Regular readers may remember Devialet's noble plan last year to replace those fiddly, tangly wired headphones dished out on flights with a new luxury in-seat personal sound system.
Of course, it's all very well and good to have a dream. But today (October 5), luxury airline seat maker Safran – who approached Devialet to ask for the French audio specialist's help with this tricksy task in 2020 – has announced that the fruit of the two company's efforts is coming very soon to Japan Airlines… provided you can afford to sit in business class.
Last year, I spoke with Devialet's CEO, Franck Lebouchard, as well as Safran's Quentin Munier, about the exciting and difficult Euphony airline seat project first conceived in 2019.
Safran's selection process for an excellent in-flight audio partner was far from a shot in the dark right from the off. "We handpicked six companies – which Devialet was part of – that we assessed," Munier said.
"We looked at their specification, the proof of concept and actual physical testing in acoustic test chambers, I think in March 2020 – so one year after the first exploration. We selected Devialet in early June of 2020."
Why did the relatively bijou French speaker firm get the nod over bigger tech manufacturers well-versed in the aviation business? "Because the results were extremely in favour of Devialet," Munier said.
Opinion: honesty among innovators is rare, refreshing and I think suggests true greatness
Devialet's Lebouchard showed palpable excitement about the project last year, softened only by his new-found knowledge of the enormity of the task.
"We knew nothing about inflight sound," he said. "The guys (Safran) came to us, saying, 'look, for a couple of years now, every single survey we do on seating on aircrafts says the same thing: great business class seats, horizontal position; great service – you name it. But having headphones for six, eight or 10 hours is not ideal.’”
However, what initially seemed a relatively small project (it's business class seats after all, hardly a massive consumer outlet like the best noise cancelling earbuds) quickly became a much bigger enterprise.
"I must admit that we had massively underestimated the challenge, because not only did we have to adapt our systems, our software, and our signal processing to those different aircraft situations, but also we had to find speakers – aircraft-certified speakers; high-quality, small ones; light ones, in headsets. That was another challenge".
But it wasn't a chore – far from it. "We were thrilled by the challenge!" Lebouchard said, adding: "the challenge is: sound in an aircraft is super-complicated. It depends on the aircraft. It depends on your position in the aircraft. It depends on the flight situation. And there are all sorts of sounds, from very low frequencies to very high frequencies which change constantly. Volume changes constantly."
And obviously, the last thing that you want when sitting in business class is to be listening to your neighbour’s movies. Can the best noise-cancelling headphones be beaten by an in-seat speaker solution, even if it comes from a formidable brand such as Devialet?
After talking with both parties in this exciting partnership, I have every confidence that actually yes, it can.
Last year, I mused that three years to fashion a whole new in-flight audio system didn't seem all that long and arduous. Lebouchard was quick to respond.
"So two things: first of all, we very much used all our technologies to meet that challenge. You have mentioned Devialet Dione – the speakers inside Dione are the ones we used for Safran (Euphony). So those are the best of the best of the best, designed by Devialet. They are the same."
Safran took care of the aircraft certification and Devialet was also able to use most of its signal processing, but Lebouchard was honest and open about the heavy workload involved. "The reason why it was only three years, which, in this industry is super short, is because we had all those technologies, let’s say, 'on the shelf'. But it does not pay tribute to the work we’ve done," he said. I believe him.
So how much bang are you getting for your business class buck with a Euphony airline seat? Lebouchard explains that you have four of those speakers right next to your neck; two left, two right – which is "completely oversized". "If you have only one for each ear, it would be already great. So we oversized in terms of hardware to make sure that the system is robust for years, because the last thing you want to do is have damage," he said, adding "in this industry, if something does not work, it’s a massive pain".
What about the delicate topic of cancelling that pesky and persistent jet-engine noise? "Actually, we don’t cancel noise," Lebouchard said, adding, "active noise cancelling is probably the greatest challenge ever in aircrafts, and what we do on Euphony is that we have tuned the amplifier the volume to be just over the level of noise of the aircraft. But the impression is that you’re in a bubble – that’s one of our technologies."
Does the Devialet CEO think Devialet's in-seat two-way stereo speakers could make their way into the economy section of the cabin?
"The short answer is yes. I would love to go economy. That would be, or will be, an even bigger challenge, because of the proximity to your neighbours. Again, you don’t want neighbours to listen to your music or hear your music and obviously in economy it’s going to be an even bigger challenge than in business class."
Devialet's CEO is much more positive about the automotive market in the short-term, telling me: "The second they (Safran) made the announcement, a couple of our car partners called and said, 'why on Earth are we not doing that with you guys?!'"
So might we see it in the next supercar, perhaps? Lebouchard remained noncommittal on a timeline last year but did say: "We know for a fact that many car brands want to have this. Typically, drivers want to hear things that their neighbours don’t want to hear, like phone calls. Right now, if you get a phone call in your car, everyone listens. Definitely, the technologies that we used and enhanced for Safron, I’m pretty sure we’ll find that in cars. But that’s my informed guess."
Having heard Devialet's considerable talent for shaping sound (see the four mics and embedded intelligence within the Devialet Mania for starters) I am very excited about Euphony coming to the consumer – and I do so hope it can trickle down to those of us currently flying coach.
For now, if you want to experience the culmination of Devialet and Safran's in-flight audio partnership, you might want to look booking your next flight with Japan Airlines – and start saving.
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Becky is a senior staff writer at TechRadar (which she has been assured refers to expertise rather than age) focusing on all things audio. Before joining the team, she spent three years at What Hi-Fi? testing and reviewing everything from wallet-friendly wireless earbuds to huge high-end sound systems. Prior to gaining her MA in Journalism in 2018, Becky freelanced as an arts critic alongside a 22-year career as a professional dancer and aerialist – any love of dance starts with a love of music. Becky has previously contributed to Stuff, FourFourTwo and The Stage. When not writing, she can still be found throwing shapes in a dance studio, these days with varying degrees of success.