Headphones from United Airlines Flight 962

This story originally appeared at InnerFidelity.com

When the stewardess asks me if I'd like to buy a pair of headphones for two dollars, I usually say no thanks and smile. She has no idea how good a pair of custom in-ear monitors sound.

And then I thought, "Well, I really have no idea how good her headphones sound either." So, I bought a pair, and brought them home to test.

Oh my!

United Airlines Flight 962
I have been stranded on a plane once or twice before without the proper adapters, and had to use the headphones they have. It's an abominable experience. There's no isolation with these on-ear headphones, so I had to turn them up quite loud to get intelligible speech. This, in turn, just made ever more apparent the very poor sound quality.

Suffice it to say that between reruns of "Friends" and the racket the cans were making, I managed about one episode before I took them off my head, leaned back the seat, and closed my eyes to recover from the worst case of listening fatigue I've ever had in the mind-numbing roar of the six mile high the aluminum tube.

Styling and Ergonomics
Styling? Umm ... not. Next.

The ergonomics of these cans is pretty sad. They just don't properly align on the ears of a human. I ended up bending the heck out of the headband and breaking the plastic detents of the ear swivels to get them to align with the ears of my measurement head. Even then, they fell off the head twice during measurements. That's the first time ever that has happened.

Comfort and Durability
Again ... HA! How you can manage to make a headphone this ill-fitting is an achievement only surpassed by their ability, once removed, to actually make an airline seat seem more comfortable. As I mentioned, I had to break these headphones to get them to fit the head, and it was surprisingly easy to do so. Also, I had once before tried to measure an airline headphone, and it fried during testing. These are not durable cans.

Sound and Measurements
Oh, my ...

Fig 1 Shows the frequency response of the UAL962 headphone.

The frequency response is much worse than the Monster Beats Solo ... that's one heck of an achievement.

Fig 2 Shows the total harmonic distortion plus noise vs. frequency of the UAL962 headphone.

Amazing! Only Duggeh's home made Othodynamic cans have measured worse. Really, how do you get that much distortion into a headphone. Again ... amazing.

Fig 3 Shows the 30Hz square wave response of the UAL962 headphone.

Huh?! They're out of polarity one earpiece to the other ... I think. It's hard to tell with all the noise in the signal. Let's look closer ....

Fig 3 Shows the 300Hz square wave response of the UAL962 headphone.

Yes! Amazing again. The left and right earpieces are out of polarity from each other. This will produce a strange situation where the audio seems very wide with no distinct central image.

Fig 3 Shows the impulse response of the UAL962 headphone.

And there you have it: two anemic, noisy, ill-shaped blips going in opposite directions. Wow, I guess I better put them on for a listen.

O. M. G! They actually sound better than the measurements. Weird. Doubly weird is the fact that they sound sort of enveloping. Of course, it's all because the drivers are out of polarity with each other making for a surreal and phasy presentation. I'm thinking they may wire these headphones out of polarity on purpose! The out of phase cans make everything spacy and intense. Maybe this is how they get a headphone that sounds this bad to stand out in all the cabin noise. Really weird ... and no wonder I had such a bad case of listening fatigue. My curiosity is peaked now. I'm going to have to get a few more of these to measure.

Full data sheet for UAL962 here.

Alright, all kidding aside, what can you expect for two bucks. The airlines have had a rough go of it for the last ten years, I have to applaud them for managing to stay in business at all. It has to be more trouble than it's worth making these cans available cheap on a flight. I'll bet anything a whole bunch of kids have survived the boredom of modern travel with these headphones, and have been pacified to the delight of other passengers as well. So, thanks United, they are better than nothing.

In the meantime, I'll just smile my knowing smile to the stewardess and say no thanks when she asks, I don't want the $2 headphones ... because I'm not going to forget my cans and an airline adapter ever again.

United Airlines