Valco's great headphone odyssey
by Jasse Kesti
Sound like a pompous headline? So is the job we’ve undertaken.
But let’s start at the very beginning, at the point where I first got onboard this brakeless rollercoaster.
Who’s this “I”, you ask? Just you wait, I’ll tell you all about myself later on.
A couple of years ago, I realised I needed some proper noise-cancelling headphones to take on the road, and just like that, the Facebook algorithms read my alpha waves and rolled out a Valco advert trying to make me buy their headphones of the time.
So I went and sent an email to the boys straightaway, introduced myself politely and asked for a chance to test their headphones and write an informed assessment of them.
(For the sake of context, let it be known at this stage that I’m pretty passionate about headphones and have a rather deep understanding of them.)
I listened to and mistreated said headphones for a while, took them apart and investigated what had gone inside them. After this, I told the boys the good and the bad news: their headphones were ok for their price range but wasted an enormous amount of potential.
In typical Valco style, the reply was:
“For f*ck’s sake, if you can design a better set, we’ll start selling them…”
That was all the encouragement I needed. I soon found myself at the lads’ office drinking beer and drawing naughty pictures on the flipchart. And little by little, the recipe for an exquisite pair of headphones began to take shape in collaboration with the techie boys.
This might be a good place to introduce myself and my skills.
My name is Jasse “Jazmanaut” Kesti, and I am an audiophile.
I’ve been working with sound professionally for some twenty years now, both in the studio and at live events.
The internet can list more than a hundred records that feature my name, and you’d be hard-pushed to find a musical genre that I haven’t worked with – from rock to classical music and from techno to folk music.
Live gigs have had me touring across Finland and the world, mixing for several of our nation’s front-line artists. Naturally, I also do system design and, to be honest, anything at all related to the audio industry.
These days, I also run my own mastering studio, Kesthouse, which you can find at kesthouse.com/english.
Because of all this, I find uncompromised sound reproduction of primary importance, and it’s something I’ve been chasing my whole adult life. And it’s not the smallest of subjects. It’s not enough to just combine some techie engineering with a comprehensive understanding of the physics of sound; you also need to add psychophysics into the equation. After all, the biggest variable here is the human being who the end result must be aimed at, whether we’re talking about the music itself or the equipment used to enjoy it.
In other words, if I were to design a pair of microscopically precise and extremely neutral headphones for myself, most consumers would find them dull and lifeless.
Then again, if all you’re looking for from headphones is pure feeling – leaving precision and the so-called scientific side out of the equation – you end up with the kinds of monstrosities that most currently available headphones represent: the first few minutes might sound impressive with all that mega-turbo-bass, but you’ll soon get numb because of their unclarity and lack of definition.
For our part, we didn’t set out to make pretty accessories but some bloody good and functional headphones. At this stage, our main focus was on what’s relevant here – producing a listening experience at a top-notch level, not only by ear but also with precise measurements.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have the headphones also look good.
As none of us are ridiculously rich, the headphones had to come in at a price that people could actually afford. So, we skipped the gold cabling and the ostrich-leather ear cushions for now and focused on creating headphones that are simply damn good to use and to listen to.
So far, the feedback from the thousands of people who have purchased our headphones has been such high praise that I strongly suspect we’ve outdone ourselves. Naturally, next year and the years after that we plan to outdo ourselves again, and with even better results.
I tell you, it makes you kind of uncomfortable when you ask someone to put on your headphones and after a while, they start weeping, throw their iphone earplugs away and refuse to hand the headphones back over. And this was only the beta version of the headphones. I kid you not!
So, what do you need to consider when you start to design a pair of headphones? In other words, what characteristics make headphones good? Going further still, what makes headphones great?
Well, headphones are mainly used for listening to music, and good sound reproduction can give rise to larger-than-life emotions as well as an amateurish sense of excitement. This means that the most important characteristic is, of course, a good sound. And good is not good enough. There are plenty of headphones out there with a decent sound, if only you have the energy and ability to search through the myriad of monstrosities.
This is where we, like a casual troop of Davids, set off to defeat the Goliaths.
I started by digging out my personal hi-fi/high-end headphone favourites from my collection and getting my hands on the market-leading ANC/BT headphones, against which I began to pitch our own model. And we’re talking about products here that move in the price range of about 300–4,000 (yes, that’s four THOUSAND) euros.
I decided I wouldn’t be satisfied until the Valco set makes you feel at least nearly as astonished as its best competitors. What we’re talking about here is an even sound balance and a natural sound across the hearing range, as well as the minimisation of annoying resonances and distortion components. In a word, clarity. As well as with music, clarity is a lovely thing when you’re listening to podcasts and audiobooks: it makes you feel like the person is right there talking to you and not in your wardrobe muttering into a pillow.
Even though the mission was by no means easy and the target was set high, the end result is actually much better than I dared imagine.
