Screaming Babies, Noise Canceling, And You

[Season 2 • Episode 18. Published 9/1/23.]

In April 1978, MIT professor Amar Bose was flying home to Boston from Switzerland. But when he tried to listen to music through the airline’s headphones, he couldn’t hear a darned thing. He spent the rest of the flight doing acoustical math—and sketching out an idea for headphones that literally subtracted background noise from what you hear. Today, noise-canceling headphones are everywhere. But the revolution began with Amar Bose’s airplane sketches—and the 22-year, $50 million journey that led them to the ears on your head.

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

Last time I walked down an airplane aisle, I counted how many people were wearing noise-canceling headphones in flight. I mean, it was about one quarter of the passengers. These are headphones that literally subtract the noise around you from whatever music or movie you’re listening to. 

But inventing this technology was incredibly difficult. 

RULE: You know, in a perfect world, we’d glue something to your eardrum. And that would be fantastic. But nobody’s signing up for that. 

In the year 2000, Bose finally cracked the problem and brought consumer noise canceling headphones to the world. It had only taken 22 years and 50 million dollars. 

I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

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Season 2, Episode 18… Screaming Babies, Noise Canceling, and You.

In April 1978, MIT professor Amar Bose was flying back home to Boston from a business meeting in Switzerland. Yes, that would be Bose, as in the Bose Corporation, the audio-equipment company he’d founded in 1964, when he was 35 years old.

Now, by the mid seventies, plenty of airplanes had sound systems for passengers. Kind of. They were these long, flexible plastic tubes that plugged into audio sockets on the armrest. And on your end, they had foam earplugs. I mean, technically you could hear music, but it had all the audio fidelity of listening to AM radio over the phone.

But on this flight, things would be different.

Ursula:  In 1978, we were in Europe and on the way back. For the first time, they had actual headphones instead of just those tubes. And so he was pretty excited about that because it—oh my God, thank God. Finally, something that might sound, you know, decent.

That’s his widow, Ursula Boltzhauser, in a 2018 Bose video. 

GAUGER: And airlines were—at the time, in 1978—just in the process of switching over to what looked like Walkman, early Walkman headphones, because the Walkman had just been introduced and it was now possible to manufacture those headphones for very, very low costs, so the airlines were adopting. 

And that’s Dan Gauger, one of the two engineers who founded and built the company’s noise-canceling headphone division.

GAUGER: And Dr. Bose was excited. For once, he thought he’d have great music on that flight. 

Now, I will say this for the old flexible-plastic-tube contraption: Those foam earplugs at least plugged your ears. They shut out a lot of the airplane noise.

GAUGER: But the Walkman headphones didn’t. And by the time he turned the music up so loud that he could enjoy it, it was not enjoyable, and the noise was interfering. 

Ursula And put them on and realized that, well, with these things on your ears, the sound from the airplane came in much, much more. And he was very disappointed. 

“Avengers”-style hero music

So on that fateful day, Dr. Bose stood up at his seat, shook his fist at the heavens, and proclaimed, “I…am…BOSE! One of the greatest acoustical minds alive! Solving the problem of listening to music on airplanes is within my grasp!” 

OK, those may not have been his exact words. He may not have actually stood up. Or shook his fist. Or actually said anything at all. 

But here’s what he did do:

Ursula: So he took out a pad and pen and started writing equations. By the time we reached Boston, he had a which he thought might work.

A concept for headphones that would literally subtract background noise from what you hear. 

Here, in essence, was his idea:

GAUGER: So sound is—what is sound? It’s very small, rapid variations in the pressure of air. Slight deviations from the atmosphere at your local atmospheric pressure. 

Pogue: OK. 

GAUGER: And, you know, for the sort of sound what we are most effective at canceling, it’s varying, you know, one to two or three hundred times a second. 

POGUE: Okay. 

GAUGER: High pressure, low pressure, high pressure, low pressure. Now, you’re wearing an ear cup. Some of that outside sound gets to the inside of the ear cup. So when there’s a high pressure inside your cup, there’s more air molecules inside the ear cup. 

We  add microphones on the outside that sense the noise as it arrives at the headphone. And we figure out how to generate a signal to go into the speaker inside the headphone. 

We move the speaker back to make more room for the ear, and lower the pressure. 

