Headphone News: When Headphones Get Under Our Skin

Apple filed the application in 2008, and just yesterday was awarded a patent for "Sports Monitoring System for Headphones, Earbuds and/or Headsets," but it's really much more than just for "sports" monitoring. The gist of the invention is to include various sensors within an earbud or headphone to provide biometric data that your smartphone can monitor and act upon. Biometric sensors may include, but aren't limited to: perspiration, temperature, and heart rate. Also prominently discussed is accelerometers for head motion and gesture sensing.

This is all really about making your iPhone more aware and responsive in everyday use. Obviously, if you're out for a run your phone can track your location and speed with GPS, couple that with heart rate, perspiration onset, body temperature, and the ability to do a bunch of computing either on your phone or on a distant server, what you end up with is a great deal of information about your exercise routine and how you might be improving over time. I'll also note that Nike has a little gizmo called the Nike+iPod you can put in your shoe to track leg movement that can be added into the equation.

The more important part of the patent, it seems to me, is the amount of discussion about head gestures for controlling media playback and device operation. Multi-axis accelerometers allow for playback control by using recognizable head gestures. Though many gestures could be used, or reprogrammed, the table in the patent shows:

Tilt head rightNext item forward
Tilt head leftNext item backwards
Rotate head rightIncrease volume
Rotate head leftDecrease volume
Tilt head forwardPlay
Tilt head backwardPause

In addition to gestures, head and smartphone orientation monitoring would allow the phone to know about your "gaze" (which direction you are looking) and whether you are looking at the phone or not, which would let it turn the screen on and off to save power. Also, the phone knowing where it's at through GPS and which direction you are looking would allow it, for example, to tell you about what you are looking at.

Notable in its absence was any mention of brain wave sensors. I wrote in a March 2013 Headphone News post about Neurowear's experimental Mico headphones and app that monitored brainwaves and picked songs based on your mental state. When I mentioned the Mico to Paul Barton (PSB, NAD) during a panel discussion I lead at RMAF last year, he opined that brainwave monitoring might allow for subconscious control of volume and EQ during music listening.

Is this all pie-in-the-sky, flying-car baloney? I think not. Evidently Apple spent some resources pretty aggressively hiring people well versed in biometric sensor design last year, and some expect a lot of this technology to appear in the rumored upcoming iWatch—which, to me, seems a far better way to gather the pulse/temperature/perspiration data. Numerous others are already producing biometric wristbands that couple with smartphone apps for exercise monitoring. No, not the flying car, this stuff is coming hot and heavy.

The bigger question for us headphone audiophiles is whether these developments will hurt or help us regarding audio quality on headphones in the future. I think it could go both ways. Integrating a bunch of sensors into stock or low cost headphones for Apple products may certainly dissuade people from replacing them with better quality cans—pretty sure we won't see Sennheiser installing Apple compatible sensors in their cans...at least not too quickly. On the other hand, it's not hard to imagine a small, clip-on, Bluetooth-enabled motion sensor that can be attached to any headphone to integrate with these apps. And that, my friends, would be very cool for head-tracking input to change the HRTFs (head related transfer functions) for virtual surround processors like DTS Headphone:X.

Interesting times, eh?

bernardperu's picture

Tyll, is it so hard to see that over stimulated minds lead to passive listening and, ergo, are counter productive for audiophilia?

This Apple tech will only add stimuli to our already short attention spans.

bernardperu's picture

To complete my comment I quote something John Atkinson wrote on 1994.


"I suspect, therefore, that quality will be forgotten in this rush to make the future happen. Will new generations, overloaded with information and brought up on a diet of data-reduced audio and MPEG-compressed video, even care about sound quality?"

From http://www.stereophile.com/content/iplus-ca-changeimdashthe-information-...


thelostMIDrange's picture

Anyone who feels it necessary to outsource their ability to decipher and adjust to their own feelings or finds adjusting the volume control as being an arduous task is officially in a devolutionary state no matter how much its marketed as trendy and progressive. This may be the article that unsubscribes me from this blog. To even entertain this kind of nonsense is revealing as to where one's priorities lie and all further advice and authority regarding hifi or natural sound is suspect by association. If one is unable to run his own consciousness, it's fair to assume that defining sound quality of headphones is the least of his problems.

Argyris's picture

Typed out a diatribe. Decided it wasn't worth it. Keep calm and carry on, everybody.

Baconator's picture

1. Who judges what constitutes evolution or devolution? Oh that's right- it 's you. Thanks.

2. As long as there are sponsors with a product to sell John Atkinson doesn't really care. 

3. If they can develop an app that lets my brain correct poor frequency responses and block out the ringing of over-priced and under engineered headphones, they can have my money.


AstralStorm's picture

Sorry, but without expensive measurement gear or a major amount of cooperation from you that point is not going to happen any time soon.

The reasons: manufacturing variability, placement, head shape, ear shape, ear canal shape...

That said, it's not impossible to design a cheap product specifically for this purpose - but you'd need a miniature measurement microphone and a signal source too. Working on it, I suppose... The main problem to be faced is how to place the mike deep enough in ear canal without an otoscope and experience reliably - then later reliably recover it.