According to myself and countless satisfied customers, the sound, definition and sound image of our product are much better than in all competing wireless noise-cancelling headphones, and their sound challenges some very dependable heavy-duty hi-fi models as well. Sound like advertising talk? Just go get a pair and see (or hear) for yourself. That’s what I did. If you can find a better pair, I’d love to hear about them.
I should just point out that these headphones actually feature three different sounds: in the fully passive mode, when plugged in, their sound is good and softer than when used wirelessly in the active mode, which in turn provides terrific sound definition. And if you then switch on the noise cancellation, the sound becomes just brilliant. In other words, the sounds have been developed according to how people will be using the headphones.
Plugged in, for example, the sound is softer than without cables, which comes in handy in home studios and the like: when recording, you need to have zero latency – no delay – which means that using a cable is your only opportunity. And consider trying to record a bassline, for example, with a drummer next to you banging his drums really loudly. Noise cancellation will go a long way towards blocking out much of the noise, but you still tend to increase the volume on your headphones way more than usual. So, having the monitored sound be less piercing when it goes through your headphones, you actually manage to listen to it for longer – and your hearing organs will thank you.
Yes. I’ve thought about these things quite a lot.
So, it’s been getting the sound right that has taken second to longest in this project.
What has taken longer, I hear you ask? That would be groundwork.
By this day, the sprightly boys at Valco have gone through a vast number of factories and their prototypes, whittling these down to the very best ideas that were then used in Finland as the starting point for developing our headphones into the final product. And just so you know, it’s not enough that a certain factory can provide us with good components – we also need to make sure that they can deliver them in the future as well and that their quality remains consistent from one batch and one year to another. The world is drowning in mediocre disposable crap, and we don’t want to be part of such “development”.
The way I dealt with stress tests was by handing out a load of prototypes – without the customary protective cases – to sound industry professionals, aka roadies, and telling them to handle these completely carelessly while working. Of this batch, only one pair broke down. I can’t go into detail here, but the incident involved a truck, some stage structures and high voltage, for example.
Roadies tend to be highly creative when it comes to wrecking things. Almost as creative as when it comes to mending them.
Okay, so the sound is now right and the headphones can survive a medium-scale nuclear war. And if they can’t, there are spare parts and maintenance available. So what else is important with headphones? Ergonomics and usability, that’s what!
Our competitors have equipped their headphones with all sorts of add-ons and programmability, yet the fact remains that people want a pair of headphones that switch on when you press a button and feel comfortable when worn. All these touch-sensitive switches and magical gestures can seem wonderful when you’re in the store or watching youtube videos, but just try to use them when you’re all sweaty from your run or freezing and wearing mittens in the middle of winter.
My motto is to keep it simple.
Hence, these headphones have one button to switch them on, get them online and switch them off. There’s a second button for noise cancellation, and then there are the volume controls. And these can all be operated with your gloves on in winter too.
The look of our headphones is largely Chinese. This is purely because of finances and prioritisation: to design everything ourselves would easily have cost a hundred thousand euros just to get the production going. For this reason, we decided to just brush up the external design of the Chinese that was usable as it was. Naturally, we picked the best look available though.
We wanted the headphones to have something distinctly Finnish on them, so they’re all decorated with wooden discs that are handmade in Finland and embossed with the Valco logo. This is what they call “every-day luxury”.
Instead of looks, we decided to put extra effort on the insides, such as a battery that keeps you going for days or even a week. Then there’s a Qualcomm bluetooth circuit featuring the latest and (in terms of price–quality ratio) best technology. This has also been tweaked with personal needs in mind: when you switch on the noise cancellation and play an audiobook, you need to be able to vacuum your entire house even if your phone stays in the kitchen. That’s right. The headphones also have a handsfree function, enabling you to make personal calls, take video calls and have remote meetings even with the kids and pets being noisy in the next room.
Oh, did I mention yet that the headphones also have a noise-cancelling function tweaked to perfection?
We didn’t want to create headphones that shut your senses and isolate you from the world. Those are a major plague these days: people wandering around with noise-cancelling headphones on in traffic and then getting hit by trains and such because they’re not observing their surroundings.
The actual point of the noise-cancelling function is not to isolate the user from their surroundings – it’s to bring down the ever-present hum, murmur and buzz to a level where life is more pleasant for a human being. Also, music wouldn’t need to be turned all the way up to block out the surrounding noise.
Our headphones have been designed to quiet down the general hum considerably, which makes life rather enjoyable. And yet you’re able to observe your surroundings while wearing them, to avoid losing your life, for example. Noise-cancelling headphones are especially good while travelling, be it by plane or in an 80s diesel benz.
It’s also been noted that a badly made noise-cancelling function can make people feel dizzy or sick. Without going into too much detail, I can proudly declare that the noise-cancelling function of our headphones is not badly made.
You can’t really appreciate how much a well-made noise-cancelling function can improve your quality of life until you’ve tried it.