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

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

Written by Russ Welton

In our second part of our interview with Scott Smith and Tadd Swanlund of Comply (Part One appeared in Issue 183) we discover their approach to effective passive noise cancellation and tips on how you can make the most fitting choices (literally) to optimize your personal in-ear headphones listening experience. (Passive noise cancellation is just that, the use of non-electronic noise blocking such as an effective in-ear sealing, as opposed to active noise cancellation, which uses microphones and electronic processing to attenuate incoming noise.)

Russ Welton: What is the Comply approach to passive noise cancellation?

Tadd Swanlund: Maximum passive isolation! Why? Because it allows you to be immersed in the music and listen at lower levels, thus preserving your hearing. Maximizing passive isolation [also] ensures your active noise-cancelling earbuds will perform at their best.

We have dabbled in ear tips that are designed not to seal [completely], to provide situational awareness. However, it is a much different experience for the listener. Our Aware tips with SmartCore (compatible with most wired earbuds with sound port nozzles between 0.19 – 0.24 inches/4.8 – 6.3mm) are fluted by design to provide situational awareness and to prevent the occlusion [blocking] effect that results from the tremendous seal our traditional tips provide. These are great for walking, running and biking when you want to hear the possible imminent danger of an approaching automobile.


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


People also prefer using the [Aware tips] on video calls so they can hear their natural voice, while the tips still provide a comfortable, secure fit. What we’re finding now is that listeners who want situational awareness or transparency have a plethora of earbuds with that functionality that they can pair with our tips and have the best of both worlds.

RW: How much noise reduction is there in each of the respective product ranges?

Tadd Swanlund: Assuming a fully sealed earphone/earbud/IEM, the level of noise reduction will be proportional to how deep the tip goes in your ear. Our Professional Series (P-Series) tips are going to [provide] the highest [noise reduction], followed by our T-series and TrueGrip. However, it is [also] dependent on the design of the device. Some devices use a short tip, but it can sit deeper in the ear so it still performs very well. Typically, the more foam there is in the ear canal, the better the noise reduction.

RW: Does your SweatGuard construction affect the resultant sound, and how does it work?

Scott Smith: The SweatGuard is a scrim filter [now] referred to as our TechDefender. This filter (i.e., a sweat and wax guard) blocks cerumen (sweat, oils and earwax) and prevents the sound nozzle from becoming occluded and degrading sound quality. Hence, Comply Foam tips are filters designed to let air and sound through, while mechanically preventing debris and moisture from getting past. They require periodic replacement just like the air filter on your furnace or in your automobile.

SweatGuard and WaxGuard are old, trademarked marketing references to the scrim material in Comply Foam tips that protects the sound nozzle of earbuds/IEMs. These have since been consolidated and are now referred to singularly as TechDefender. In the past there have been different colors of the “guards” including blue [and] cream, and now going forward they will all be charcoal in color. They are all one and the same and function identically.

Comply had a previous version of a cerumen guard product called Ad.hear that has long been discontinued and has subsequently been incorporated into the technology of our foam tips. The Ad.hear product had adhesive backing like our Soft Wraps except with a cerumen guard in the middle originally intended to be affixed over the sound port opening on hearing aids and IEMs.

The lifespan of a foam tip depends on use. Typically, average use is about two to four months per pair of tips. How you use the tips, body chemistry (earwax, oils, etc.), and environment all affect how long your tips will last.

The TechDefender is virtually acoustically transparent. Below 8 kHz, it is difficult to measure a difference in frequency response [with or without it in place]. Above 8 kHz, there is a slight rolloff of a couple of dB. The average listener isn’t going to notice a difference in the sound.

When the engineering team was evaluating different materials, they devised a test where they attached the material across the end of a glass tube, filled the tube with 2 inches of water, and measured how long before any would leak past. The TechDefender material did not let a drop pass through for the duration of the test.


Scott Smith, Comply Global Business Manager.


RW: What frequencies are targeted for eliminating unwanted noise, and how is this determined?

