We listened to the world’s first graphene headphones, and they floored us

Graphene, one of the most buzzed-about carbon compounds in material science, has the potential to transform industries, not the least of which is the world of sound. There’s only one problem: It’s really expensive. But audio researcher Peter Gaskell thinks he’s cracked the graphene conundrum.

Ora, a Montreal-based startup Gaskell co-founded with Sergii Tutashkonko — who holds a Ph.D. in material science — wants to be the first to market with graphene-based headphones. Gaskell, who holds a Ph.D. himself in audio recording, stopped by Digital Trends’ New York office to demo his new creation ahead of the company’s crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. They’re tentatively dubbed the GrapheneQ Headphones, and spoiler alert, they sound pretty fantastic.

Stronger, lighter, faster

Graphene is a highly conductive, flexible, and strong material made of latticed carbon atoms bonded in a hexagonal pattern (read our guide to Graphene). Scientists theorized its structure in the 1940s, but didn’t managed to isolate a layer until decades later, in 2004. Since then, it’s been used in new ways as an amazing conductor of electricity.

But it’s good for more than conducting electricity. Graphene has been proposed for use in applications like detecting cancer, filtering water, and heating your home because it’s a stiffer, lighter, and thinner material than comparable composites. Lucky for us, these are all characteristics which have an impact on sound. It’s all about physics: Traditional dynamic drivers, also called moving coil drivers, use an electrically charged voice coil to move a cone, which in turn creates sound waves. The heavier a speaker’s cone, the harder is to drive. With their incredible strength-to-weight ratio, graphene drivers cut down on the amount of power that’s required to move the coil back and forth, creating better efficiency, and in theory, better sound.

They feel reassuringly durable in the hand.

The drivers Ora has made for its new headphones aren’t made of pure graphene, however. Instead, Ora opted for a hybrid approach it calls GrapheneQ, an oxide compound that employs nanotechnology to deposit flakes of graphene into thousands of layers that are bonded together. Ora says the resulting GrapheneQ compound is 95 percent graphene by weight, and highly malleable, which makes it comparatively easy to mass produce.

It’s also the key to the GrapheneQ Headphones’s affordability, priced at just $200 for the first few hundred backers, as GrapheneQ can be produced for a fraction of the cost of traditional graphene. Ora claims the frequency response is on par with CVD-Diamond, a high-end membrane that costs upwards of ten times Ora’s compound. The company also claims its design reduces power consumption by up to 70 percent.

The cans

The GrapheneQ Headphones themselves are over-the-ear, wood-accented cans featuring lambskin leather, premium fabric, and memory foam. They feel reassuringly durable in the hand, with a cup length adjustment mechanism along the band that locks firmly in place. With the exception of the ear cups, which have so much padding they hugged our face a bit too tightly, the GrapheneQ are exceptionally comfortable to wear.

Ora GrapheneQ headphones
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

They offer Bluetooth wireless connection, with intuitive touchpad controls and a microphone for hands-free phone calls built in. Along with Bluetooth, you can plug in via a removable 3.5mm cable, and you can also connect to a PC or other device via USB-C. Battery life has not yet been disclosed, but thanks to graphene’s high efficiency it’s expected to be extremely long — possibly even disruptive.

The sound

Before we slipped on a pair, Gaskell had us listen to two black, nondescript bookshelf speakers set side-by-side — one equipped with Ora’s GrapheneQ driver, and one with an off-the-shelf alternative. The differences were subtle, but in genres like classic rock and classical, the GrapheneQ model’s reproduction of vocals and strings respectively exhibited more clarity and detail than its non-graphene counterpart.

Ora GrapheneQ headphones
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

In the case of the headphones, the contrast was a lot starker. After comparing them to our $300 BeoPlay H6 headphones, we walked away very impressed. In fact, the GrapheneQ served up some of the clearest, most consistent sound we’ve heard at their price point. To be fair, we tested a pre-production model — a lot could change between now and when the headphones begin shipping next year. But our initial experience with the GrapheneQ Headphones was extremely promising.

Graphene in your pocket

While the GrapheneQ Headphones serve as an entry point, Ora says headphones are just the beginning. The company is in talks with automotive, speaker, and cellphone companies to produce custom graphene solutions for cars, smartwatches, phones, and more. It’s working with hearing aid makers on louder units that last longer on a single charge, and it has also partnered with virtual reality headset companies to develop graphene-based headphones optimized for spatial audio.

“We’re applying our expertise in nanotechnology to push the fundamental limits of speaker technology.”

Ora is particularly bullish on the smartphone industry, where it thinks applying GrapheneQ tech could result in smaller, low-power speakers that sound better than those mounted in your current smartphone. The company goes so far as to say that six cell phone manufacturers — including “the top two in the world” — have experimented with incorporating GrapheneQ (the top two smartphone makers in the world are Samsung and Apple).

“We’re applying our expertise in nanotechnology to push the fundamental limits of speaker technology,” Gaskell said. “From inception, [we’ve] taken an industry-driven approach to design, manufacturing, and materials development.”

To that end, Ora is taking pains to manage expectations with the GraphenQ Headphones. It’s specifying a two-month delivery buffer window, and setting aside inventory for early adopters.

“We are confident as possible that we will not only achieve our vision of professional sound through nanotechnology, but that we will deliver [it] on time,” he said.

The GrapheneQ launches on Kickstarter June 20, with retail availability to follow in March 2018. The first several hundred backers can reserve a pair for $200, but Ora’s anticipating a suggested retail price between $500 and $600.

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