In 2009, Brendan Hutchieson was given a challenge: design the world’s toughest headphones. The task was a partnership between Hutchieson’s employer, consumer electronics manufacturer Philips, and sports apparel brand O’Neill. Hutchieson, the project’s lead designer, was born in Melbourne but grew up in Los Angeles and Singapore. He has worked in Asia for most of his career. At Philips in Hong Kong since 2007, he spoke with Makeshift about his quest to build headphones that last forever and the lessons he learned trying to destroy them—in a lot of weird ways.
Makeshift: How did the Philips-O’Neill partnership come about?
BH: After a few “hip” headphone brands came out of nowhere, we felt we could improve our line. However, we didn’t want to just stamp the O’Neill logo somewhere. They brought the heart and soul of how they develop their tech gear. It wasn’t just “put colors on.” Each pair was designed from the ground up. The Stretch is super, well, stretchable. The Bend was designed like a ski goggle, with lots of flexibility. You can disassemble the Construct like an M16 rifle and lay all the parts out.
Tell us about your design philosophy.
We have a three-pillar process: sound, comfort, and durability. But the last one is the real focus. We started with cable “bending and pulling” tests. It turns out that the cable is a weak spot. The resulting design guidelines helped improve on the competition’s cables by a factor of ten: ours last more than a hundred thousand bending cycles.
Toughness is about “smart toughness”, not military-style strength. Take the Stretch: it doesn’t look the part, but it’s extremely durable. We minimize the number of parts, screws, and weak areas. There aren’t unnecessary hinges; components pop on and off. We learned a lot on materials too.
How do you feed test results back into the design?
We speak with the athletes, our “test animals”. O’Neill has always done this; they don’t sit in a studio and design a wetsuit. They quickly prototype one, and they test the heck out of it. Part of that culture is coming back to us. While developing, we have more of a “ghetto” test method. Recently we got a bunch of headphones to a parking lot and drove on them to see where they break. We also threw them out the window, filming the 20m fall. The issue was the speaker drivers: they’re fragile, and we started to think how to protect them. Occasionally, the feedback inspired high-end versions. If users want to pay more to dunk their headphones in water, we provide it.
After the line launched, users posted videos of their own tests. Which were your favorites?
Ah, many good ones! One video had a toddler dressed in different animal suits who trashes a pair of Stretch. I also remember a rock band that delivers a big beating to a few pairs of headphones and somebody that wraps the Bend around a ski lift and gets pulled up holding on to them.