Valcon suuri kuulokeodysseia, osa 2 - VALCO
Miscellaneous Writings

Valco's great balloon odyssey, part 2

Author Valco Laboratoriot

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

Valco noise-cancelling headphones

What to consider when designing headphones, then? In other words, what features make a good headphone? And to be even more specific, what makes a headphone great?

Well, headphones are mainly used to listen to music, and a good sound system of this kind evokes larger-than-life emotions and amateurish feelings of excitement. So the most important feature is, of course, good sound. And it's not enough to be good. There are plenty of good-sounding headphones on the market, if you can find them among all those myriad monstrosities.

In this case, we went out as other Taavettes to bring down the Goliaths.

My first job was to dig out my favourite hi-fi/high-end headphones from my headphone collection, and to find the market leaders in ANC/BT headphones, against which to tune our models. And now let's talk about the comparators, which range in price from around 300-1500€.

I decided that I wouldn't settle until my own handsets produced at least a slightly similar sense of awe as these best of the best. So now we're talking about sound balance and naturalness of sound across the entire hearing range, as well as minimizing annoying resonances and distortion components. In a word: Clarity. Clarity is a wonderful thing not only in music, but also when listening to podcasts and audio books, when the person comes close to talking, instead of mumbling into a pillow in the closet.

And while the task was by no means easy and the earth was on a high, the end result is even better than I dared expect.

The sound, the separation and the soundstage, washes out all competing wireless headphones and even challenges the sound of quite competent higher-end hi-fi models. Sound like a sales pitch? Well go to the shops and test it for yourself. That's what I did. If you find better ones, I'll be happy to hear about them.

Just to clarify, these headphones actually have three different sound modes: in fully passive mode, plugged in, these sound good and softer than in wireless active mode, where the sound changes to excellent discrimination. Then, when you turn on the countermelody, the sound really shines. So the sounds have been tweaked to suit the way people use them.

For example, the sound is smoother when wired than wireless and it has such a nice touch that, for example, in home studios, those recording jobs need to have delay-free zero latency, so a cable is the only decent option. And if you are recording a bass track, for example, and the drummer is banging his drumsticks next to you with a red face, the counter-noise helps a lot, but the volume will still be raised considerably more than normal. And when it monitored soundi them recording skeletons are not so tense, so it jaksaa listen longer and ear pin cells thank.

Yep. These are things I've wondered about quite a lot.

So tuning the sound has been the second most time consuming part of this project.

Valco laboratory

What has taken more time then? Well, the groundwork.

To this day, Valco's brave boys have gone through a huge number of factories and their prototypes, and have pruned out the best ideas, from which the Finnish team has gone on to develop this into a finished product. And it is not enough that a particular factory is able to supply us with good components, but we have to take into account that they will continue to do so and that the quality and specifications remain consistent. All batches must be equally good.The world is drowning in mediocre disposable crap, and we don't want to be part of that development.

The way I have handled the stress tests is that I have given a bunch of prototypes without protective cases to audio professionals, a.k.a. roustabouts, and told them to handle them casually on their business trips. Only one of them broke. I can't go into details, but it involved a lorry, lava tubes and high voltage, among other things.

Roudarians are very creative when it comes to screwing things up. Almost as creative as they get when it comes to fixing things.

Well, the sound is on point and these guys can survive a medium sized nuclear war. What else is important about headphones? Well ergonomics and usability!

Competitors have some fancy giggles and programmability on their handsets, but the fact is that people want a headset that goes on at the touch of a button and fits comfortably on the head. All the flick switches and magical gestures of a magic timer may seem like really cool features in motion and on youtube videos, but wear them on a sweaty jog, or with a rim in your hand, face frozen in the winter frost.

One of the prototypes started running computer programs without being asked. They didn't even burn very well in midsummer size. My motto is: "Keep it simple, stupid!"

So there's a single button on these that turns them on, connects to the network, and turns them off. Another button for backlighting, and a power control. And you can operate these in the winter with gloves on.

In appearance, these are very much Chinese. This is purely down to money and prioritisation. Plastic moulds cost tens of thousands of euros to make and my own design would have easily cost a hundred grand just to start production. Therefore, in terms of appearance, we were content to simply modify the Chinese design, which was functional in itself. Of course, we did choose the best of them.

We wanted the headphones to have a distinctly Finnish feel, so they come with handcrafted Finnish wooden headsets with the Valco logo. This is that kind of "everyday luxury".

We decided to invest in the guts instead, like battery life that lasts for days, even weeks. As well as Qualcomm's latest and (value for money) best-in-class bluetooth circuitry. Even this has been tuned to your needs; when you turn on the answering machine and play an audio book, you have to be able to vacuum the whole two-storey apartment, even if the phone is in the hallway. Yes. There is also a handsfree for personal calls to "Marjata", should the need arise.

The latency has been slimmed down to such a minimum that the sync is maintained for movies and even gaming.

Oh, why aren't these made entirely in Finland then? There is plenty of know-how and expertise here! Yes, there is, but product development from scratch takes time and is surprisingly expensive. Let's just say that the reeds are hissing, and our long-term vision is to make Finnish headsets from scratch - as long as we start somewhere first.

Oh, and did I mention that the headphones also have a very well-tuned feedback function.

They didn't want to make these into zero crossover capsules that isolate them from the outside world. One of the scourges of modern times is just that, that people are walking around with their headphones on in traffic and as other Porians they get stuck under a train, for example, when they don't observe their surroundings.

Really, the point of the counter-noise function is not to isolate the user from his or her environment, but to reduce the hum, noise and buzzing that is going on everywhere to a level where it would be better for people to be, and the music level would not need to be raised so high that it masks the noise in the environment.

Our cabinets are set up in such a way that the general humming is considerably dampened and people are still better off. But still, these heads are able to perceive their surroundings so that, for example, they don't die. Noise-cancelling headphones are particularly useful when travelling, whether in an aeroplane or an 80s diesel Mercedes.

Attention has also been drawn to the fact that a poorly designed feedback function can make people feel dizzy and nauseous. Without going into too much technical detail, I am proud to say that the response function on these has not been badly designed.

You can't really understand how much a well-designed anti-noise function will improve your quality of life until you try it.

As our hearing aid project progresses, more information will be added, but in the meantime it's worth checking in.Valco email list here.

Jasse Kesti at work

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