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UL blends science and human experience to help audio device manufacturers define a quality listening experience 

What if the way to make a song better was by listening to it through headphones tailored specifically to the sound of the artist and her music in the way she had intended?

Thankfully, the advent of genre-specific headphones makes it possible for audiophiles and casual listeners alike to discover their favorite type of music in a way they never have before. What was once a simple solution for enjoying music quietly and discreetly without disturbing others, headphones have evolved in their offerings – differing now in size, sound, price and more. The market has diversified as headphones have become an everyday mainstay for people around the globe, offering the ability to stay connected to music at all times, whether at home or on the go.

Indeed, advancements in wireless technology and the expansion of available mobile devices combined with the proliferation of music streaming services has driven an increase in the headphones market – now projected to surpass $19 billion by 2022. Genre-specific headphones are just one of the many in this category that is expected to soar in demand.

“With so many products available in the marketplace, competition is fierce,” said Rob Barrett, program manager for UL’s Audio Lab. “Manufacturers are looking to be certain that the expectations they have for their products’ performance are realistic, and that they can bring to market headphones that provide a quality listening experience.”

In the case of genre-specific headphones, manufacturers produce a variety of models, each designed for different audio styles. But just how do they strike the right sound for a set of headphones designed for hip-hop music lovers versus jazz or classic rock versus classical?

Based in Fremont, Calif., the UL Audio Lab works with audio manufacturers to ensure that their devices produce a quality listening experience for each genre user. To do so, UL performs a three-part series of tests to provide manufacturers with an assessment of how their product performs, relying on both quantitative and qualitative evaluations.

The objective stage involves running the product through controlled tests with measurement tools, such as an audio precision analyzer. A device is placed on a head and torso simulator model, and measurements are taken that offer a set of data behind “the noise” coming out of the device. The same testing gear, environment and situation are repeated for all products evaluated, removing as many variables as possible to ensure the validity of the scientific process. Even the air temperature in the room is kept the same to avoid altering the acoustic environment from one product to the next.

The subjective stage includes engaging a public listening panel of 50-70 people who provide feedback on the audio quality of the device when playing a specific genre of music. For example, participants with an expressed passion for R&B or hip-hop enter the lab to listen to headphones targeted for the audio experience of that genre and then give qualitative feedback on how they feel it sounds. In total, participants listen to 10 audio files and provide opinions on the playback quality of each file as well as a final overall score for the audio quality of the device.

“Oftentimes, people use words like, ‘Wow! These are really sharp!’ and we’re able to analyze what took place scientifically at that moment and recognize that ‘these headphones have a great deal of spike right around 18K in the frequency,’” said Barrett. “So, we’re putting a little bit of science behind those ambiguous words.”

The final layer of testing is the “Golden Ears” stage, where award-winning audio engineers and producers provide specific feedback on audio characteristics and sound quality aspects. The Audio Lab’s expert panel differs from the public listening panels in that it brings to bear professional expertise and an understanding of the commercial market.

The final report, assessing all three areas, provides manufacturers with a comprehensive snapshot detailing both professional and consumer reactions as well as a read-out of what’s happening scientifically.

“In the end, the $1,800 headphones often aren’t received as favorably by panelists as the $199 ones that have been attenuated for a specific genre of music, and that’s eye-opening for manufacturers,” Barrett said. “Consumers just want to get the most enjoyment out of listening to music and will pick the headphones that offer them that, regardless of where they fall on the cost spectrum.”

UL’s Audio Lab also has a program to verify the performance of high-definition devices and enable manufacturers that meet their claims to display the UL Mark on their products. Meanwhile, the industry has been drawn overwhelmingly to the power of understanding, through objective data and user feedback, the true performance of their products.

“The rigorous evaluation that we put products through often forces manufacturers to face tough decisions – whether to pivot the product offering or stop production altogether,” concluded Barrett. “But it’s better than the market responding to something poorly and losing trust in a brand.”