a foam tip from your ear and immediately look at its shape, you’ll be able to see your ear’s unique geometry.

Comply Premium Foam Tips feature an advanced, hydrophobic (water-hating) foam chemistry that provides consistent performance and doesn’t swell in the presence of moisture. Generic, hydrophilic (water-loving) foams swell in moisture and can lose their recovery properties permanently.

RW: How is performance of IEMs generally affected with the use of different Comply eartips?

SS: Comply Professional Series (P-Series) tips have a narrow core specially designed for compatibility with professional in ear monitors and ear plugs. They are rated for up to 30 dB noise reduction, which will vary by frequency and device. They are 50 percent longer than our standard tips, for maximum isolation and seal.

Comply has also developed a product called Soft Wraps, which are small strips of foam tape designed for custom IEMs. Entertainers such as Bruno Mars, Metallica, and Styx utilize these wraps [in conjunction] with their acrylic, custom IEMs to provide in-ear stability [even] when they are sweating profusely and jumping around on the stage. The Soft Wraps can also be used with ill-fitting and uncomfortable hearing aids to provide all-day wearability.


Comply eartips for Apple AirPods Pro.


RW: How did the Comply fitment solution initially gain so much popularity?

Scott Smith: Dr. Bob [has been] very passionate about the Comply experience and loved sharing it with everyone he could. Hearing is believing and the most effective marketing tool was an in-person demonstration. Initial popularity was garnered by visiting as many audio shows as possible demonstrating the experience – Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, CanJam, CES, NAMM, etc. The audiophile community became Comply evangelists and helped to spread the word.

When people realized the comfort and how well their earbuds stayed in place using Comply Foam tips, Hearing Components enjoyed success [with] being the in-box solution with many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of IEMs and earbuds, including the likes of Astell & Kern, Audeze, Audio-Technica, Bang & Olufsen, Beyerdynamic, Denon, Jaybird, JH Audio, Klipsch, MEE Audio, Miiego, Sennheiser, and Shure to name just a few. Most recently, Comply has collaborated with larger consumer brands to exclusively design Comply Foam tips for aftermarket resale with companies such as Google and Samsung. This [has] provided a great deal of additional exposure.

In Part Two of our interview, we will look at the Comply approach to passive noise cancellation, the function of Sweat Guard, how to choose the correct eartips, and more.


All images courtesy of Comply.

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