May 30, 2024

Airline headphones and earbuds

Stuart Forster interviews Thomas G Mockler, CEO of InflightDirect, which has been supplying airline headphones for 40 years and is one of the oldest active suppliers to the airline industry.

Stuart Forster (SF): If you were to survey the state of the headphones market, what observations would you make?  

Thomas G Mockler (TM): The headphone market has evolved a long way since pneumatic headsets – plastic stethoscopes – were first used. Since the early 1980s, the market has made a 360 and there are some good quality headphones presently being used.  

People are using headphones on an everyday basis with their mobile phones or laptops. I think there’s always going to be a market for headsets with the airlines.   

SF: What trends are you seeing relating to headphones used aboard aircraft?  

TM: For Economy class, the trend is primarily focused on inexpensive but quality and comfortable earbuds or headbands. I think one of the small ways that we can improve sustainability is the packaging.

We’ve come up with items such as kraft paper bags, compostable bags and paper bands that we pack the earbuds in. We’ve come up with a minimal amount of paper that we can actually seal the headphones to help the environment. 

Earphones in an eco-friendly kraftbag.
Earphones in an eco-friendly kraft paper bag.

SF: What about the actual headphones themselves in Economy class, have the materials changed from which they are made?  

TM: Materials have been improved by focusing on the environmental edicts that are in place. I think a lot of it is focused on a better quality of earbuds. Therefore they don’t necessarily get disposed of. They get taken away by the passenger for future uses – on another flight, in a fitness centre, during a workout or with a laptop.   

SF: When you go further up the cabin classes, what are the trends?   

TM: Depending on what part of the world you’re in, Premium could be a headband headphone – one that sits on top of the ear and makes it a little bit more comfortable with better sound quality due to the larger speaker elements. It’s a little easier on airlines’ budgets and the headphone can be reused multiple times, helping the airline to reduce overall costs.  

As you go up to Business class or First class you have active noise cancellation headphones, an important part of those premium seats.  

You see a lot more focus on designs that are comparable to retail brands. One of the challenges that we have, we want the passenger to say, “Hey, look at this, this is similar to ‘ABC brand’ that you would spend $200 for in a store.” When you use one on an airline it might be just a simpler, similar style.  

SF: Have there been any major changes in the underlying technologies of headphones in recent times or any that look ready to be introduced?  

TM: Nothing that I’ve seen in over 40 years that we have been doing this. There’s been discussion about Bluetooth and wireless. There are some Bluetooth headsets out there and I think that’s going to be the future – getting rid of wires. But the technology within the headphones is similar.   

A manufacturer, such as us, balances the patented technology versus presenting a good quality product for the passenger that works for the airline’s budget.  

SF: What are the key differences between a pair of active noise-cancelling headphones that you can buy to those on aircraft in First and Business class cabins?  

TM: With some of the brand names you’re definitely going to get a better quality and a lot of that goes with the technology that is patented. It also goes with the quality of components that are in the product itself.  

Do the airlines want to spend $300 on a headphone? Probably not. But you can make a comparable model and unless you have a trained ear then you probably wouldn’t notice a significant difference in the quality between the two.  

SF: Are you seeing an increase in demand for the Bluetooth headsets that you mentioned earlier?  

TM: We do. At the WTCE there was a lot of discussion about Bluetooth. A lot of them might be on small charter aircraft or custom-type aircraft.   

SF: There have been some significant advances in inflight entertainment and connectivity recently. Is that a key driver in terms of the headsets that are able to link to personal electronic devices?   

TM: A lot of personal devices are going to have wireless or Bluetooth connectivity.  

Many passengers will have their personal earbuds with them. But it might be a matter of convenience to use the airline ones if it’s up in storage bins above the seats. 

Headphone for use onboard an aircraft
Headphones for use onboard an aircraft

SF: What are the issues people face when they’re using earbuds that are not their own and not necessarily shaped for their ears?  

TM: Many times there’s a technical mismatch. Many of the airlines use a 300-ohm system, some use a 32-ohm system. A lot of the retail-type earbuds that you’ll see are made from a 16- to 32-ohm output. Sometimes, with a mismatch of technical impedances, then you might find a little bit of a difference in quality. You might find it being a little louder than normal or you might find quality just not there.   

A personal earbud won’t be produced in 300 ohm but the airlines’ IFE systems can be produced in 300 ohm. So it’s just a matter of a technical mismatch. It’ll work for the flight but it won’t necessarily sound like a typical one you’d get with your mobile phone.  

SF: What considerations do good earphones need to take into account to perform well on an aircraft?  

TM: Those sounds that you’re hearing within the cabin are low-frequency sounds. So with a low-frequency sound, you should be able to put on an active noise cancellation headphone and have a conversation with the passenger next to you. That active noise cancellation will cancel out the low-frequency noise.

It is important for people to realise that you don’t want to be sealed off from everybody. You want to be able to hear if a passenger asks you to get up and move or just to have a conversation with the passenger seated next to you.   

You should cancel out that low-frequency sound. And with the earbuds, for example, that’s why a lot of them are going more towards the inner ear type earbuds that will assist in making it almost a passive noise reduction earbud and/or headphone.   

You might have a headphone in a Premium Economy class that goes over the top of your head but it’s not active noise cancellation. You want to typically use a passive noise reduction which just means it puts a seal around the ears to seal out some of those low-frequency sounds while enjoying a larger speaker which will provide better sound quality. 

It is important for people to realise that you don’t want to be sealed off from everybody. You want to be able to hear if a passenger asks you to get up and move or just to have a conversation with the passenger seated next to you

Thomas G Mockler, CEO of Inflight Direct

SF: Are there any other key issues that you think are worth discussing about headphones or earbuds?  

TM: A lot of is just educating yourself and understanding the basic technical specifications of your IFE system, to match the specifications for each. It’s been an industry issue for years where they’ve been mismatched. But I think now a lot of them actually getting to a point where it’s almost universal.  

It’s an exciting industry. A lot of it follows what’s popular in the retail brand and what’s popular in the mobile phone industry. It’s almost like a copycat-type industry.  

We’ve gone back and forth over the years with make making headsets white-coloured to duplicate some of the popular retail brands. It’s a marketing tool that can certainly make the difference between a good flight and a bad flight for the passenger.