But I'll get to that after I finish tooting my own horn.
I had barely toed my way across the threshold of FitEar's Chiba factory when Mr. Keita Suyama - easily FitEar's best-known face - shot a polite duck my way. "You are the first journalist to come here."
Dear me. He called me a journalist. I ducked back politely, then basked for a few seconds in some sort of self-satisifed chemical pick-me-up. Weee! Looking back, I should have realised who I was talking with. Mr. Suyama is perhaps the politest chap I've met. Ever. He buys - not serves - tea for guests, treats them to sweet-spot chairs in his listening room, smiles eye-to-eye through entire conversations, and introduces as many as he can to one of life's guiltiest pleasures: anime songs. Listening to Mami Kawada through a pair of ToGo! 334 while sipping hot vending-machine green tea is something every geek should attain to.
I’m a sucker for politeness. I almost believed that Mr. Suyama actually considered me a journalist. I still savour that moment. Whatever I am, evidently I am the first of my kind to enter FitEar’s Chiba factory. Practically the entire FitEar family showed up to show me around. FitEar is one part of a greater Suyama dynasty. It was birthed from the Suyama hearing protection business, which is fathered by Mr. Suyama’s father, Mr. Suyama. The Suyama kids run sundry areas of the business.
If you’re in the market for a hearing aid, you can get impressions done at the Ginza spire. Your impressions are then sent to Chiba where long-lasting moulds are created. There’s a bit of acrylic to be ground before experienced technicians place tiny balanced armature speakers inside. Voila!
Of course, ohm-image readers are probably more interested in FitEar’s line of universal and custom earphones. And you’d be daft not to be. Be it build or sound, FitEar’s customs have always pushed the envelope. They were the first acrylic custom earphone maker to fill their shells with resin, the first to fit police-sanctioned coaxial connections to their housings, and the first to shunt titanium into earphone sound tubes.
They’d be daft not to.
Titanium has as many benefits as a metal can: it resists corrosion, it is chemically inactive, it is low maintenance, and it doesn’t rust. The problem is that it is expensive and harder to work with than most metals. Much harder. It requires more skill than a mage can shake a stick at. Fortunately, FitEar attract mages.
Mr. Suyama showed me around his shop. There was drilling, moulding, shaving, smoothing, and a pretty girl by the name of--- The intensity of concentration in his shop buzzed. No one danced or sang. Their level of focus makes the shochu I’m drinking now blush.
After going through individual introductions and bowing half a dozen times, I turned to face a wall of work: dozens of earphones, hearing aids, and customs housed in thick plastic work boxes. Each sported a name, a date, a model number, and probably some secret code that only FitEar know. Mr. Suyama grabbed one at random. “We have so many orders now,” he said. “Sometimes we get a little behind.”
I recognised the name on the box: Baptiste Sevin. He’s a mate of mine from Headfi, a gentleman, and a seafood scholar. Before moving back to France, Sebastian accompanied me to the Spire to get impressions done and to enjoy the sweet spot. We spent about five hours with Mr. and Mrs. Suyama, talking shop, talking music, talking anime, and talking way deep koto stuff that I generally lied about. I mean, who knows koto? Sebastian does. While my cultural spots may have shone through, Mr. Suyama’s didn’t.
He kept up with Sebastian, proudly displaying his wares (including a couple unreleased earphones that have me counting my beans). Sebastian went to work deciding which earphone he would go for. He chose the MH335DW, an earphone that reminds me of the Private 333, but with a tinge more midrange sweetness and a lot more price.
I imagine that by now, Sebastian has the earphones in his ear and is trying to tune out his wife’s protests. At the very least, his 335’s are going through final testing at FitEar. I expect to see him on Headfi's 335DW thread soon.
No company operates flawlessly. There are cracks here, missing drivers there, a lack of holiday leave there. FitEar are a Japanese company. They do things as much as possible by the clock. But, they are also Japanese. They try, as much as is possible with the current technology, to perfect a product before sending it out. And, they are honest about what they can and what can’t do.
