True innovation in headphones tech is a rarity. The Bose Aviation, for airline pilots, was the first commercially available noise-reduction headset in the world. It launched in 1989.
Since then there has been, of course, the introduction of Bluetooth (in 2004), and then the miniaturisation of these two key features leading to the avalanche of wire-free ANC rechargeable earbuds – something that is making so much money for Apple right now.
It is Urbanista, though, the Swedish lifestyle audio brand, that has supposedly made it to the next leap in headphones tech: solar-powered headphones that rid wireless fans of battery anxiety once and for all.
Dropping in early summer and costing a respectable £169, the Urbanista Los Angeles headphones convert all forms of light, outdoor and indoor, into energy to deliver what is claimed to be a virtually infinite playtime. And, yes, these also include active noise cancelling.
Urbanista says an hour spent outside on a sunny day generates three hours of playtime. If it’s cloudy, for every hour spent outside, you get two hours of playtime.
And for charging in ambient light, wearing them indoors in a well-lit room or office will keep the headphones adding energy. When you’re not using the cans, Urbanista claims that leaving them by a window for an hour should add a further hour of playtime. To kill any remaining battery anxiety, the Los Angeles also have a 50-hour battery life from the on-board 750mAh power pack.
Based on the Urbanista’s existing Miami range, the rest of the specs look, if not outstanding, at least pleasingly standard: 40mm neodymium drivers; 20Hz to 20kHz frequency response; built-in mic; ambient sound mode; on-ear detection; USB-C charging; Bluetooth 5.0; and a choice of Siri or Google Assistant.
You even get a carrying case (please let it be nothing like the Airpods Max version), USB-C charging cable, audio cable and airline adaptor in the box, too. Looks like it’s just one colour for now, though – a solar panel-disguising midnight black. But other colours are coming as Exeger, the Swedish company behind the material in the headband, says it can be made different hues.
“I was sceptical in the beginning,” says Anders Andreen, the CEO of Urbanista. “But then we started to determine that we could make a product that essentially gained back as much [energy] as you used, and so charging is now history.”
Referencing the relatively low price, Andreen hints at an ambition to take a sizeable slice of a wireless headphone market that could be worth $42.1 billion by 2026. “We want them to be affordable,” he says. “We want people to be able to buy one or two or three pairs. It shouldn’t be a big investment. And the more people buy these, the more difference they make.”
The headphones use Powerfoyle is a solar source. The material can be screen-printed onto flexible plastic, then laminated, and, according to Exeger, follows the principle of photosynthesis to generate and store electricity. “Just like the photosynthesis, we use different dyes of different colours that absorb photons, light, any kind of light,” says Giovanni Fili, CEO of Exeger.
The key to Powerfoyle is that although it is not as good as standard solar cells in direct sunlight, it is far more efficient at harvesting light energy at lower levels, the kind you get indoors, or on public transport. That means it’s able to generate up to 100 per cent more power than flexible amorphous silicon, depending on light conditions.
Powerfoyle also doesn’t have any conductive layers stopping the photons or silverlines, which can block ten to 15 per cent of the active surface. Powerfoyle is apparently also not as sensitive to light angles, so shading is less of a problem.
“If you walk outdoors on a normal, sunny day, you will be gaining about three times as much power as you drain,” says Nicklas Jonsson, chief product officer at Exeger. “When you walk outside the streets of London on a cloudy day, and you don’t have your acoustic noise cancelling turned on, then you draw about eight milliamps and you gain about 16 – two times what you drain.”
What about on an international flight, a place where noise-cancelling headphones rule and the ambient light levels are low? “If you have zero light from the windows just the cabin light, that is very low, probably the lowest you will have anywhere,” Fili says. “But if you average 2,000 lux over an 18-hour flight, which I think would be reasonable, then you need about eight hours to gain an hour back.” If worst comes to worst, of course, regardless of the light-energy gain, this is where that 50-hour battery kicks in.
The headphone world has heard the Powerfoyle name before. At the end of 2019, JBL announced its Reflect Eternal headphones. “Wireless headphones with virtually unlimited playtime. Powered by Exeger’s Powerfoyle technology,” it boasted. Sounds familiar.
These Reflect Eternal headphones were due to ship October last year, but have not surfaced. JBL put the project on hold in November and blamed the pandemic for causing delays in production.
“JBL have a team in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Shenzhen, and here in Stockholm. But it just became really, really difficult to work together,” says Fili. “We saw the clear difference working with Urbanista. The technicians can meet, we can work on integration because some of the electronics have been developed together. JBL were a bit unlucky with Covid hitting, and so Urbanista became lucky because we’re in the same city. But, you know, that’s how it is. But we’re looking forward to picking it up with JBL as soon as they can.”
As for future applications, both Urbanista and Exeger have plans to apply the tech to other products. Exeger is already working with sportswear firm POC on a solar-powered smart helmet, the Omne Eternal, due out in June. Another possible application is portable speakers, products with potentially enough real-estate so the Powerfoyle covering could supply sufficient solar charge.
As for if we may see solar-charging AirPods, Jonsson is hopeful. The earphones themselves might be too small to use the solar material, but the cases could work, covered in Powerfoyle and using light to recharge.
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