Headphones from United Airlines Flight 962

When the stewardess asks me if I'd like to buy a pair of headphones for two dollars, I usually say no thanks and smile. She has no idea how good a pair of custom in-ear monitors sound.

And then I thought, "Well, I really have no idea how good her headphones sound either." So, I bought a pair, and brought them home to test.

Oh my!

United Airlines Flight 962
I have been stranded on a plane once or twice before without the proper adapters, and had to use the headphones they have. It's an abominable experience. There's no isolation with these on-ear headphones, so I had to turn them up quite loud to get intelligible speech. This, in turn, just made ever more apparent the very poor sound quality.

Suffice it to say that between reruns of "Friends" and the racket the cans were making, I managed about one episode before I took them off my head, leaned back the seat, and closed my eyes to recover from the worst case of listening fatigue I've ever had in the mind-numbing roar of the six mile high the aluminum tube.

Styling and Ergonomics
Styling? Umm ... not. Next.

The ergonomics of these cans is pretty sad. They just don't properly align on the ears of a human. I ended up bending the heck out of the headband and breaking the plastic detents of the ear swivels to get them to align with the ears of my measurement head. Even then, they fell off the head twice during measurements. That's the first time ever that has happened.

Comfort and Durability
Again ... HA! How you can manage to make a headphone this ill-fitting is an achievement only surpassed by their ability, once removed, to actually make an airline seat seem more comfortable. As I mentioned, I had to break these headphones to get them to fit the head, and it was surprisingly easy to do so. Also, I had once before tried to measure an airline headphone, and it fried during testing. These are not durable cans.

Sound and Measurements
Oh, my ...

Fig 1 Shows the frequency response of the UAL962 headphone.

The frequency response is much worse than the Monster Beats Solo ... that's one heck of an achievement.

Fig 2 Shows the total harmonic distortion plus noise vs. frequency of the UAL962 headphone.

Amazing! Only Duggeh's home made Othodynamic cans have measured worse. Really, how do you get that much distortion into a headphone. Again ... amazing.

Fig 3 Shows the 30Hz square wave response of the UAL962 headphone.

Huh?! They're out of polarity one earpiece to the other ... I think. It's hard to tell with all the noise in the signal. Let's look closer ....

Fig 3 Shows the 300Hz square wave response of the UAL962 headphone.

Yes! Amazing again. The left and right earpieces are out of polarity from each other. This will produce a strange situation where the audio seems very wide with no distinct central image.

Fig 3 Shows the impulse response of the UAL962 headphone.

And there you have it: two anemic, noisy, ill-shaped blips going in opposite directions. Wow, I guess I better put them on for a listen.

O. M. G! They actually sound better than the measurements. Weird. Doubly weird is the fact that they sound sort of enveloping. Of course, it's all because the drivers are out of polarity with each other making for a surreal and phasy presentation. I'm thinking they may wire these headphones out of polarity on purpose! The out of phase cans make everything spacy and intense. Maybe this is how they get a headphone that sounds this bad to stand out in all the cabin noise. Really weird ... and no wonder I had such a bad case of listening fatigue. My curiosity is peaked now. I'm going to have to get a few more of these to measure.

Full data sheet for UAL962 here.

Alright, all kidding aside, what can you expect for two bucks. The airlines have had a rough go of it for the last ten years, I have to applaud them for managing to stay in business at all. It has to be more trouble than it's worth making these cans available cheap on a flight. I'll bet anything a whole bunch of kids have survived the boredom of modern travel with these headphones, and have been pacified to the delight of other passengers as well. So, thanks United, they are better than nothing.

In the meantime, I'll just smile my knowing smile to the stewardess and say no thanks when she asks, I don't want the $2 headphones ... because I'm not going to forget my cans and an airline adapter ever again.

United Airlines

Gatepc's picture

I think its really fun to read reviews on this odd stuff instead of the standard headphones haha. Keep it up!

xnor's picture
Hey, for 2 bucks it's amazing that they even output "sound". I'd love to see you fixing the polarity and re-measuring them. I think the biggest problem with cheap cans is that the drivers are usually utter crap. Care to take 'em apart and take a look at the drivers? I bet they have like zero excursion and a very high resonant frequency somewhere up in the mids. Btw, what's their impedance?
Tyll Hertsens's picture
xnor nails it. 35 Ohms and resonant frequency at 200Hz by the looks of it. Link to data sheet in the article now.
mward's picture

It's fascinating to see how really bad headphones measure. Great idea for an article!

If you get a pair that's in phase, I'll be interested to see whether you think it makes them better or worse.

Also, these *look* way better than airline headphones from a decade ago. The earpieces appear to have some relatively soft padding.

