What's Next in Headphone Tech: 3 Revolutionary New Designs

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2013 is already an exciting year for headphone lovers. It’s not even April yet, and already there have been some amazing announcements in the area of personal audio that merit attention. Headphones just keep getting better and better.

But a collection of game-changing technologies are beginning to appear. These new concepts could improve personal audio by leaps and bounds. Let’s see what the future has in store.

Just Around the Corner: Bone Conduction Headphones


Panasonic will debut their RP-BTGS10 later this year.

Developed by Panasonic, these are already scheduled to arrive in stores in the fall of 2013. Instead of using a speaker, they use your skull and inner ear bones as their method of sound transmission, meaning you don’t have to have anything on or in your ears to hear your music—you would be able to hear everything around you. This is especially good for bikers and runners whose interests don’t include getting hit by cars.

Further Down the Road: Graphene Electrostatic Headphones


Scientists have already created a prototype headphone driver made out of graphene.

Graphene, a super-thin substance made from pure carbon, has been headlines for its amazingly versatile properties. We’re most interested in how graphene can work in headphone technology. Essentially, they work like electrostatic headphones, a technology that offers crazy-good performance, but is prohibitively expensive. Aside from price, the biggest problem posed by graphene headphones is power. They’d need a lot of juice to work, like an independent, plug-into-the-wall source. We may see a working set of graphene cans in the next decade, but it’ll be a while before you can buy a pair at Best Buy.

Set Phasers to Funk: "Sound Laser" Headphones


A phaser, or “sound laser,” could produce extremely accurate audio, but it’ll be quite a while before the technology becomes commercialized.

In March, scientists at Caltech unveiled what is now being termed a “phaser,” or a laser-like device that fires sound instead of light. The tech could work in a set of headphones. Where today’s headphones have a moving coil glued to a paper cone, phaser headphones would probably look more like an array of microchip-sized emitters behind a gel-like substance that would mold around your ears. A design like this could provide insane isolation and extremely accurate audio reproduction.

Additionally, because the phaser chip is based on technology we currently manufacture in abundance, these headphones might be relatively inexpensive after a few years. This type of technology has a long ways to go before hitting the market, but there is interest in using it as an imaging replacement for ultrasound. Consumer interest may not be far behind.

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So what’s the next step going to be? Bone conduction may already be here, but it’s tough to say if it’ll catch on. Graphene headphones will be stuck in a laboratory environment for the time being, and there are no plans to manufacture them right now. Phasers will only exist in the realm of academia and Star Trek for a while. But who knows what the future holds? One thing’s for sure: The next step in personal audio is going to be incredibly cool.

Photos: Panasonic; Qin Zhou, A. Zettl/Cornell University Library; APS/José Tito Mendonça; I. Mahboob/NTT Basic Research Laboratories

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