Audiophiles like me will never find a pair of headphones we love. But for my ilk, that’s sort of the point. Going on the goose chase for a perfection that’s totally unachievable can provide quite the strange adventure in sounds and sonics.
That’s how I came across ORA, a Montreal-based startup that’s created the first-ever pair of headphones made using graphene — a treasured material in chemistry and physical sciences, but not the most obvious fit in consumer audio tech. But when I sat down with two of the company’s founders in Inverse’s New York office and tried out a prototype of their products, the audiophile in me was jazzed by what he heard.
For most of the 21st century, graphene has been touted as a kind of miracle of materials science — an ultra-thin twist on carbon that could revolutionize computers, make brain-machine connections a real possibility, and just generally turn most of modern-day technology into rubbish. But when it comes to more immediate applications for graphene, the engineering world has basically come up with nothing.
ORA wants to change that. The company thinks they might have one of the world’s first commercial applications of graphene ready to unroll onto markets around the world: loudspeakers and headphones with acoustic membranes made of graphene. The material provides an augmented sonic experience for music listeners and create more efficient, longer-lasting audio devices.
Gaskell and Pinkas came to Inverse to demo ORA’s new headphones and a loudspeaker prototype for my own listening pleasure. I was intrigued, but skeptical that the speakers would actually exhibit a noticeably better sound than conventional high-standard sound systems already did.
I was pleasantly surprised, with a few caveats. By and large, the speakers do have a punchier sound. We ran threw a slew of different songs spanning multiple genres, including classic rock AC/DC’s “Back to Black,” Tame Impala’s “Let it Happen,” and Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” — all songs I’ve listened to heavily over the last few years. I specifically recall hearing the softer, quieter sounds on the aural palettes of those songs sounding brighter and louder. Especially for a song like “Let it Happen,” it was like listening to theses tracks for the first time.
There is, however, a significant downside to the speakers — the bass. The graphene speakers and headphones may have brought to life a more vibrant array of sounds and instruments, but the bass-ic side of the tracks took a hit as a result. Most listeners shouldn’t have a problem, since an obscenely loud bass usually ends up smothering the rest of the track and can create distortions in the sound quality, but this might result in an averse reception from hip-hop heads and EDM lovers used to very loud bass lines and structures.
Renowned for its extremely thin crystal lattice layer of carbon atoms that exhibit unparalleled mechanical and electrical characteristics, graphene has typically been the focus of materials scientists in the lab tinkering around trying to figure out how to use this material to change the world. ORA knows its a bit silly to think of using graphene for something as mundane as consumer acoustics, but hey — you have to start somewhere. And for ORA’s founders, speakers seem like an easy opening avenue.
“Normally depositing graphene is an expensive process,” says ORA audio lead Robert-Eric Gaskell. “But it’s relativity inexpensive to make small flakes of graphene.” He and his team use a variation of graphene called graphene-oxide. The production process allows the one-atom thick flakes to crosslink with one another, combining into thousands of layers that can be molded into a solid structure. “You maintain a lot of the mechanical benefits of graphene — that it’s very lightweight, that it’s very strong, and stiff,” says Gaskell.
That extreme stiffness and light mass is key for developing a good speaker membrane. “When it moves back and forth [due to audio vibrations], it maintains its shape,” says ORA business lead Ari Pinkas. “It produces these crazy levels of sound quality that haven’t been achieved before.” The light weight of the membrane means its takes less energy to move back and forth, “so the response is immediate.” That’s a big advantage for the wireless industry, which seeks to limit battery drain as much as possible.
“To the best of our knowledge, we think we’re one of the first companies to find a viable commercial application for graphene,” says Pinkas. “The electronics industry has been really excited for something like this.”
Gaskell says the cost of graphene for the membrane material is “actually on par with the cost of aluminum,” which is typically used. Other more esoteric materials, like beryllium, might be used for high-end speakers, but Gaskell says ORA’s graphene speakers and headphones would cost about the same as their Beats counterparts.
So, the big question is, what’s next for ORA? The company completed a Kickstarter campaign in June, raising over $600,000 in just six hours, and completed another crowdfunding campaign which raised a similar amount in July. The campaigns ostensibly act a a preorder for consumers for the company’s premiere headphones, which should be shipping out sometime in March 2018.
Moving forward, ORA plans to stick to smaller electronics. You won’t find graphene speakers on the scale of a home theater system, but desk speakers (like the ones Gaskell and Pinkas demoed for me) are in the works. The company also thinks there’s an incredible market in smartphones to tap into. Nearly everyone with an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy can attest to how weak smartphone speakers are — and ORA thinks graphene material, with its light weight, could be a very useful solution.