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Why You Should be Designing the Perfect Headphones

August 28, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

There are so many headphones on the market, it shouldn't be difficult to find the right pair. But everyone from Apple to Sennheiser has been trying to come up with the correct formula, and so far no one's nailed it.

Tech designers may be missing out on a golden opportunity to apply their EE knowledge to an industry that definitely needs some help.

When Apple bought Beats last year for $3 billion, it seemed a peculiar but ingenious move. Not only would Apple acquire the rights to Beats Music (which it has since parlayed into the Apple Music subscription service), but it would also acquire Beats headphones, the expensive sets that would soon become the heart's desire of middle-class white teenagers around the globe. 

There's one problem: Beats headphones are an expensive kind of awful.

They're not the worst headphones on the market, but they certainly aren't the best; their marketing just makes it seem like they are. That means that other better options get cast aside. Even among better options, it seems that no company has nailed the perfect formula for fit, cost, and connectivity. So here's a look at what designers would need to consider if they want to overturn Beats' domination of a billion-dollar industry. 

Design

At some point, walking around with Princess Leia soundbuns is going to get old. Especially if your life exists outside a subway car and you intend on ever encountering natural elements. Over-the-ear headsets generally get the best sound, but they're enormous. Sennheiser released a foldable design that's fairly economical, but the sound is lackluster. If you're going to design the perfect headset, make it compact enough to fit in a pocket, sturdy enough to withstand pressure, and practical enough to weather a rainstorm. If it's going to fit over the ear, make it inobtrusive. If it's going to be in the ear, make it bacteria-resistant and customizable enough to fit in the smallest or largest of ears.

And that brings us to another point: exercising is next to impossible with over-ear headphones. And yet, in-ear headphones suffer from the sound issue: there simply isn't enough space to fit the amount of technology needed to replicate a symphony orchestra. Wait a second--yes there is. And there's no reason that it can't get better. After all, if we now have the world's smallest chip, what's stopping designers from applying truly revolutionary technology to headphones? 

Microphone

Why, for the love of Beyonce, don't all headphones comes with built-in microphones? This is 2015 and we're still expected to stop a workout if we want to answer a phonecall. Quite a few Bluetooth headphones have them, but they're not standard. One of the latest patents from Apple suggests the integration of noise cancellation for future earbud designs. It doesn't fix the current problems with fit and sound, but there's no reason designers couldn't integrate similar user experiences when designing a better headphone.

Safety

Chances are, the same customers listening to NWA on repeat aren't concerned about their hearing loss in 50 years, but they should be. Though phones and headphones have volume topouts, none of them deliver any information to the user about volume levels that could cause irreparable damage to the ears. According to the American Osteopathic Association, if you're listening to music at over 120 decibels, hearing loss can occur after only about an hour and fifteen minutes. They also say that 1 in 5 teens has hearing loss, up from 30% in the 90's and due mostly to headphone use.

So, not only could builders and designers improve sound in headphones, they could actually save the hearing of millions of Americans simply by using technology to decrease the damage caused by companies focused on more sound at any cost, not on quality sound that protects the wearer.

Connectivity

Wireless headsets were a long time coming, but now that they're here, no one's going back to wires. The difficulty is that Bluetooth connectivity (especially in Beats--another gripe) is laggy. It's fine for music, but trying to listen to a television show or YouTube clip may lead to frustration. Bluetooth is the connectivity standard at the moment (though not forever), so it needs to be bulletproof in headphone designs moving forward. That means ensuring there's no lag, no interference from other devices, and no difficulty pairing. It may also mean looking at different wireless connectivity options, but until smartphones catch up on that front, making a seamless Bluetooth experience would be enough.

