The future of headphones: touchscreen displays and integrated streaming

Debussy Prelude headphones

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What’s next for headphones? It may seem like a moot question. Surely we just want better audio, comfier cans, and better value across the board. Is there anything a pair of headphones could do that could actually change the way we listen to music?

At the premium end of the headphones market, often what distinguishes models comes down to styling or brand loyalty – anyone can spot your Beats headphones at about 50 paces – as much as slight variations in what frequencies are drawn out of your tracks.

It’s rare that you find a line of headphones offering a fundamentally different user experience, but that’s exactly what Funky Sound is aiming to do. The French audio startup, founded by its CEO Arnaud Perret, has rethought the relationship between audio hardware and the inputs played through it. So what is Funky Sound’s Debussy range going to do differently?

A prélude to something different

The products in the Debussy audio range are described as ‘smart autonomous headphones’, without the tyranny of either cables or the lossy Bluetooth connection robbing your music of audio detail. The range comprises the primary over-ear Prélude model, a premium Prélude X model, and a third on-ear 'mini' option.

Debussy Prelude headphones

The design itself is clearly towards the luxury end of the scale – cue gold or platinum coloring, premium leather padding, musical notations running along the band, and light red, white and blue detailing to display the colors of the company’s French homeland.

But it’s the touchscreen display that will really catch your eye. Set on the left-side can, this doubles up as a navigational menu and a visual synthesizer for your music, with the option of displaying your own images and videos to personalize what you want your headphones to show off.

What also stands out is each pair’s on-board computer, one that’s able to run streaming apps like Tidal, Spotify and Deezer – over 4G or Wi-Fi – without outsourcing the processing to an external device. You can still link it with your smartphone or smartwatch for playback controls, but the music itself begins and ends in the headphones themselves. You’ll even be able to use an eSim to make calls without a handset.

It’s hard to stress how novel an idea that feels. Audiophiles so often have to choose between the convenience of wireless Bluetooth and the assured sound quality of a cabled connection (although some more serious offerings like the RHA CL2 Planars offer both options out of the box). 

While the success of Funky Sounds' headphones will come down to how well these systems and services are integrated, the vision on paper bodes well for the consumer.

Debussy Prelude headphones

That all includes on-board storage too: the Prélude headphones will come with 32GB for audio files, while the Prélude X pack in a larger 64GB. The Prélude model alone could hold more than 10,000 MP3 tracks, and still have room for thousands of high-grade audio files (formats such as FLAC or Apple Lossless).

Voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant are already starting to make their way into mainstream pairs of headphones, and Funky Sound plans to build in that sort of integration down the line – although with a basic own-brand AI assistant built in by default.

Star backing

As the name Debussy – after the French composer Claude Debussy – suggests, Funky Sounds is an audio brand focused on its heritage.

Speaking to TechRadar, Arnaut Perret managed to name-drop everyone from Stevie Wonder to Kavinsky (the composer for Ryan Gosling vehicle Drive) as collaborators on the project, with assurances that there were even more “big names to come”. Funky Sound is making much of its connections as an assurance of quality, with the headphones’ built-in EQ mastered by regular Daft Punk collaborator Antoine Chabert.

While we did have the chance to test out the headphones ourselves, there’s only so much we can infer from a prototype model – one without any of the smart features or touchscreen capability that Funky Sound promises will make the Préludes stand out from the crowd.

Debussy Prelude headphones

The hardware and design we’ve seen are finalized, while the next nine months or so will be spend fully developing the software needed to make all these lofty promises, including an integrated DAC and real-time audio translation, a reality – that is, if someone with deeper cash reserves doesn’t get there first.

“All the manufacturers will copy, for sure,” says Perret. “But all we’re building, with all the artists and branding, that experience we’re creating... that cannot be mimicked.”

The audio brand has now launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund its range of Debussy headphones, and the next few months could either establish the range or consign it to the pile of nice-sounding tech ideas that didn't quite make it.

Funky Sound says its Prélude headphones are aimed at “people for whom music is at the center of their life”. But if the technology moves within reach of more casual listeners, the convenience and reliability of a fully integrated system – one that can host all the various streaming services, apps, and storage you’d need to input audio into your ears – could well impact the way we all consume our music.

Henry St Leger

Henry is a freelance technology journalist, and former News & Features Editor for TechRadar, where he specialized in home entertainment gadgets such as TVs, projectors, soundbars, and smart speakers. Other bylines include Edge, T3, iMore, GamesRadar, NBC News, Healthline, and The Times.