Headphone News: March 25, 2013

Graphene Headphone Driver
Researchers from UC Berkeley recently caused quite a stir in the headphone world with the publishing of their paper, "Electrostatic Graphene Loudspeaker." In it they describe the development and construction of a 7mm diameter electrostatic audio driver that might be applicable for in-ear headphones.

Graphene is an extraordinary material. At this point it's the strongest material ever made, some 300 times stronger than steel. In Graphene, carbon atoms are arranged in hexagonal rings for a surface one atom thick (think chicken wire), but it can be grown with multiple layers. The diaphragm in the paper is about ten layers thick or about 30 nanometers. The average diameter of a human hair is about 100 micrometers, more than 3000 times thicker that the diaphragm in the paper.

Because the material is so thin, strong, light, and conductive, it makes an excellent electrostatic driver diaphragm. On of the key characteristics is that it's light enough to be air damped, and is therefor very efficient---almost all the energy put into driving the diaphragm turns into sound. It does have it's downsides though: It needs (in this particular experiment) a 100Volt bias applied to the diaphragm, and drive signals are in the high, single-digit Volts (though current requirements are very small).

Don't expect to see it in stores any time soon, but do expect to keep hearing about Graphene as a material as it has many possible applications.

Beats, MOG, and Daisy
130325_Headphone News_Photo_Blavatnik

One of my favorite things in the world is MOG.com---a terrific 320kbps MP3 streaming music service with a huge library of tunes and great cross platform support for my computers, phone, and even the Logitec Media Server installed in my VortexBox. I use MOG.com every day!

Well, last summer, for the paultry sum of $14 million, Beats bought Mog.com!!! Within months, then CEO and Founder David Hyman (a self-professed audiophile) resigned his position at MOG, and some time later posted on his Facebook page, "MOG... my child, it's been a long great journey. But like Sting said, "If you love something, set it free.' You're in good hands at Beats. I'm looking forward to my first real break since 1994. Nepal? Kauai? Taking a year off. Do not disturb."

That didn't sound very good to me, and for the last 6 months I've been wondering...fretting really, what was going to happen to my MOG? Then, about a month ago, rumors began to circulate that Beats was in talks with Apple about a potential joint venture streaming service...which evidently didn't pan out. (Thank goodness, I really didn't want to be dragged into Apple-land unwillingly.)

Now, news has broken that Access Industry's partners Australian Media mogul James Packer, and the 44th richest man in the world and owner of Warner Music, Len Blavatnik (pictured above), have purchased a stake in Beats' upcoming streaming service effort for $60 million. Also recruited are Ian Rodgers (previously CEO of TopSpin (a musician promotion web-app) and general manager at Yahoo Music) who will hold the CEO position, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who will take on a position as Chief Creative Officer.

Wow! That's some heavyweight talent and backing right there. Maybe enough, it seems to me, to get get Iovine and Dre to stop buying their own act and get real...one would hope.

Code named "Project Daisy", the service will leverage the current MOG platform and the resources outlined above to hot rod Mog's service with 'curated music discovery' and make other improvements to an already great product to give it broader market appeal. Seems to me if anyone can, it would be these guys. The new service is expected to launch late this year.

Lots and lots of news stories on the project, but the two here and here seem to summarize it best.

Fingers crossed.

New Yorks Campaign to Save Hearing
130325_Headphone News_Photo_Bloomberg

Now that The Big Apple's mayor Bloomberg has managed to wrest large buckets of fizzy, corn syrup sweetend drinks from the chubby fingers of New Yorkers, he has started a social awareness campaign warning they city's youths about the hazards of high volume listening on headphones. Yessiree, I'm in complete agreement, loud music sucks!

On the other hand, I'm not a big fan of nanny state actions.

I reckon as long as this remains a social awareness effort it's a good thing. But as soon as we start legislating how much drive voltage a portable player outputs we're in trouble. Limiting to a single voltage level doen't really make sense in the face of so many headphones available with such variety in efficiency. One voltage level standard doesn't mean one loudness level standard.

Stories here.

