Headphones are everywhere these days. How to differentiate? Who looks after quality and sustainability?
Industrial designers at People People have many years of experience in this product category, and propose the following design concept:
• Simple construction for better build quality. This product uses the most simple and ergonomic adjustment principle, and use only one screw for assembly.
• The design is inspired by old audiophile headphones, to emphasise and celebrate the long tradition of quality audio.
• Compared to most headphones of today, these would take care of talking in the phone in a good way.
The one-screw disassembly makes it easy to repair or customise this product for a longer life span. All materials except the electronics would be upcyclable or biodegradable. Thanks to the easy disassembly the electronics would be easier taken care of in the recycling process.
The Full Story
As you might have noticed the headphone industry is booming. Over the last two or three years many companies have understood that headphones are lifestyle products rather than just “practical” or “audio experience” which was the way all big companies made headphones before. Now there’s a few new companies (Beats by Dre, Aiaiai, Urbanears, etc.) that have rapidly taken a big market share from the traditional brands, who are struggling to keep up and “turn their big ships around”. Also as a result of this fast growing consumer trend there are numerous Chinese manufacturers offering off-the-shelf products available for any company or entrepreneur out there. If you Browse Ali Baba for headphones you’ll get almost 347326 products from 4576 suppliers(!).
At People People we have designers with a lot of experience designing all kinds of headphones for “a huge consumer electronics brand”. In the way things are currently playing out we see problems regarding Quality, Market Strategy, Ergonomics and Sustainability. And we would humbly like to suggest another way to do it:
1. Quality Issue
We have seen many catch on the trend of making colorful headphones. The problem with the availability of “off the shelf” products is the lack of experience in product development in many of the buying companies. The vendors know this, and of course deliver the cheapest and fastest versions, wich in the end results in poor customer experience. We’re talking about bad choice of plastic and rubber material, poor tolerances between parts, poor color matching and loads of “squeeky noises”. Not to mention the fact these products actually breaks down much faster than properly executed ones.
The solution to this problem isn’t as much about spending money as knowing what demands to put on suppliers and how to do it. There’s a lot you can do with “just plastic” and still get a result with a proper visual and mechanical quality. Also, the price you intend to sell the product for in the end must of course be taken into account when designing it. Otherwise the designers will make their most awesome design, and when the business model doesn’t add up you’ll end up with a lot of fake metal parts in the end.
2. Market Saturation Issue
Another problem with the much beloved “me too strategy” out there is the fact you will have a hard time being in the top of the consumers mind, and in the end struggle with sales. In the following position diagram we have tried to map out the traditional brands and the newcomers, what they aspire to and where’s an opportunity to own a position. The “mee too strategy” in this case refers to the chase towards the down right direction.
We think there’s an opportunity here. The old brands like Sony, Bose or Koss have a solid foundation in the audio heritage. This is good because it pretty much expresses the main function with headphones (playing music). The newcomers seem very excited about the fact headphones are lifestyle products, and although some of them might sound quite allright they fail to cherish the audio heritage in their design. The opportunity as we see it lays in keeping the design heritage in audio quality, but still meet the demands of being a lifestyle product.
3. Ergonomics Issue
Another downside of the off-the-shelf products is the poor ergonomics. Many on the buying side have little or none experience in designing these products, so they fail to recognize if the headphone construction is sufficient for long term comfort. It’s also important to choose the right cushion material. What might feel nice at first can be terrible after an hour of music listening.
We have noticed an interesting behavior regarding phone calls. Because headphones are designed to be primarily a music product, talking is being compromised. The result is what we call the “head strap”. This means people strap their heads with their headphones to have the mic close to the mouth. For helicopter pilots or secretaries this is nicely solved with an extended mic boom. We think this solution hasn’t hit the consumers market yet because it’s not really socially accepted to walk around like a chopper-less pilot. In our headphone design we have tried to achieve the extended mic functionality in a socially acceptable way (let’s unstrap people’s heads!).
Concept description: When picking up a call, you simply pull the cable out of the headphone, and the mic extends towards the mouth. This is achieved by having a semi stiff plastic part inside the textile cable that will roll up inside the headphone when not in use. When ending a call you gently pull the cable again, and the extended mic boom will disappear into the headphone.
4. Sustainability Issue
How many times have you experienced a malfunctioning audio cable? We think things in general break too fast, contains bad materials, and are not repairable. Feels familiar?
How We Would Do It
We have designed a pair of headphones that we believe is more usable, durable and aims for a better position in the market place. It has a design language that is simple, yet with a recognizable expression inspired by old audiophile products (check out the Grado Prestige series for instance).
We have minimized the amount of parts in the design. We remember some complex designs we had to do with like 800 different parts in “special hinges” etc. Our hinge design is the simplest and most ergonomic way to do it. The turning ability together with the choice of cushion material makes all the difference for comfort. In our opinion, this is currently done very well by Bose, and not so well by Beats (they begin to hurt after an hour or so).
In our opinion, most headphones that can be folded for storage is doing this on the cost of simplicity. Those extra hinges add complexity, cost and “squeeky noises”. We have chosen a sturdy, flexible and slim headband that is very bendable in itself, and therefore both simple and practical for storage. Thanks to the full textile design we also minimized the need for plastic housing. This means we wont have big demands on finish for the plastic structural parts, and we can use starch based resin or even 3D-printing in the production.
The product is constructed in a clever way to hold together with just one screw. Unscrewing this means anyone can change or wash the textile after a while, replace cables or recycle broken parts.
- Screw: Aluminium (upcyclable)
- Bracket: Starch based plastic (biodegradable)
- Housing: Starch based plastic (biodegradable)
- Electronics and cables: Handled by recycling facility
- Speaker cone: Starch based plastic (biodegradable)
- Loop: Aluminium (upcyclable)
- Cushion: Recycled Polyester (upcyclable)
- Textile: Recycled Polyester (upcyclable)
- Rubber rings: Eco TPU (biodegradable)
This design is not on the market, but we are keen to be a part of shaping the headphone business for the better!