Soundproofing

Remember when Bose headphones were all the rage (before Apple cast them aside for inferior yet flashier headphones)? One of the things Bose got right was noise cancellation. Even the best sound in the world is going to be overpowered by a jet engine, so noise cancellation is a must-have. But again, that brings about the over-ear/in-ear debate: over-ear headphones cancel noise better than in-ear, but no one wants to go running with a giant Bose headset on. If designers could come up with a hybrid that would allow for better noise cancellation, they'd hit the jackpot.

So there you have it: the perfect pair of headphones would need to look great, deliver phenomenal sound, have a built-in mic, be around $100, and protect the ears of the wearer. Sure, it's a difficult challenge, but a worthy one. And one that--if builders and designers nailed it--could dethrone Beats as the reigning kings of sound.

8 Comments
  • L
    lvanderlinde September 11, 2015

    Many moons ago Sony designed a solid state loudspeker that was the size of an A4 page, that had amazing sound. It was highly efficient. It gave the same out put and sound quality from 1 W that 100 watt systems and speakers battled to give. It ws too far ahead of it’s time, and too expensive then. Now technology is there. You would be able to build headphones with that technology that blow your socks ( and your britches) off. Come on Sony, revive your technology.

    Like. Reply
    • Icy Guy October 12, 2019
      Hey, those are the electrostatic headphones as they are extremely thin and the diaphragms (cones) are not attached to anything as they suspend in thin air with electromagnetic technology. When the diaphragm vibrates to reproduce the sound, it moves in unison and can create a lot of sound, the watts though is something that contradicts. But companies like Shure have implemented this technology in earbuds/earphones, that is insane as it took them 8 years to get the design right, not perfected, but right.
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  • Darren Midkiff January 08, 2016

    >They also say that 1 in 5 teens has hearing loss, up from 30% in the 90’s and due mostly to headphone use.

    Am I the only one who sees a problem with this sentence?

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  • George Foss April 22, 2016

    What’s stopping designers from making a better product? Nothing. If you produce sounding earphone, with better connectivity to wireless tech, safety (from being hit from losing your hearing), and noise suppression, it won’t capture Beats market share which is driven by status and fashion sense than purity of sound and convenience.

    Monster designed the first headphones for Beats partners Intescope founder Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. Iovine and Dre’s side of Beats high powered lawyers out negotiated Monster and retained permanent ownership of everything that Monster developed for Beats. Then the Dr. Dre task force took Monster’s audio gear and pimped it, tirelessly, as a gadget status symbol without rival or regards sound quality Beats was in every single music Iovine artist video.” Iovine made sure Beats had prominent placement across Interscope’s sterling roster; kids rushed to Best Buy and bought Beats not because it sounded cool, but because it made them look cool. It was never about technology.  And that’s why beats dominates the headphone market, through marketing to youths.

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  • sensacell July 20, 2016

    Design is always a compromise. There is no such thing as the “Best Design” - only the best design for a very clearly defined purpose, or situation.
    The problem is this “purpose” is NEVER clearly defined and always contains many contradictory variables.

    Advancing technology can provide opportunities to design new products that solve old problems in a better way, but most product designers are so caught up in the “new and different” that they often lose sight of real function and value. I cannot tell you how many new design products fail to perform as well as their predecessors, things get worse instead of better. The “Internet of Things” promises to be an orgy of feature crazy nonsense that in the end, when all unintended consequences are taken into account, produces a resounding net loss of real value and usability.

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  • tranzz4md October 10, 2016

    Just go with Bose.  Beats is perfect for Apple: all marketing and appearance.  More overpriced mediocrity.

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  • Icy Guy October 12, 2019

    Headphones are all based on opinions and finding the one that is right for you, I am trying to design headphones myself and I came to this article and I do believe that these are general prospects headphone engineers look at to make the best headphones as not all headphone companies are solely based on earning money. I am trying to design electrostatic speakers as I want the most budget headphones that are still ever so accurate. Well, electrostatic drivers that is. Bose, Sony, Beats, Sennheiser, and Shure all make great headphones. Again, it is all about the person and his/her choice.

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