Why Apple has Never Made a High-Quality Headphone
130325_Headphone News_Photo_AppleEarPod

I stumbled across an article over at Cult of Mac that I found pretty interesting. First, writer John Brownlee isn't afraid to bash Beats and Monster, and that's refreshing to see. But the thrust of the article is his musings on why Apple has never made a serious headphone---an interesting question.

He reckons that even at $1 billion plus the market's just not big enough for Apple, and with $156 billion in annual sales last year he may be right. He also quotes Eliot Van Buskirk (a tech music journalist and editor of Evolver.fm) who posits that because full-sized sealed cans can isolate you from feedback needed from your own voice for normal conversation, Apple may have shied away. I don't buy it.

I think Apple likes to position itself at the center of the tech universe, and what better way than to be the thing to plug other cool stuff into. Apple sells a lots of accessories made by others on-line and at their stores, and their stores in 2011 were the most profitable per square foot of any U.S. retailer. When you can make good margin on product made by others, why bother going into competition with them? Apple doesn't need to manufacture an expensive headphone because it's already selling a bunch of them.

Read the full article here.

Mind Control Headphones

About 20 years ago I had the frantic pleasure of visiting Akihabara, a Tokyo shopping district that houses gadget shops of all types. And, man oh man, the Japanese sure love their gadgets. So many things I'd never even imagined before.

Well, they've done it again. Recently Neurowear, a company specializing in toys that are activated by your brain waves, have introduced a pair of headphones and an app that are able to analyse your brain waves to select music that fits your mood. The product is called, "Mico". I can't resist embedding another video showing people reacting to the device in use.

Wow! What a cool way to figure out what to pay next, just let your subconscious do the work. I like it!

V-Moda Vamp Verza
130325_Headphone News_Photo_VModaVampVerza

What with Apple's switch to the new Lightning interconnect and the obsolescence of a gazillion products with the old 30-pin connection, lots of folks are looking for alternative ways to get digital audio out of their phone. If you're willing to make the switch to an Android phone (I sure am), digital audio has arrived....sort of.

USB On-The-Go is a relatively new standard for digitally interconnecting computer peripherals, allowing some devices to act as both slave or host depending on the circumstances. Hook your phone up to a computer and it's a slave, but hook it up to a printer and it becomes a host controlling the printer. With the right bits in the operating system an Andriod phone can now act as a host via USB to output digital music to an outboard DAC. Enter the new V-Moda Vamp Verza and Metallo case.

Okay, the Verza is versatile, so it can be plugged into an iPhone with 30-pin connection, but it's also compatible with a number of Android devices. The companion Metallo case mates to the Verza on rails for a secure attachement, but one that will also allow the Verza to slide on the rails revealing your phone's camera lens for pictures.

As always, these V-Moda products are sexy! All aluminum construction ensures big time durability and some very cool color options. The Metallo case is currently only available for the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S3 phones.

Lantos Gets FDA Approval

If you were lucky enough to be at CanJam at RMAF on Friday last year, you may have seen the demo of Lantos Technologies 3D ear scanning system at the JH Audio booth, which is able to take digital ear impressions for custom fit in-ear monitors. The system inflates a small balloon inside your ear canal, then scans the inside of the balloon with lasers mapping out the exact shape of your ear's interior. Once finished, your ear impressions are available as a digital file that can be emailed to your custom IEM maker for fabrication of your earphones.

I had a chat with Jerry Harvey about the machine; it seemed to me there was a lot of technological development and expense thrown at the problem when a simple squirt of goo in your ears pretty much did the trick. He explained that it's not quite that simple: Wearing comfort of in-ear appliances (IEMs and hearing aids) is not simple to achieve. The size and shape of your ear canal is variable with jaw and head movement, and there's no way to tell how the shape of a particular person's ear canal changes with these movements. The Lantos system is able to take moving 3D images of your ear canal as you move your jaw and head, which provides makers like JH Audio another dimension of information when shaping molds for your ears. Lantos provides the opportunity to refine the makers art when figuring out the exact best individualized shape for long wearing comfort.

