In the Details
In the Details is our weekly look at one especially smart, innovative or unusual detail—or, in this case, two details—of a new design.
Urbanears' latest set of in-ear headphones, called Kransen, has two unique features which together keep its cords tidy and readily accessible.
The first, dubbed Snap Construction, connects the two earbuds back-to-back with, you guessed it, a simple snap. The second, called Cable Loop, secures the coiled cords via some acrobatics of the plug. The innovations were developed separately, a year and a half apart and for two different brands. Only when combined in the Kransen did the solutions really shine.
The idea for Snap Construction arose three years ago during an argument between two of the Stockholm-based company's founders. They were trying to agree upon a way to easily store earbuds during a momentary interruption in music listening—say, while talking to a grocery store cashier. Putting the headphones away is an unnecessary and time-consuming chore. Keeping them in is just rude. So where do you put them? The idea then on the table—to make one side of the earbuds extra long so it could be flung over a shoulder—was, one founder claimed, fundamentally uncool.
A children's-store display solved the quibble—and got rid of that asymmetrical-cord idea forever. Someone at the toy store had built a pair of non-functioning headphones out of Legos. As it happens, some folks at Urbanears had done consulting work with Lego, and the display resonated. Urbanears' design director and co-founder, Marcus Von Euler-Rudbäck, wondered, "What if you could snap [the earbuds] around your neck all day, and when someone calls, snap them off?"
Von Euler-Rudbäck and team readily admit that their version of the snap, which they made from a hard but springy thermoplastic polyurethane, is very low-tech compared to Lego's precision engineering. The TPU's flexible properties allow the right side (the male end) to snap into the left side (the female end) without the pieces being perfectly produced. (A lucky bonus: the material also cut down on the noise disturbance caused by the cord.)
Urbanears placed the male end of the snap on the right earbud because, earlier in the design process, they had decided to add a microphone on the lefthand cord—and, for aesthetic reasons, they wanted to distribute the extra components as evenly as possible. (The extra piece was insignificant in terms of weight.)
The Snap Construction debuted in an earlier earbud model, and it proved a helpful solution for people who cruised around with their phones in their pockets (mostly men). But it was not as functional for those who carried their phone in a purse or bag, which often cradled the phone too low for snapping the earbuds around the neck.
To make the snap more universally beneficial, it needed to be paired with a complementary innovation—hence the addition of Cable Loop, which was initially developed for Coloud Headphones (another brand owned by the company) a year and a half ago while Von Euler-Rudbäck and team experimented with building a better cable management system. From the start they knew they didn't want to just gob on more plastic or create more moving parts. They wanted something that was really simple and that moved the earbud field forward.
Above: sketches for the Cable Loop. Below: early prototypes
They saw an opportunity in the plug. Make the plug's casing bendy enough and add a hole at its foot, and the plug itself could be arched and the tip threaded through that foot to make a loop—a simple and secure fix that would hold a coil of cords tight. To bend appropriately, the plug's casing needed to perform more like a soft, durable rubber. Again the designers turned to TPU, but this time they used a formula capable of more flexibility.
It worked. In practice, the loop acts kind of like a lock, stopping bundled cords from wriggling away. And it should work no matter how you like to coil your headphone cords. Von Euler-Rudbäck prefers a familiar knot used on boats—but he assures us that expert rope-handling skills are not necessary. "There's no right or wrong way to loop the cables."