Tadd Swanlund: It depends on the application, but with the highly sophisticated audio devices available today, we tend to go for the maximum noise isolation at all frequencies. Lower-frequency sounds are harder to block than higher frequencies but Comply Foam tips are known for impressive low-frequency performance. We measure the acoustic noise blocking or attenuation by measuring sound pressure levels using an ear simulator both with (occluded) and without the foam installed (non-occluded). When you subtract the occluded from the non-occluded [results] you get the attenuation in dB by frequency.

Some new true wireless headphones [headphones with no physical connecting wires] have different active noise-cancelling modes, where you can pass through more of the frequency range of human speech so you can cut down on airplane noise, [for example], but still hear the flight attendant or the person next to you.

RW: Could you tell us more about how different factors such as age, height, weight, and hydration affect our hearing?

Scott Smith: Hearing loss occurs in the higher frequencies as we age. It is typically more common, more severe, and with an earlier onset in men compared to women. Studies have also established that individuals who are overweight have a higher risk of developing hearing loss. A lack of hydration can affect your ears and hearing. Dehydration will affect blood pressure, cartilage, inner ear fluid composition, and ear muscles, and can even cause temporary tinnitus.

RW: How do in-ear headphones with memory foam eartips help in protecting our hearing?

Scott Smith: By maximizing passive noise isolation, the sound quality of IEMs and earbuds is enhanced, which allows listening at lower volume levels, thus preserving hearing. In other words, you don’t have to turn the volume up to compensate for and drown out unwanted external noise.

RW: What advice would you give in choosing the correct-size tips?

Tadd Swanlund: Try them all. When it comes to ears, there is definitely no “one size fits all.” Your optimal tip size will vary based on the shape and size of your ear canals. This is especially true with true wireless devices which tend to have a shallower insertion, and the depth in which the ear tip sits in your ear. For instance, if you are wearing IEMs with our Professional Series tips, it may go deep enough into your ears that a smaller size fits just fine.

Conversely, you may need to size up because you have a shorter distance to the first bend in the ear canal, to have more foam in the ear for comfort. However, if wearing a true wireless device with a shorter tip, you may find you need to wear a larger tip [size] because your ear canals are more oval-shaped at the entrance. Don’t be surprised if you find you need different sizes for [your] left and right [ears]. Ear canals are like fingerprints – no two are the same.

RW: I own a pair of Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro IEMs. What do you suggest for use with them?

Scott Smith: For the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro, our TrueGrip ear tips for Samsung Galaxy Pro (Comply model TWo-210-C) with an oval shape is the compatible tip to utilize.

Recently, we collaborated with Samsung to make a Designed for Samsung exclusive ear tip for their newest Samsung Galaxy Buds2 Pro model.

RW: What are some of the greatest challenges in getting a new product to market in our current climate?

Tadd Swanlund: There are several challenges we face when selecting and bringing new products to market. One is the sheer number of different earbuds/IEMs that are constantly entering the market. Each one has a different design, and often different dimensions of the sound port or where the ear tip attaches to the device. To offer a Comply Foam tip for a new device, it often requires the development of a new inner core. Each new core requires a suite of tooling to create and assemble into the finished ear tip. As a result, we try to design any new cores so they will fit as wide a range as possible to at least attempt to keep the number of SKUs to a manageable level.

Before the [advent of] true wireless earbuds, core size and material were the only two variables when determining if a Comply Foam tip would be compatible with a new earphone. True wireless devices threw a wrench into the mix by requiring the earbud to fit into a charging case. Most of the time this requires a shorter ear tip than our traditional T-Series, which was the standard for years. Many true wireless devices have very short ear tips, which can require us to put the inner core at the distal end (the end going into your ear first) so the tip doesn’t interfere with the charger, but still provides enough foam to create a good seal.

RW: What do you foresee the future roadmap of development will include for Comply?

Scott Smith: We are always looking at new ways to innovate and bring new products to the market. Our chemists and engineers are developing new foam formulations and products for ear tips and circumaural (over-ear) ear pads to create solutions for the needs of our customers. These include the following:

  • Product line expansion that focuses on increasing both comfort and sound isolation.
  • Working with military partners to expand our line of circumaural earseals.
  • Addressing the unique requirements of the OTC (over-the-counter) hearing aid space (wearing [eartips] for long durations).
  • We’re also currently working on military foam technology for special ear canal geometries.


Header image courtesy of Comply Foam.

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