Unfortunately, the device had not yet received FDA approval, and I could tell Jerry was itching to put the tool to work. Good news now though, Lantos has received FDA approval and I bet Jerry is giggling like a little kid right now.

Furutech Producing a New Line of Headphone Connectors
130325_Headphone News_Photo_Furutech

Furutec has slowly but surely been entering the personal audio cable and connector market. I particularly like their purple Alpha Design Labs personal audio cables, but keep wishing they'd make them in more lengths and configurations.

I was surprised to see a Furutec 1/4" headphone plug on the end of my Moon Audio cables and quite liked it, but when I stumbled on this Furutec press releas on an array of new headphone specific connectors I about jumped out of my seat. Yeah baby, DIYers are gonna dig this stuff!

Monsters £20,000 Headphones
130325_Headphone News_Photo_SpiderTears

Last but not least, Monster has introduced a £20,000 version of their Diamond Tears headphone.

Oy vey!

Mainelli's picture

Like you, Tyll, I'm really hoping they don't screw up MOG. My confidence isn't high, though.

Seth195208's picture

...that it makes traditional high end listeners accept the 320kbps rate as "good enough". The new(and old) music I have discovered through the "Just for you" section is amazing and nonstop. It's really bringing out the music lover in almost all of us(Most of us will sacrifice a little fidelity for a recorded music version of the library of congress). I am a 100% mog listener now and would feel lost without it. The idea of going back to my iTunes library (and the concept of music ownership) is really depressing. 

The $10 dollar(per month) mobile version allows it to be used on my Ipad, IPod Touch and smart phone all at once. Best investment ever!

mward's picture

HeadRoom discontinuing their line of electronics didn't make the list? 


Also, given that Apple's produced a sealed in-ear model in the past, and continues to sell one at present (including a microphone), I doubt that's the reason they haven't produced a "serious" headphone. And their current IEM model seems to be well-liked by quite a few on Head-Fi, saying they haven't produced a "serious" model requires clarifying exactly what criteria we're using. 

(Apologies if this double posts.)

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I was aware they were going to do it, but didn't know when the official announcement would be...which was the same day I worked on this post, or I would have included it.  I'll certainly include it in the next news, and it frees me to comment about HeadRoom amps.  One of these days I'm gonna do a post on my feelings about HeadRoom amps, and what there strengths and weaknesses are, and maybe even what my intentions were had I stayed there.

ultrabike's picture

Very sorry to hear this. I would have loved to see HeadRoom upgrade the look and body of their amps and DAcs, offer its own tube amp products, and a variety of DIY amp kits (SS and Tube).

I'm a proud Total BitHead owner.

mward's picture

I'd love to read that. 

MGGWhite's picture

Thanks indeed. Great work. Great summary of interesring news. I was particularly interested about the future of MOG, because like you, I so much love MOG. I listen to MOG at least 3-4 hrs a day and for me it is the best thing it has happened in music, ever. I worry they may screw up the amazing sound quality! 

I am very surprised that V-Moda has become a marketing machine, The V-Moda Vapm is not made, nor designed by V-Moda, it is simply a rebranded portable amp made by a Japanese company. Their only "innovation"  is to stamp the V-Moda logo and market it like it would be their own product. Ok, I know this is common practice in headphone markers, rebrand generic products, but V-Moda prentends to stand as an innovative company. Innovative companies do not rebrand products and try to take the credit for them.

And I say this being an owner of a V-Moda headphone. In the past I admired the company, but I now know they are a marketing company. Disapointing. In ways it is cheating. Prentend to be and take credit from what others have done. I expected more from V-Moda. They could just say it as it is, they sell a Japanese product in the USA, why trying to take credit for it?

Impulse's picture

V-moda's always been about marketing to an extent, the custom shields, the general aesthetic, etc. Marketing sells man. That being said, the rail system and Metallo cases seem to be their own creation, and it's a big part of what makes the complete package something unique...

There's a ton of portable DAC/amps out there, hell if you don't need iOS/30-pin compatibility there's probably even better units for the money (or even much less money). That case/rail system makes it a pretty unique and interesting product tho.

