Headphones Play a Growing Part in the Sports-Audio Mix

While headsets get the glory with lots of camera time from the sidelines and monitor speakers generate the buzz in the backroom production environment (well, not literally, one hopes), basic headphones remain a stalwart component of the broadcast-audio signal chain.

“We’re seeing steady use of headphones for monitoring in broadcast,” observes Shure Product Manager Michael Johns. “When the truck monitoring environment gets loud with ambient sound, the A1 can quickly put on a pair of headphones and focus on a particular element in the mix.”

Mike Edwards, VP for professional markets, Audio-Technica, agrees: “Mixing is all about workflow and avoiding disruptions and distractions to that. Headphones can help enormously with that, even when used sparingly, as they usually are in trucks.”

Dennis Baxter, a veteran sports-broadcast mixer and educator, says that he experimented with using headphones during live games early in his career and that it has distinct benefits. “You just cannot hear the detail you want over the speakers because the truck is so noisy,” he explains.

He adds that he assembled an entire signal chain around using headphones: he ran all the sources, including the director and producer feeds, into a small Shure mixer and monitored through a modified Beyer-Dynamic DT109 headset. “That way, when I felt I needed to hear more of either of them, I could adjust them in the headphones.”

The Headset Mindset
Headphones have been in the news lately, both as cultural tokens and as brand issues. Just before the beginning of the current season, the NFL announced an agreement establishing Bose as the league’s exclusive provider of headsets: headphones with an attached boom-mounted microphone used for communications during games, the professional subset of the headphone category. However, as part of that agreement, players and coaches are banned from wearing any other brand of headphones, consumer or professional, during televised interviews at training camp, preseason games, and practice sessions and on game days. According to Re/Code, the ban goes into effect before kickoff on game days and continues through postgame interviews in locker rooms, until 90 minutes after the game has ended.

That pact ignited a small PR storm with Beats by Dr. Dre, the headphone manufacturer recently acquired for $3 billion by Apple and widely credited with launching the popularity of headphones as fashion accessories and creating a consumer-electronics category expected to bring in $1.5 billion in revenue in 2014, according to the CEA. (Beats made diamond-encrusted commemorative headphones for the Seahawks and Broncos players for Super Bowl LXVIII, reportedly valued at $25,000 a set.)

Some players have been disregarding the ban and incurring fines for doing so: ESPN Go reported that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was fined $10,000 by the league last week for wearing unauthorized equipment during a postgame press conference. The publication also reported that sponsorship-evaluation firm Front Row Analytics estimates that media coverage of Kaepernick’s postgame interview was worth more than $350,000 in equivalent advertising for Beats, which issued a rebuke: “Over the last few years, athletes have written Beats into their DNA as part of the pregame ritual. Music can have a significant positive effect on an athlete’s focus and mental preparedness and has become as important to performance as any other piece of equipment.”

Big Numbers
The imbroglio underscores the huge numbers that headphones and headsets and their on-camera branding can generate. Motorola, the NFL’s previous headset provider, whose logo was featured prominently on every pair, paid a reported $40 million a year for that privilege. Although no numbers were disclosed for the Bose deal, the Boston Globe reported that the NFL had rejected Motorola’s offer to increase the annual license fee to $50 million. And, since Motorola does not make consumer headphones, those numbers would have applied solely to professional products; the amount paid by Bose covering both headsets and exclusion of other-brand consumer headphones must be substantially higher.

The NFL isn’t the only league to extend its brand to headphones. FIFA did the same thing, banning Beats headphones during the World Cup, for which Sony was a major sponsor.

Baxter acknowledges that using “cans” while mixing live is not going to become a widely used technique anytime soon. “My generation has always been resistive to headphones,” he says.

However, he adds, “But I believe the next generation of mixers will be far more receptive of this solution. This next generation of mixers is one that’s very used to working in headphones because they’re part of their lives, from music to gaming. I believe headphones are part of the solution to monitoring in OB vans, particularly when and if we migrate to a new surround-sound format like 7.1+4, because you just can’t put any more speakers into the truck.”


What the Well-Heard Are Wearing
Headphones intended for the broadcast market are increasingly deployed in OB-van audio compartments. Here are a few of them.

The AKG K812 headphones offer an oversized 53-mm driver for the highest dynamic range ever  in an AKG headphone. A copper-covered aluminum two-layer voice coil provides superior impulse response, and an extended frequency range up to 54 kHz is guaranteed.

The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 professional monitor headphones feature proprietary 45-mm large-aperture drivers with rare-earth magnets and copper-clad aluminum wire voice coils. Their circumaural design contours around the ears for excellent sound isolation in loud environments and offer 90-degree swiveling ear cups for one-ear monitoring.

Shure SRH840 headphones are optimized for critical listening; feature a closed-back, circumaural collapsible design and detachable, coiled cable; and come with a threaded ¼-in. gold-plated adapter, carrying bag, replacement ear pads, and user guide.

Password must contain the following:

A lowercase letter

A capital (uppercase) letter

A number

Minimum 8 characters