The airplane seat with headphones installed in the headrest
Hamburg, Germany (CNN) — As wireless headphones become more ubiquitous, standard airline headphones with their tangled cables and multi-pin jacks seem increasingly obsolete.
Sure, you can now connect personal headphones to some airplane inflight entertainment systems, but will your batteries last the duration of a long-haul flight, and are you willing to risk losing your beloved headphone in the seat mechanism, never to be seen again?
Enter Euphony, a new aircraft seat concept from French aircraft interior designer Safran Seats, made in collaboration with audio technology company Devialet.
Euphony eliminates the need for a personal headset. Instead, speakers are installed in the headrests of each individual seat, with sound levels perfected so that passengers can enjoy their choice of in-flight entertainment without being heard or disturbed by their neighbor.
Euphony is designed for a Business Class or First Class cabin.
At first glance, the AIX prototype looks like a regular business class airplane seat. Safran only made minor cosmetic adjustments to the headrest design.
But the difference is obvious as soon as the in-flight entertainment is activated. The sound begins to come out of the headrest, humming to the pre-recorded sounds of the plane’s engine that are already echoing through the experience room.
The screen plays the booming trailer for the recent Marvel movie “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Atmospheric music echoes through the headrest, before the system switches to a few different audio experiences, including a podcast, for comparison.
It takes me a little while to place the headrest in the perfect spot – for maximum sound quality you want it to be as close to your ears as possible.
But once it’s in the right setting, the personal speakers seem to work fine. The roar of the simulated aircraft engine largely becomes background noise and my attention is focused on what I see and hear.
Euphony doesn’t replace the cocoon experience of noise-canceling headphones, but it’s a comfortable setup and more like the experience of watching a movie on your couch. This would be perfect if you were flying with someone else and wanted to chat and interact while watching a movie in tandem.
In the AIX experiment room, it’s hard to judge if there really isn’t any sound leaking – there’s only one Euphony breadboard in place. But the fact that you can’t hear sound properly unless you have the headrest next to your ear suggests it should be relatively airtight, at least in business class or first class, where passengers are more spaced out.
Travelers looking for total noise cancellation or privacy may still want to use their own personal headset, but Safran principal architect Paul Wills and his team say the idea behind Euphony is to offer travelers more options. Travelers can also connect personal devices to the system via Bluetooth, and the headrest speakers work when the seat is fully reclined and upright.
In-flight announcements would not play through the headrest, as they would also play in the wider cabin, and Wills’ team wants to avoid a “funny hodgepodge of sounds”.
Instead, any announcement from the captain or cabin crew would simply shut down in-flight entertainment, as is already the norm on flights.
Complex design process
Safran has teamed up with audio experts Devialet to perfect the sound design.
Euphony has been in development for a few years now, and Wills and his team say perfecting the concept took trial and error and teamwork.
When Safran first tried putting speakers in the headrest, before Devialet came on the scene, Wills said the sound quality was “awful”.
“At that point, it was obvious that we were good seat designers, but we’re not sound designers, so we had to find someone who was,” he says.
Franck Lebouchard, CEO of Devialet, said the project was an “exciting” challenge for his group of audio experts.
“An airplane is probably the most complex sound environment you can imagine, both in terms of frequencies — low frequencies, high frequencies — and volume,” Lebouchard told CNN Travel.
The difficulty of simultaneously blocking low and high frequency aircraft sounds at all times is what prompted the team to develop Euphony without noise cancellation technology – the designers wanted to avoid blocking a frequency and unintentionally boosting the other.
But Safran and Devialet say the current iteration of Euphony will adjust in real time to mask cabin noise, and future iterations of the concept will seek to further improve the sound mix.
Another challenge was to ensure the best possible sound quality, at the lowest weight. Airlines always try to avoid unnecessary additional charges, both to reduce their carbon footprint and avoid additional costs.
The finished product adds another extra pound to any pre-existing seat, and it’s partly for this reason that Euphony is a professional and first-class offering, at least for now.
“It may not be appropriate right now in economics, purely and simply because it weighs too much,” says Wills.
But in the future, the team believes they can refine the concept for lower cost cabins.
“There’s a clear demand for that,” Wills says.
Safran already has an as-yet-undisclosed launch partner airline that will launch the product on its first and business class cabins in early 2023. Euphony test flights will take place at the end of this year.
The ultimate goal, Wills says, is to make flying as “normal” as possible, replicating the relaxing experience in your own home.
“When you get home, you’re not going to put on your headphones for the evening and watch a movie – it just doesn’t work, does it? You can’t chat with your partner or your friends, or yelling You have to be free to move around. And that was the idea with that. You sit down, turn on the TV, watch a movie — it’s like home.
Top photo courtesy of Safran