Oh and I say all this as A) someone who also owns V-moda headphones (M-80) and B) someone who isn't really interested in the Verza... The price is way too high for me for portable use, specially since I'm an Android user and I know there's better out there for the $, plus I change phones way too often to drop $100 on a case...

AncientWisdom's picture

Many interesting tidbits!


I especially like the mind reading headphones (!!!) and the laser scanning canal machine being approved.

Impulse's picture

Heh, the Mico's pretty amusing, tough those things only measure the most vague of signals... And of course your mood is entirely subjective and open to interpretation (and suggestion). :p

The Lantos scanner is really really interesting tho, how long might it take between FDA approval and distribution/sale to audiologists? I'm no bio-engineer but even if they charge a pretty premium for it (like most medical tech) I would think it wouldn't be terribly expensive in the grand scheme... Think of all the money ttaudiologists will save in goo! I was gonna get some impressions made soon for a pair of Ety, wonder if it's worth putting it off...

The MOG/Daisy project is interesting mostly because of the people involved, and the blog post by Ian Rodgers is particularly interesting largely due to the lack of industry marketing double speak (basically the opposite of anything coming from Iovine's mouth, Rodger's post is linked within the first news article Tyll linked)....

That being said, it just sounds like a solution in search of a problem. This is 2013, AFAIK anyone that's motivated to do so should have zero issues discovering new music... Hell I discover new music all the time without even trying, it's as simple as having Shazam or Soundhound handy when watching TV or leaving the house... Hell, even if you're a hermit or allergic to smartphones, word of mouth travels faster than light in this day and age.

Many have tried to become the social hub of music and most have met with utter failure, even Apple (Ping anyone?). I just don't see what they can add to the experience beyond a few easily googled links and hawking more music/merchandise at the user... I look forward to their stab at it tho.

I may be slightly biased because even tho I use stuff like Spotify and Pandora occasionally (to discover or try new music), I still prefer to own my music outright... And it has little to do with streaming quality or even data plan caps (Sprint, 'sup?), it's just more practical for me. I spend too much time in planes and areas with crap signal, and my spending on music is rather haphazard ($3 one month, $30 the next).

Impulse's picture

Huh, in researching MOG I found out mobile streams are limited to like 48kbps AAC, but they actually allow you to switch to the 320kbps stream if you're on Wifi or 4G. The cynic in me would probably say that was just a concession made for mobile carriers (who could otherwise have the app pulled for their customers, even on Android)...

Realistically it's probably just to preserve QoS. It does put people in strong 3G markets (or any T-Mobile user) in an interesting position tho... 3G speeds can easily fall well under 320kbps but they can also average 30x that in well deployed HSPA+ markets (which would include many AT&T areas)....

ultrabike's picture

Indeed Wow!!! Monster Diamond Headphone SE is available for the dramatically WTF price of:


EDIT: Only one available though. However, they did seem to be in the mood to do 5 "Rose Gold" Edition for probably quite a few moneys... Shamless Monster marketing exploitation of sense of exclusivity and "fashion."

Nice to see V-Moda's Metallo case approach. Hopefully other companies will also develop adapters for their portable DAC/Amps.

paul's picture

Sorry about HeadRoom discontinuing production of their own line of amps. My first amp was a Total Bithead and I bought a Cosmic a few years later.

For whatever reason, I never thought HeadRoom got a fair shake in the headphone community. HeadRoom never seemed to be the latest and greatest.

Imroy's picture

According to Wikipedia, USB OTG is a part of a supplement to USB 2.0 - from 2001.

FHC's picture

Very interesting and diverse updates Tyll.  I can't wait to get a new scan of my ear canals.  I'm also going to forward this information to my ear, nose, and throat doc.  (where I had my last platic molds made.)  

Hats off to HeadRoom.  I remember listening to their Blockhead and being rather wowed...and the Cosmic was the first really good portable HP amp I can remember.  I wonder what happened.  One would think, if anyone was positioned to take advantage of the market that headphones has become, it was them.  

Mind Control Headphones...for me it sounds a bit like a party activity.  Ouija Board for headphones.  Fun after a few drinks.