Thursday, February 02, 2006

We Are What We Wear

The aesthetics and ergonomics of headphone couture

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, February 11, 1998 -- [Image]
Whether we like it or not, the products we choose
communicate something about ourselves. They become a part
of the image we portray to strangers, helping to form a
first impression. Our choices of style, shape and color
speak to the outside world, like the clothes we wear or
the cars we drive. Portable electronics are especially
telling since we wear them outdoors where we're
conspicuous to others.

The devices that get the most fashion play are
headphones. While they're worn on the head and take up
just as much room as eyeglasses do, we ignore them as we
do with most electronics. Knowing that not much personal
choice is possible in terms of style, we're tempted to
glance over them, as if they were almost invisible.

Despite their anonymous looks (usually in black with
little variation in shape from one brand to the next),
headphones do vary greatly in style and function, going
from the oh-so-discreet ear bud (those tiny headphones
that slip directly into the ear) to the more showy
Mouseketeer-like large models. Here's what I've noticed:

Ear buds are about as minimal as you can get, allowing
you to be the stealth listener who's last to get scolded
by airline stewardesses during takeoff. While many people
I've spoken to seem to detest the invasive feeling of
having these things sitting inside the ear (I don't mind
them, except they hurt when I smile), they offer the
added benefit of keeping others from knowing that you've
got them on -- the paranoid might say they keep people
from talking about you when they think you can't hear.
Their small size makes them least annoying for working
out, and they're easy to tuck away (some even come with a
wind-up protective plastic case that is about the size of
a compact mirror). Plus, they don't mess up your hair or
press against your skin.

The next step is the in-ear with headband. They're still
more discreet than most, but the telltale headband makes
them a little more obvious. Again, they don't press
against the skin and may be a good option for workouts
where other headphones might cause sweating in the
covered area.

Standard headphones with soft foam earpieces, usually
about one and a half inches in diameter, are probably the
most comfortable; they don't touch inside the ear or
cover your face. The person who wears this type is
stylistically middle-of-the-road, and she may just not
have bothered to upgrade from the standard fare that's
usually supplied with most portables.

Beyond the standard types are the big 'ol cups that sit
on the sides of your head like earmuffs. Depending on
whether the earpiece material is smooth or porous, they
may completely seal in sound or allow some leakage. These
are often a sign of the serious listener who doesn't want
to miss one nanosecond of a good tune. She makes no bones
about total immersion, since many of these styles don't
allow you to hear ambient noise as some of the smaller
ones do. They're almost the equivalent of Les Nessman's
imaginary walls in the old sitcom, "WKRP in Cincinnati."
The big thick headbands also indicate a certain
dedication to listening: music takes priority over
hairdos getting smashed [unless you're a buzzcut bohemian
-- Ed.] or phones get smooshed against the face. Truly
fastidious types might opt for noise-cancellation styles,
and freedom lovers might invest in wireless sets.

Today's style choices have only started to allow for
personal expression in the electronics we wear. Some
designers and researchers are taking it a step further.
This month's Vogue magazine shows fashion-oriented
projects from the MIT Media Lab's Things That Think
consortium, which is working on incorporating computers
into all forms of clothing. So if you thought it was hard
to get dressed in the morning, just imagine how much more
complicated it may become in just a few years.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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