Argyris's picture

Something that comes to mind immediately when looking at that table is the difficulty in separating deliberate head motions out from normal movement of the head. Just lounging around or walking liesurely are all well and good, but imagine if you're really into a workout or jogging session, or if you like to get down when you listen to music. If the sensor can't work out what's intentional and what isn't, your playback will be doing all sorts of erratic things. Granted, you can disable the feature for those kinds of activities, but a feature that can only be used in certain circumstances and which requires a conscious effort in order not to accidentally activate is a feature most people will just turn off permanently.

ultrabike's picture

I think the biometric and tracking gadgets are very interesting. Indeed, if some of these gadgets can be clipped-on on or somehow augment exisiting cans, it might open the door to fairly interesting applications!

thelostMIDrange's picture

technology and technology in general would be a boon to mankind. Have you done your own independent research to guarentee this to be the case? Sure, to each his own, if you want to give up your sovereign right to direct your own consciousness, and trust the wizard behind the curtain who will have control of your intentions, have at it. You may want to check your basic assumptions about life first though, now that we have the internet you can learn about reality and history for yourself. Then at least you'll be in a position to make an educated decision instead of a reflexive trendy one. We need to look out for each other in this world and stand together, whether it be on a headphone forum or anywhere else because pressure is coming from malevolent places that is not in the heart of the good and decent folk who make up the ranks of us common men. 'ol lee majors would not vote for cyborgs that's for sure. He was good people. As far as long winded commentary - If you self censor, you might as well roll over. Diet tribes is all we have left. you sure are not going to change things at the balot box where are leaders are s(elected), but you might still have some sway with your spending dollar or a chat forum. This implant is just another chance for you to do some real voting. Take it seriously. Weigh the scales. A watch that reads your heart rate and an ipod that selects your next tune for you is a small benefit when loss of intentionality may be the cost. Shuffle works pretty well and so does a 15 second pulse check with two forefingers. Ain't that much trouble.

Jazz Casual's picture

Are there fewer people frequenting this site than at Effin' Ringin' and Head-Case or does it just seem that way? Now wouldn't that be a sad state of affairs. A headphone review might remedy that. ;)

Baconator's picture

I for one don't operate under the belief that we are in control of our consciousnesses. Humans are creatures of reaction, just like animals , only we have  flavored lattes and  mail order bride catalogs to give us the illusion of control.

When I'm  feeling blue, I'd like to hear The Smiths' "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore," accompanied by a  video of Monica Bellucci  slathering chocolate and vanilla ice creaam all over herself, because, dammit, I can't decide which flavor I like better.

thelostMIDrange's picture

and suggest the industry as it is needs to die before it can be resurected like a phoenix. The reason a good modestly priced headphone is not being reviewed is because they are not being made or pushed or paid to review. What is being pushed is esoteric gear or implants !  All the forums you mention have crickets in the background for slightly different reasons but similar in the sense that the masses are not into implants or esoteric several thousand dollar items or technical mumbojumbo. What they want is well designed simple (beats) but fidelity sounding headphones for under 2 bills and reliable DAC players for 150. You know an industry is dead when that kind of gear does not generate enough revenue and it has to resort to feeding the extremes to stay viable. much like the worlds banking system. It used to sustain itself on small business loans and now it's a giant ponzi scheme about to implode. good riddance to all of it. The sooner the better. The fact is most people are dirt poor at this point while a few have a whole lot more. That explains the headphone trend as well much better than some shoe analogy.

AstralStorm's picture

The problem with making a headphone for the masses is that you need to put a lot into ergonomics. The best materials there are expensive. The best class of headphones that's available requires amplification (high end dynamic drivers, electrostatics) or is relatively huge and heavy. (orthodynamics... with a few minor exceptions - perhaps Fostex could budge the market there.)

No free lunch principle is here at work.

People seem to also want noise isolation and that means closed design, which is very hard with good sound - though you could use a hardcore dampened one with a treble-happy driver. Note such experienced designers like Sennheiser sweating over it with a high price design like Momentum and still not getting it nearly as right as open ones. (Not to mention that the second best are notably worse.)

Baconator's picture

Well it seems that people either buy what Best Buy sells, or they go to places like head-fi, where people will try to convince you that you need a $4500 amp to make your $1300 headphones sound their best. Look at Stereophile, 6moons and several other hifi mags and you will find an industry being crushed under its own bloated snobbery. NAD, PSB, Focal are starting to put out great sounding, well designed headphones for under $500. Monster and Skullcandy are making progress. Used to be you could get a TOTL AKG, Beyer or Senn for under $500. If those manufacturers continued to refine successful designs in the same price range, I think the industry would be better off. But they had to go after the megabucks, offering small gains for triple the price. Wouldn't it be great if everybody was fighting tooth and nail to design the best $350 headphone? Thats not much more than what most people pay for Monster cans. We know it can be done.

AstralStorm's picture

Hong Kong has the answer to that, and it's branded by no less than Harman... That company everyone knows keeps the costs low due to very simple and very cheap design coupled with cheap manufacturing of everything except what counts - the drivers and their mounting.

The problem is, there is only so much you can do with cheap components and without throwing inordinate amounts of R&D time at the headphone or an IEM. Some designs are just too expensive to mass produce.

Not everyone drives a top of the line BMW, Mercedes or a Ferrari - but many of the improvements first tried in such top models sooner or later trickle down to the cheaper ones. Especially if the market starts drying out.

e_resolu's picture


Tyll, Look at the Dash project on Kickstarter. Amazing. Incredible success ! 


seems Apple is late this time....

sszorin's picture

In this Gedarene swine rush into the techno-marvel future we eagerly wait for headphones that will monitor our thoughts and report them to the authorities. 

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