When Headphones Get Smart

Editor's Note: At the end of this month I'll be attending T.H.E. Show Newport, and on Saturday, May 31 at 1PM, I'll be moderating a panel discussion titled, "When Headphones Get Smart: The Future of Active Headphones." On the Panel will be: Todd Welti of Harman International who does research on headphone development; Geir Skaaden, Senior Vice President of Corporate Business Development, Digital Content & Media Solutions at DTS who has responsibilities for the Headphone:X project; and Douglas Kihm, CEO and founder of STREAMZ LLC, who is about to produce a stand-alone streaming headphone. This article is sort of my first stab at getting my head around the subject prior to the show. I look forward to your comments here to help flesh out the subject, and hope you'll come and participate in the discussion if you're at the show.

The Coming of Smart Headphones
It seems inevitable at this point, headphones are going to get much, much smarter in the near future. Apple has recently made news with patents for biometric sensors in headphones that, with the aid of the appropriate app, will help you monitor your exercise program and fitness. They've also patented the ability to steer the pick-up pattern of a phased array of microphones on the cable of your ear-bud for better voice reception using an accelerometer in the buds. The wildly successful Dash Kickstarter campaign raised $3 million over their $260,000 goal for a wireless Bluetooth, biometric sensing, in-ear head-set. GN, Danish parent company of Jabra, is introducing their IntelligentHeadset with 3D audio claiming to be able to give sonic prompts from various points in space around your head—for example, you can play ZombieX and kill invisible zombies by looking in the direction of their screams and pushing the shoot button. You've seen all the streaming speakers out there, well, why not a streaming headphone that operates much the same way? STREAMZ headphones are set to launch this year and promise access to media without the need for a player. All the above, of course, ignores the rash of activity around virtual reality head-sets (Facebook buys Oculus; Sony's Project Morpheus; Apple patents head-mounted display; Google Glass, of course; even Samsung is getting into it), and the really far out brain wave sensing headsets.

Like everything, I see both good and bad in this trend. All the fitness tracking stuff could be pretty cool for those with an athletic bent. Getting fit can be a heck of a chore especially when progress is slow. Headphones with sensors and cool apps would be able to give you a much better picture of where you're at and where you're going than a bathroom scale. Smart-head tracking would allow for cool things like apps for blind people that let them know what they're looking at. Of course, I'm exited about head-tracking for its ability to allow for changing HRTF (head related transfer function) cues in virtual surround systems like DTS Headphone:X to improve the immersiveness of the experience.

Will Complexity Lead to Incompatibility?
The downside, it seems to me, is that there's obviously no standardization with these systems. Will the apps that receive data from Apple's new biometric sensing ear-buds be compatible with the Dash headphones? I seriously doubt it. Will STREAMZ headphones allow me to access streaming services with existing log-ins? Sonos doesn't let me log into TuneIn radio with my existing account info...and they've been doing this for quite a while.

For a long time headphone enthusiasts have taken for granted that their headphones are almost always compatible with anything that had a headphone jack. At some point in the near future we may be forced into certain models of headphones depending on what set of apps and features one desires. Manufacturers just love to create feature rich products that are interoperable only with product from that brand. (*cough* Apple *cough*)

Will Regular Headphones Become Obsolete?
Heck, let's take it a step farther: Will smartphones eventually give up the wired headphone jack when most folks are walking around with Bluetooth headsets. Speakers don't move much, but everyone wants wireless speakers; we move our head around all the time, a wireless headphone is far more functionally convenient than a wireless speaker. For most people, getting rid of the wire on their headphones would be a very good thing. In the long run, that means the headphone jack is likely to disappear.

As I was writing this article, I had a very funny thought: In a decade or two, all headphones may be wireless, except for that cute little group of audiophiles who manage to provide just enough demand to sustain a boutique market for wired headphones...turntables...tape decks...and other arcane devices.

"The Sky is Falling!"...Not
Look, I'm really not trying to be sensationalistic here, I'm just interested in starting a dialog and a little thinking on the subject. Headphones are about to go through some huge changes, and I think we should be talking about those changes because our (the headphone enthusiast community) dialog, in part, will be input for those who are thinking about developing future headphone products. In a world partly run on the back of social media, it's your well considered opinion that might well make it under the eyes of headphone innovators—this is InnerFidelity after all, lots of those engineers read these pages.

Just a good thing to think about, I think. Lemme know what you think in the comments.