Artwork is still something they can’t do. But, not one of the hundreds of artists and engineers that sport FitEar customs seems to mind. Surprisingly, very few audiophiles do. Mass production is another. FitEar may have thirty full-time employees. The number may be fewer than that. What they do with that number is amazing.
FitEar insist on squeezing titanium shunts into their universal and custom lines. For all its non-gummy plusses, titanium also has an audio plus: it’s inert. It will keep its shape no matter the sound wave passing through it, making sure that the sound jumping from the drivers is as pristine as possible.
In the back of FitEar’s shop is a case of teethy-looking things. Had I been more attentive in the 1990’s to blockbuster films, I’d have wet myself as I recognised the telltale filaments, the metallic tendons. The teethy things are a portent of things to come: The Terminator. Polished Titanium mesh, gleaming cold in the early March Chiba air. Two rows of four, queued up with robotic precision. Mr. Suyama assured me they were just dentures. Sure, I nodded.
In the 1990’s I was a wannabe skateboarder with no time for movies. Still, the dentures mesmerised me. I didn’t think to ask who they belonged to, or if I could touch them. Instead, I went to work shooting.
It must have been cute to have a foreign ‘journalist’ leaning over a box of dentures because my next stop was a step behind me: a workbench crowned by a tabletop softbox and a handful of titanium bolts. “These are what we make the dentures out of - and our earphones.” And that was how Mr. Suyama nudged earphones back into the morning. I resumed shooting, a little less mesmerised, before being lead downstairs for another round of tea.
We sat down in a well-lit conference room kitty-corner to Mr. Suyama’s father’s office. (Remember, it is a family business.) Another large box lay semi-open before me. The FitEar staff around me grinned in their lab coats before opening it all the way. Inside were three grey motorcycles and a miniature giant robot. Cool. I’m not into motorcycles. I think the world could do with more robots though.
“These are titanium models,” said Mr. Suyama matter-of-factly. Whoa. “We cast them from plastic models and built them in titanium.” Holy...
It was strange to handle the otherwise impervious metal so gingerly. “They aren’t for sale. We made them for fun - to see if we could do it.”
“You sure did,” I said. “You sure did.”
All five fingers of the robot’s hand moved independently. Individual joints curl around model guns, pens, spoons, chopsticks. Legs, arms, neck, torso - each works independently. Titanium is weightier than plastic. I didn’t ask if it was a Gundam or not. Having failed one cultural test already, I should have. Whatever it was, I could imagine it lumbering around Tokyo, dragging its tonnage to the nearest flatbed lorry and asking for a lift to Odaiba. The motorcycles were no less impressive. One had plastic bodywork. Each sported rubber tyres. But everything else, including the kickstands, were titanium. Everything plastic models can do, FitEar’s special one-off titanium models can - and double as bricks to send through windows in the case of a fire.
I did quick maths in my head: “I guess these would go for tens of thousands of dollars.”
“Not for sale.”
I finished my tea and said my goodbyes. Mr. Suyama drove me to the nearest station, where I lumbered to the washroom as quickly as my heavy work bag and bladder would allow. It was a lot of tea.
On the way up the stairs to my train, I tucked my ToGo! 334 into my ears and enjoyed Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. By the time I arrived back in my office, I was on to New Order. Mr. Suyama had heard of neither. He’s a jazz and anime man. And, while his competitors dabble in plastics and carbon fibre, he whittles away with a much more difficult substance: titanium. I think he has no delusions of attaining best sales among custom earphone manufacturers. He probably has the most skilled team of technicians under him, not to mention the technical drive and history necessary to perfect a niche that is fastly being overrun by startups.
T: +81 03-3549-0755
104-0061 Tokyo To, Chuo Ku, Ginza 6-16-12 Suyama Dental Laboratory Ginza Building, Japan
Camera in use: X-Pro 1 with ZM Zeiss 35/2,0 Biogon