Anything interesting in the impedance measurements?

grawk's picture

I bought 8 pairs of $2 headphones from 1saleaday.com, figuring I could give them to my kids whenever they broke their headphones. (yes, it's that common an experience). For my daughter, it inspired her to take MUCH better care of her headphones...she's now happily listening to a pair of Jays supraaural white things with square pads...

For my boys, well, one just refuses to use them, and the other will grab them when he's desperate. So I guess it's possible for headphones to be bad enough that even kids won't use them. I'm sure they're worse than airline headphones, tho. I grabbed a set to use at the pool the other day, and holy crap they were bad. Maybe I'll send them to you to measure, when I send you my old audio technica woodies

Tyll Hertsens's picture

... I'll measure pretty much anything.

Sorry, I forgot the link to the full UAL962 datasheet. Link in the article now; pdf here:


dalethorn's picture

Tyll is a wildman, no doubt about it. I clicked the link twice, and each time I expected a full PDF of stats issued by United Airlines. Maybe I should give them a call and see what it takes to track down a manufacturer's datasheet on these headphones. If they don't have a datasheet, they might be stepping on someone's patents, eh? And I'm not even a lawyer. It's doubtful these are made in the U.S. That response curve looks vaguely familiar BTW - maybe I should try the out-of-phase trick on some of my cans. Couldn't hurt.

yuriv's picture

This is awsome! Maybe you can measure the Apple earphones that everyone already has (the new kind, if you have it).

Also, visit a TJ Maxx or Marshalls sometime. They've got an impressive selection of cheapo headphones and earphones in various fashion colors. I've spotted a Panasonic HJE120, Sony EX10, Philips SHE3580 and SHE9501, JVC Clear color and Marshmallows, and bunch of Cobys and Chinese no-names. Most of them are $5-8, and cheaper if you find an open box. There could be a gem hiding in there somewhere.

I raided a girl's colorful earphone collection once, and found that some of them sound pretty good with careful EQ.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I've got lots of serious headphones to review, so I'm not going to make a habit of it, but I will measure some Apple earbuds. My experience is that they're not bad for ear buds, be we should put them to the test officially one of these days.
Beagle's picture

But it does put things in proper perspective. How dare we criticise good headphones ever again.

DaBomb77766's picture

Oh, lame, I was just on a long Air Canada flight but didn't bother to take the headphones they were giving out...I'd have sent a pair to you had I taken one. They're just free earbuds they give out though.

Armaegis's picture

I've got several pairs of the Air Canada headphones (clips-ons actually). Surprisingly not the worst I've heard, and even more surprising that they clock in at 300 ohms. Maybe Tyll would like a pair of these curiosities to measure.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Sure. Email sent.
amateriat's picture

...those are identical to the ones I was handed by a flight attendant on a Delta flight I took several years back, and while I'd agree they didn't provide me with the *worst* listening experience I've endured, they understandably left much to be desired. The best thing about them, in fact, was the airline adapter packed in with them, which I had the presence-of-mind to hang onto.

sunmermaster's picture


This july Im gonna travel to Europe (from NY), did you recomend use my custom iem on the airplane all the time?, because is a long trip XD

jherbert's picture

...on the plane as I did on a trip to Shanghai.

dalethorn's picture

The test of a $2 headphone got me to thinking of an analogy to cameras and whether it would be worthwhile to compare cheap headphones to these "flight" headphones the same way.

Basically, cameras have real lenses. But the old Brownie box cameras used a simple convex(?) "magnifying glass" in place of a lens, and stopped the aperture down enough to make the image usably sharp.

So if you were to remove the $2 drivers, and remove the drivers from, say, a Beyer DTX-300p (a very, very economical but decent-sounding headphone), would you be able to describe the technological differences, or would that information be useful?

I have a couple of Hallmark cards with little piezo speakers that aren't bad in some frequency ranges, which makes me think people might be able to build their own headphones with sufficient information.

mward's picture

I took a United flight recently and a pair of these was sitting in the seat back pouch. I plugged them into my iPhone and fired up SignalSuite. As best I could tell, the pair I was using were wired in-phase. Assuming I didn't mess up my listening test somehow, my guess is that the pair Tyll got were wired incorrectly.

I also listened to some music with them and it was truly hideous.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Thanks for the data point, mate!
SonicSavourIF's picture

The Problem with such cheap cans as with all cheap products is, that what they essentially are, is waste production. Another plastic waste for the oceans or whereever these will end up. This mentality of producing a one flight object that you will through away after one single use is a shame. It might be amazing that it is possible to manuacture a headphone for 2$, but environmental issues are so huge that producing waste like this is unacceptable. In this case clearly no headphone is better than a 2$ headphone. There is also a pedagogical turn that is lost with the possibility of buying such headphones, i.e consequence. If you forgot headphones or your adapters, you will be bored a little. That's just fine. Classical learning by burning if you will. You'll do that mistake only once and remember next time to bring your headphones.