Making High Quality Headphones: Philips iLab Belgium

In September, we received an invitation from Philips to visit their iLab in Leuven, Belgium. It was a small group invitation, with only me, Lieven, Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity and Jude of Head-Fi. As we were having dinner on our first night in Leuven, I told Lieven that we’re lucky to be included in this very small group along with people who I consider my seniors like Tyll and Jude. It was a very special trip, not only because of the great crowd and enjoying Belgian beer, but ultimately because of the qualitative information we got from the Philips iLab.

 

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This time, Philips is introducing two new models: the L2 which is an update to the L1, and the M1BT which is a Bluetooth equipped version of the M1. The L2 will sell at the same price as the L1, so this would be a replacement model rather than a higher priced model. A short word on the L2: I think they’ve managed to do two things: one, make the L1 look old and outdated. Two, significantly improve the sound quality. In fact, the sound quality jump is HUGE-HUGE-HUGE. Phenomenal engineering there from the Philips team.

Aside from the new product previews, the biggest treat of the trip was getting to see the development process at Philips. Personally, it was a highly educational experience to me. It definitely succeeded in convincing me that Philips is REALLY serious about making good quality headphones (and also confirmed by the new L2). I was extremely satisfied to see the commitment from the in-house engineering in developing their headphones.

This article will attempt to re-tell the story of the things I learned from the presentation from the iLabs team in Leuven.

 

DISCOVERING THE IDEAL SOUND SIGNATURE

Just as we know, headphones come with different sound signatures. We enthusiasts may describe this as a Sennheiser sound or a Grado sound. Well, Philips have a pretty neat way of describing this and I’m going to quote this directly from their power point:

“The flavour of sound.
Just as the flavour of a particular food is a combination of different tastes,
sound is also made up of different ingredients.

Everyone has their own preferred balance of sweet, salty, and sour that makes up their personal taste, and sound can be thought of in a similar way.”

Using one of the most fascinating tests I’ve seen, Philips was able to discover the sort of sound signature the market prefers.

 

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As pictured in the power point, the tool allowed people to move the center circle around which would change the sound to the four corners of Powerful, Bright, Warm, and Clear sound signatures. The closest to a corner they get, the more extreme the signature application would get. During the presentation, they demoed the test to us through a pair of speakers to let us hear what each corner represent, both through our hearing as well as the EQ curve.

The real tests are performed using headphones, and the corners don’t have the labels in them and that they switch around the placement so that for instance, Warm is not always at the low left corner. Applying this test to 200 people in Europe and 200 in Asia, they were able to determine where the majority of the consumers felt the ideal sound signature to be.

 

 

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They would then apply this tuning preference to the entire Philips line up, with the exception of some models like the O’neill line that favours more powerful bass. They also noted that sound precision is highest on the Fidelio line up. While not everyone may agree that this sound signature is the perfect signature for them (personally, I prefer a signature with less treble and heavier bass, but that’s just like how I like my coffee dark and thick), I can affirm that the final target sound signature obtained by Philips should be a very popular sound signature. No polarizing Sennheiser or Grado sound here. This *should* be a pretty well accepted HiFi sound signature by the masses. It’s not a bass-head sound, mid-centric, or treble-happy. It’s well balanced and it’s good.

 

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Next page: Test for Golden Ears

Making High Quality Headphones: Philips iLab Belgium
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16 Comments

  • Reply September 18, 2013

    George Lai

    Very interesting article. I’m just sad I’m one of the 20% of the population that couldn’t wear their Fidelio L1 so I gave it away, and my bigger X1 just fits tightly. Sigh.

    • Reply September 18, 2013

      L.

      X1: me likes! And Thanks!

  • Reply September 18, 2013

    dalethorn

    I would feel a lot better about Philips if they would have their Facebook guy Kevin apologize for ignoring my requests about the M1 before I bought it and reviewed it, and found it to be a bad sound with a shelved treble. I’d like to know that the new M1 has fixed that problem, and it would be good if I could get a sample without having to spend another $250 for it. In the meantime I stand by my review. I’d like to be a happy Philips customer and independent reviewer, but I’m not rich enough to buy if I can’t get some assurance on these things.

    • Reply September 18, 2013

      L.

      I don’t think they changed the driver, just added Bluetooth. I haven’t had time to listen to it that much so far

  • Reply September 19, 2013

    TheMakhai

    Awesome write up guys! It looks like it was a lot of fun! This article definitely put philips on the map for me now when looking for future headphone upgrades. And great job on the pictures you took of the L2 and M1! Just phenomenal. I really feel you were able to capture and communicate their aesthetics in a stunning manner. Keep up the good work!

    • Reply September 19, 2013

      L.

      Thanks man. Nice to hear

  • Reply September 19, 2013

    Wid

    Loves the X1 so much, any rumor for X2? 🙂
    Mike, How can I go to your store from Pluit? Any best route you can recommend?

    • Reply September 19, 2013

      Mike

      Haven’t heard anything about the X2. I’d guess they’re working on an upgrade though. Every company is always working on an upgrade.

  • Reply September 19, 2013

    Ryan C

    Yo, do the L2 pads fit entirely around your ears, or do they caress the surfaces?

    • Reply September 19, 2013

      Mike

      They touch your ears a bit, if that’s what you’re asking.

    • Reply September 19, 2013

      L.

      The cups aren’t the biggest so if you have bigger ears, yes they will touch for sure. Doesn’t bother me at all, they’re soft

  • Reply October 4, 2013

    John123John

    Finally got around to reading this (sorry!) and it was a great article. They have a very thorough process that has the potential to deliver great sounding and comfortable product. I wonder if other companies, even the big ones like Sennheiser or even Beats lol, so these sort of surveys and tests.

    Its cool seeing you guys get even more global recognition, being there along with Tyll and Jude. Keep networking and maybe you get invites to other headphone developers as well!

    P. S. There is a repeated edited paragraph on page 3.

    • Reply October 4, 2013

      L.

      Thanks John, we’ve been invited to Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser and Violectric in the mean time 😉

    • Reply October 7, 2013

      Mike

      Well you know what I’ve been listening to the L2 and also getting a lot of the local enthusiasts to listen to it and there is not a single person I know who auditioned who was not impressed with the driver quality/technicalities. Of course sound signature preferences aside..
      Right now I do feel that the L2 has a driver quality that’s slightly ahead of the Hifiman HE-500 and just below the Senn HD700 in terms of technicalities. Of course the L2 is much easier to drive than the HE-500 and is also lighter and more comfortable as well. The L2 is really phenomenal and really a class ahead from its competition like the Momentum or the ESW-11.
      Thanks, Ill look into the repeated edit.

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