Apple’s AirPods have proven to be extremely popular among iPhone owners in the past year, in spite of initial misgivings. Two recently granted patent applications shed light on the ways in which Apple is continually working to improve the acoustic experience provided by its earphones.
Spatial Headphone Transparency
The most exciting patent application, which was approved earlier this year, is dubbed “spatial headphone transparency”. The patent controls the way headphones adjust the sound being emitted by a source, optimizing the listening experience. Whereas earphones typically seal noise against the wearer’s ear canals, this innovation would allow headphones to transmit ambient noise from the wearer’s environment through the earpieces, making it seem like she or he is not wearing them at all. It would also mitigate the sense that the music you are listening to is coming from inside your head, and instead place the acoustic source above your head, as if speakers had been placed there.
This effect, referred to as “acoustic transparency”, would be achieved by the use of microphones that “pick up sound in the ambient environment of the wearer, electronically processes it and then plays it through the earpiece speaker drivers”. Both the left and right earpieces would separately process the ambient noise and pass it through a digital acoustic transparency filter before the sound is played back through the respective earpieces.
The technology should help provide a more realistic listening experience that mimics an outdoor music festival (if you are outdoors), but Apple notes that it will not provide perfect acoustic transparency– the earpieces will still physically block some of the ambient noise in the wearer’s sound environment.
Configurable Capacitive Proximity Sensors
As of Tuesday, the US Patent and Trademark Office has approved an Apple patent dubbed “Configurable Capacitive Proximity Sensors”, which detect how the user is wearing its earphones or the size of their ear canals. Put simply, while audio is usually processed separately into left and right earphones, users can mix up the left and right earbuds. This could be detrimental, for instance, in situations where you’re watching a movie and the sound from the right side of the screen is being played to your left ear.
The capacitive proximity sensors, which would be placed over the earphone speakers, would solve this issue by measuring the ear patterns of the wearer. It would use this information to determine whether the left or right ear is present and play the appropriate audio stream. It could also adjust the tone of the audio so that it sounds true to each wearer with different sized ear canals.
In the past year, Apple’s sales of accessories such as AirPods, HomePods, and Beats have surged by 70 percent to more than $5 billion in revenue, according to Bloomberg, thanks in large part to the success of the AirPods. While there was speculation that Apple’s brand of headphones would cannibalize Beats sales, it appears that Beats has circumvented this issue thanks to the strength of its brand and by offering its own line of wireless earphones marketed to athletes. Beats also offers wireless headphones at a lower price-point than the AirPods.