Editor's Note: InnerFidelity will be going through some site maintenance this weekend and comments on the site will be disabled most of the weekend. So, if you've got thoughts at the ready, go for it. But this subject is worthy of a little rumination, I'd love to hear what you think after a weekend of noodling over it.

Grahame's picture


The buzzword is "Hearables" ( - the new "wearables")




We need you to fight the good fight so we end up with great sounding ones.

Interoperability / Open Standards would be nice too.

(and how long before "audiophile" and "hearable" occur in the same context)

Tyll Hertsens's picture

...you're always so au courent. Thanks for helping me remain hip.


They still use "hip" don't they?

bronson's picture

Here's another possibility to future "smart headphones" - you buy your new cans full of hi-tech wizardry and decide you would like to hear some music with the exact same sound signature, soundstage etc of STAX SR009, or Abyss AB1266 etc, so you download whatever (by then old school) headphone sound signature app directly to your new smart headphone, which then gives you the exact experience of headphone you chose for £1 GBP, $2 USD etc, rendering the old process ancient audiophiles used to go about purchasing individual brands to form a collection, obsolete.

The headphone market as we know now will vanish, replaced with generic smart headphones, manufacturing will globally drop by 50% causing mass unemployment, there will be global civil unrest and the world will end.

That, or some variant where computers will become so advanced, they become self aware and turn on humanity as in Terminator flicks,which will be regarded as documentaries not sci-fi to the remaining human survivors living in the rubble of devestation.

Now, ask yourself, does that sound in anyway "smart"?

gman060692's picture


While devices in the future may have the power to alter frequency response in a very precise manner no amount of processing can overcome the significant amount of distortion found in cheap headphones, nor increasings it's speed, nor will it be able to make a 10 mm driver sound like a 60 mm + due to the difference in the wavefront. This could however present an interesting way to design a headphone where the frequency response doesn't matter and the only objective is making a fast, low distortion driver and correct the response later in software.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

I think you are correct.  With active headphones the acoustic design goal might indeed simply be "make it very linear with low distortion and fix it in DSP".  

Another thing to think about is the likelyhood of surround synthesis in the headphones. Many of these future products look like they will have ways to synthesize the location of sound sources. It's likely we'll see things like "Headphone:X Inside" on our cans. In order for those things to actually work convincingly, the audio fidelity must be quite good. 

jagwap's picture

inside active speakers and I'm sure active headphones (noise cancelling etc.). However it is not that simple. You need a relatively monotonic frequency response if this is to work. If there are any severe notches or sudden cliffs in the response then the DSP cannot take care of it in production volumes: if there is a tolerance, and there will be as it is mechanical, the compensation will not always line up, causing worse problems, perhaps large spikes.

One day maybe each product can be pre compensated in production for its own individual behaviour… But then what happens after it is run in and EVERYTHING changes ;)

zobel's picture

There will always be the quest for the ultimate sonic experience via headphones. There will always be in-ear, on-ear, and around-ear (circumaural) types since there are markets for each.

I think for any type of phones for any use, wireless will prevail and sound quality will be on par with wired.

I think that user-controlled variable isolation will be widely available.

I'm afraid that proprietary systems will be the norm when connectivity is a matter in "smart cans". I am hopeful that there will be some standard wireless system(s) and cloud-based apps that will have universal acceptance.

Larger, usb powered headphones that contain their own amp, electronics and battery will also be capable of operating as high fidelity desktop speakers. These, too, will be able to go wireless. They will be smart enough to not play in speaker mode while being worn. All headphones will have a decibel limiter to prevent hearing damage and headphone damage. You will still be able to rock out at louder than recommended levels, but your phones will tell you that you are, and will clamp off any sound that will cause damage on a short term basis. Not having to compete with loud environmental noise with very effective noise cancelling will make louder than healthy listening unnecessary.

People will wear different colored headphones to indicate what their current sexual preference and status is. This may even extend to headphone type and brand, and manner in which they are worn, as it already is in some cases,(for instance not on or near the ears, but around the neck). This fashion aspect of cans will become even more of an essential statement of social/political/sexual/financial/religious/recreational status, but mostly in larger urban and suburban settings. Those without any headphones will be tolerated, but will be said to "lack".

mikemercer's picture

Psyched to see you again at Newport Tyll!!
Doin' the motorcycle ride again?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
Flying in this time. Have to get back quickly for my daughter's high school graduation. Please let me know if I can help you out in any way.