This is a continuation of a previously published text, which you can find here:

Valco noise-canceling headphones

So what should you consider when designing headphones? In other words, what features make a headphone good? And to be more precise, what makes headphones great?

Well, headphones are mainly for listening to music, and a good sound system evokes larger-than-life emotions and amateurish excitement. So the most important feature is, of course, good sound. And it's not enough for it to be good. There are plenty of good-sounding headphones on the market if you just have the patience and knowledge to search through all the myriad horrors.

We approached this whole thing like David taking down Goliath.

First thing I did was dig out my favorite hi-fi/high-end headphones from my collection and gathered market leaders in ANC/BT headphones to compare against our models. And now we're talking about comparisons in the price range of €300-1500.

I decided I wouldn't be satisfied until our own headphones produced at least a slightly similar feeling of amazement as these best comparisons. We're talking about the evenness of sound balance and the naturalness of sound across the entire hearing range, as well as minimizing annoying resonances and distortion components. In one word: Clarity. Clarity is a wonderful thing when listening to music as well as podcasts and audiobooks, where the person comes very close to talking to you and not mumbling in a closet into a pillow.

And although the task was by no means easy and the bar was set high, the end result is even much better than I dared to expect.

The sound, separation, and soundstage of these headphones outperform all competing wireless noise-canceling headphones and challenge some pretty competent high-end hi-fi models. Does this sound like advertising talk? Then go to the stores and test it yourself. That's what I did. If you find better ones, I'd love to hear about them.

It must also be clarified that these headphones actually have three different sounds: Fully passive, with a cable they sound good and softer than in wireless active mode, where the sound becomes excellently detailed. Then, when you turn on the noise-canceling, the sound positively shines. So the sound is adjusted according to how people use them.

For example, the sound is softer when wired than wireless, and it has a quirky good side that in home and studio environments, in recording work, you need a latency-free zero-latency connection, so the cable is the only real option. And if you're recording a bass track and a drummer is pounding away next to you, noise-canceling helps a lot with that racket, but you'll still turn up the volume in the headphones significantly more than usual. And when the monitored sound in the recording headphones is not so tight, you can listen longer, and your ears will thank you.

Yes, I've thought about these things a lot.

So tuning the sound has taken the second most time in this project.

Valco lab

What has taken more time? The groundwork.

To date, the hardworking boys at Valco have gone through an enormous number of factories and their prototypes, from which the best ideas have been selected to develop this into a finished product with Finnish efforts. It's not enough for a particular factory to be able to deliver us good components; it also has to be able to do so in the future and ensure that the quality and specs remain consistent. Every batch has to be equally good. The world is drowning in mediocre disposable crap, and we don't want to be part of that trend.

I conducted the stress tests by giving a bunch of prototypes without protective cases to audio professionals, aka roadies, and instructed them to handle them carelessly on their work trips. Only one pair broke. I can't go into details, but it involved, among other things, a truck, stage structures, and high voltage.

Roadies are very creative when it comes to breaking things. Almost as creative as when it comes to fixing things.

So, the sound is spot on, and these survive a medium-sized nuclear war. What else is important in headphones? Ergonomics and usability!

Competitors have all sorts of fancy gadgets and programmability in their headphones, but the fact is, people want headphones that turn on with a button and fit comfortably on their heads. All kinds of touch sensors and magic gestures might feel really cool in the store and on YouTube videos, but try using them with sweaty hands during a jog or with mittens on in freezing winter weather.

One prototype started controlling computer programs uninvited. They didn't even burn well in the Midsummer bonfire. My motto is: "Keep it simple, stupid!"

So these have one button to turn them on, connect to the network, and turn off. Another button for noise canceling and volume control. And these can be operated in winter with gloves on.

Aesthetically, they are very Chinese. This is purely due to money and prioritization. Making plastic molds costs tens of thousands of euros, and creating our own design would have easily cost a hundred thousand just to start production. Therefore, we settled for aesthetically modifying the functional design of the Chinese. Of course, we picked the best of them too.

We wanted something distinctly Finnish in the headphones, so they come with handmade wooden caps with the Valco logo, made in Finland. This is what we call "everyday luxury."

We decided to invest instead in the internals, like the battery life that lasts for days, even a week. And the latest and (cost-effective) best Bluetooth chip from Qualcomm. This too is tuned to our own needs; when you turn on the noise canceling and play an audiobook, you should be able to vacuum the entire two-story house even if the phone is in the hallway. Yes. There's also a hands-free option for personal calls to "Marjatta," if it comes to that.

The latency has also been fine-tuned to be so insignificant that the sync stays in movies and even gaming.

Why weren't these made entirely in Finland? There's enough know-how and expertise here! Yes, there is, but starting from scratch takes time and is surprisingly expensive. Let's just say, it's rustling in the reeds, and our long-term vision is to make completely Finnish headphones from start to finish - once we get started somewhere.

Oh, and did I mention that these headphones also have an excellently tuned noise-canceling function?

We didn't want to make zero-sensory capsules that isolate the user from the outside world. One of today's plagues is that people wander around with noise-canceling headphones in traffic and end up under a train because they don't perceive their surroundings.

The real point of the noise-canceling function is not to isolate the user from their environment but to reduce the all-encompassing hum, noise, and buzz to a level that improves the person's well-being without needing to raise the music level so high that it drowns out the surrounding noise.

Our gadgets are adjusted so that the general hum is significantly reduced, and one feels accordingly well. But you can still perceive your surroundings, so you don't die, for example. Noise-canceling headphones are especially good for traveling, whether by plane or an 80s diesel Mercedes.

Attention has also been paid to the fact that a poorly designed noise-canceling function can cause dizziness and nausea. Without going into too much technical detail, I can proudly say that our noise-canceling function is not poorly made.

You can't really understand how much a well-made noise-canceling function improves the quality of life until you try it.

As our headphone project progresses, we'll provide more information, but in the meantime, it's worth signing up for the Valco email list here.

Jasse Kesti at work