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Apple patent describes headphones that flip upward to double as speakers

Why it matters to you

Apple's patent for headphones that double as a pair of speakers may sound innovative, but Flips Audio already built something similar.

Patents are like the Wild West of product design: Romantic and imaginative, but often deceiving. They look cool but often don’t see the light of day. Such is probably the case with a new Apple application which shows a pair of headphones that serve double duty as loudspeakers.

The patent, granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday, shows a basic pair of over-the-ear headphones that contain two cups connected by a head strap. Apple’s innovation concerns what is on the outside: Special sensors that determine the headphone’s current orientation. When the cups are facing inward and a built-in proximity sensor detects a nearby ear, the system recognizes they are in headphone mode. When the cups are flipped outward and on their side, on the other hand, the sensor signals that they have been removed.

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That data is fed into built-in amplifiers that ramp up and down sound depending on the headphone’s orientation. When the headphones are on-ear, they function like an off-the-shelf pair of cans. But when the aren’t being worn, a special mode activates, ratcheting up the amplifier and effectively transforming the cups into speakers.

Apple envisions the tech applied to more than just headphones. The patent describes in-ear and clip-on headphones with the same sensors and amplifiers on a smaller scale format, much like the current generation of EarPods and AirPods. It also proposes snap-band headphones, a button that would activate the speaker on command, and secondary sound ports for earbud-style headphones.

Interestingly, the approach described is not exactly new. As Apple Insider points out, the iPhone 7 packs a speaker array that switches to a stereo-sound mode when the phone is in the landscape orientation. It achieves the effect by amplifying the audio output from the iPhone’s ear speaker and returns the speaker volumes to a level appropriate for calls when sensors detect that the device is in portrait mode and near a user’s ear.

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But Apple was beaten to the punch. The Flips Audio work much as the patent describes: When the cups are fixed in headphone orientation, they function as a stereo model, and when the cups are flipped outward, they become loud enough to serve as an external speaker. The Zumreed X2 take a different approach: The cups flip downward, using a table surface as an amplifying sound source.