How the NFL Got the World's Most High-Tech Noise-Canceling Headphones

Credit: Courtesy Bose

In 2013, Bose did the unthinkable: It turned down the NFL. The league met with executives from the Massachusetts-based company, and offered them the chance to replace Motorola as the official headphone sponsor of professional football. Bose was already the NFL's home audio sponsor, but this new deal would mean sticking the firm's logo on some of the most valuable real estate in American television — the heads of every coach that appears on camera during a televised game. The NFL hoped that Bose could eventually improve on those headsets, possibly incorporating the active noise cancellation that's made the company's QuietComfort line of headphones such a runaway success. "I had to put on my poker face," says Sean Garrett, who heads the Noise Reduction Technology Group at Bose. "Because I'm a huge fan. I wanted, with every essence of my being, to do whatever the NFL wanted. But we made the hard decision, and we said 'no.' We said 'no' to the NFL."

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The sticking point was time. The 2013 season was fast approaching, and with insufficient time to create its own headset, Bose would have to stick its logo on another company's product. That's what Motorola had done for 13 years, turning the earcups of sideline personnel into wearable billboards, without acknowledging that the headsets were designed and manufactured by someone else. "There was no way we were going to put our name on anyone else's headset," Garrett says. "If we were going to have our name on any headset in the NFL, we had to do it right."

So Bose walked away from the deal — a decision that seemed to genuinely stun the NFL, according to Garrett — and started mapping out what it would take to build the league's first noise-canceling headset. Bose has made similar products for military and aviation customers for 25 years, but the rumble of a tank engine is different from the 135 decibel roar of 50,000 fans. An NFL headset would have to be rated for near-constant outdoor duty, able to withstand torrential rain and punishing heat. All of that meant reassigning engineers from their work on the company's lucrative consumer products, and have them design and build a device that would be incredibly expensive, and that no one was buying. What could have been a simple transaction — and a marketing opportunity most headphone makers would leap at — would instead become a complex, protracted engineering challenge for Bose.

The problem with the NFL's original pitch was that it was too sensible. Once it determined that making an NFL headset would be a massive hassle, requiring more than a year of R&D, Bose was on board. Because while every headphone maker employs nerds, Bose is the rare consumer electronics company that's also run by them.

The Birth of the Noise-Canceling Headphones
Sean Garrett might be a diehard NFL fan, but he's also an MIT graduate. Bose president and CEO Bob Maresca also went to MIT, and first joined the company as an engineer, hired to work on what would eventually be a 20-year project to develop a magnetic suspension system for cars. Maresca was still an engineer when, 18 years ago, Dr. Amar Bose asked him to take charge of the business side of the company's wildly unprofitable noise-cancellation research. At that time, Bose had spent $50 million on active noise cancellation, and was still losing money, despite landing contracts with the military. "We were wrapping $50 around every product we shipped out," says Maresca. "It cost us $50 more to make them than they were paying us. So yeah, we were in trouble."

It took three more years, and around $9 million more in losses, before noise-canceling headphones became profitable (first in a partnership with American Airlines, and then with the first QuietComfort headphones in 2000). Maresca believes the company is in a similar position with its magnetically suspended seats for truck drivers. Bose has sunk tens of millions into a device that could essentially levitate drivers, and substantially reduce the vibrations that cause short-term impairment and long-term injury. In other words, the deeper you dig into the history and culture of Bose, the nerdier it gets. This is likely due to the fact that this privately held research company is owned in large part by MIT — Dr. Bose gave a majority of the company's non-voting shares to the university in 2011. It has the autonomy, and the attitude necessary to embark on oddball products with no immediate return on investment. Like, for example, the first truly weather-proof and noise-canceling headsets in the NFL.

Field Test: Learning to Silence 50,000 Fans
To demonstrate the difference that active noise-cancellation can make for sideline personnel, Bose invited a handful of reporters to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, home of the New England Patriots. This, too, was a very nerdy decision. The NFL Headset debuted close to a year ago — the league put its own logo on headsets during the sponsor-less 2013 season — and publicizing its continued existence has no clear financial upside. It's a product that isn't available for purchase, even if consumers wanted to buy them. But Bose felt that the story of its headset's engineering hadn't been fully told.

The headset is a technological marvel, though. In its first full-game test, at the August 16 preseason game with the New England Patriots taking on the Green Bay Packers, I got a chance to don these one-of-a-kind headphones. The 50,000 seat stadium was surprisingly full — a product, no doubt, of the ongoing controversy surrounding Deflategate and the NFL's decision to suspend Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games — and when Brady walked onto the field in uniform, the crowd exploded

But in the muffled embrace of the NFL Headset, the deafening cheers were more of a background hiss. The active noise cancellation is especially effective at fighting low-end frequencies, which included crowd noise as well as the thumping bass coming from the stadium's speakers. Even with the active cancellation turned off, the headset did an impressive job of passively warding off sound, with a hinged headband design that securely clamps the earcups to your head, without making you feel like your skull is in a vise.

This hinge quickly became my obsession. A standard spring-loaded hinge exerts more force as its levered open. That's bad news for large craniums, like mine (as well as NFL coaches, who "tend to be in the 95th percentile for head size," one Bose exec joked.) The NFL Headset is bisected by a constant-force magnesium coil, which exerts the same force whether its hanging on a display stand or stretched to its maximum width. It also prevents the headband from applying virtually any downward force, which Bose sees as the main source of wearer discomfort.

It really is a fantastic hinge, and one of the high-end components in the NFL Headset that might never show up in consumer headphones (similar hinges are found in the company's aviation headsets). Likewise, the headband's underside is cushioned by two ludicrous-looking tufts of sheepskin, lovingly sourced from select areas of sheep's bellies. The headset looks like nothing special, but wears like pure luxury.

Trickle-Down Tech?
If one of the headsets were to fall off the back of an equipment cart, and wind up in your home, don't expect hi-fi audio quality. Bose tweaked its active noise cancellation algorithms to shut out a wide range of background noise, while letting in the narrow band of frequencies related to human speech. Distant chanting from the crowd is mostly filtered out, but a coach speaking through a headset mic comes through clear, and loud enough that shouting is unnecessary.

The headset-to-headset audio really was clear, with the same, slightly high-pitched quality of speech piped in over a helicopter's headsets. And while it may seem pointless to review a product that's not actually a product, there's something to be said for the tech that goes into something like the NFL Headset — a triumph of product design. From that special magnesium hinge to the way the microphone and earcups shed and drain rainwater — teams used to put baggies on mics to keep them alive during heavy rain — Bose proved its engineering chops. When asked whether making the headset taught them any lessons that might be applied to future consumer modes, Bose staffers shrugged and agreed, but only out of politeness. The NFL Headset is about showing off. It's the high-stakes, multi-million dollar equivalent of a valedictorian's science fair presentation.

Consider this our blue ribbon.