RULE: The outside mic gives you a look ahead. You don’t have to wait until it shows up at the microphone before you say, “ah, I see this thing and I now need to do the opposite.” You’re like, “Well, no, I saw it coming, because I have a microphone facing outward. And as I can do the math fast enough, then I know what’s going to hit the inside of my ear before it gets there, right?”

That voice belongs to John Rule, a Bose engineer who specializes in noise cancellation.

So let’s see. When the external microphone senses a sound wave coming into the headphones, the little speaker inside the earcup literally moves. It moves back a minuscule fraction of an inch, in a minuscule fraction of a second, to make more space inside the earcup, thereby lowering the air pressure for that millisecond, therefore erasing the effect of the sound wave that came in from the plane noise around you. It cancels the noise.

So what’s it sound like?

RULE: For somebody who’s never had experience with this, you’d say, oh, it turns everything down by a factor of ten. We’re closing in on, you know, 50x, 80x reduction—so you could say, hey, everything gets quieter. 

So your first experience is like, “wow, everything got quieter!” You know, it doesn’t make the world silent, because that’s really hard, right? It’s nowhere near as annoying as it was when it was full volume, but, you know, it’s now—it’s like a whisper, but it’s kind of still there. 

It’s hard to demonstrate the effect on a podcast. I mean, I have no idea what you’re listening on right now! Is it headphones? Earbuds? Are you in your car? Listening through your phone’s speaker? Tablet? Laptop? TV? 

But let’s try. Here is an actual recording that Bose engineers made on an actual plane—not a flight I myself was on, although I swear, this same screaming baby somehow winds up on every other flight i take:

Baby before.aiff

And now, the same scene with noise cancellation—an actual recording, with no doctoring or funny business:

Baby after.aiff

Pogue: How come there aren’t certain times, certain frequencies, where the noise canceling sounds take out some of the music you’re hearing?

GAUGER: Well, the answer to that is—we’re not just trying to create silence. We’re servo controlling, or feedback controlling, to make the sound at the entrance to your ear be the music. The music is the command input to the feedback system. 

Pogue: Okay. So if there’s a certain frequency that is being canceled that is also a note in the music, you’ll just double that sound output?

GAUGER: Probably too simplistically—yes. Yeah. 

Pogue: You must be writhing inside. Oh, my God, this guy’s consumer-friendly description of something that took us 30 years to do… 

We interrupt this podcast to offer an apologetic production note.

Between the time we did this interview and the time of editing, the fantastic-sounding recording of ME, my end of the conversation, somehow got lost to the internet ether. We did have a backup of the interview—the audio from the Zoom meeting where the interview took place—so that’s what you’re hearing every time I speak in these interview excerpts.  

I know, it sounds like doo-doo. Which is especially embarrassing because this is an episode ABOUT AUDIO.

OK, moving on. 

We were talking about doing noise cancellation in real time. 

I mean, we’re describing how noise canceling works as though it’s, you know, “Oh, you just pump out air pressure out of phase hundreds of times a second, and voila!” But I hope you can appreciate what an astonishingly difficult feat that is to pull off. 

GAUGER: Imagine the surface of the ocean or even just of a pond, on a windy day with all the waves. The peaks of the waves are like high sound pressure—and the valleys are like low sound pressure. Try to imagine taking a plunger to make more waves. Stand in one spot in the lake and make more waves and try to make the surface of the lake smooth. 

With sound, it’s even—it’s more complicated. It’s three-dimensional. 

As Bose executives in that 2018 video recall:

Speaker 11:  There were many people in the company who would say, “Why are you wasting your time on this technology?”

Speaker 3:  “The concept that you could cancel sound with sound was the most ridiculous. It’s like putting somebody on the moon for me, right?”

Now here, I must insist that we pause the proceedings to make a very important point. 

There are long sound waves, and short sound waves. 

RULE: Low frequencies—if you think about the wavelength—low frequencies like 100 hertz, the wavelength is 12 feet, right?  

I’m going to play you a 100-hertz sound, meaning 100 vibrations per second. Those waves reaching your ear right now? 12 feet long.

100hz tone.

RULE: When you go to a kilohertz, it’s about a foot. 

Now here’s a one-kilohertz sound—1000 sound waves a second, ten times faster, each one a foot long.

1 khz tone. 

RULE: And when you go to ten kilohertz, it’s about an inch, roughly speaking. Right? 

And here comes a 10-khz sound. It’s really high, and the sound waves are really short. If you’re over 50 or listening on cruddy speaker, you may barely be able to hear it at all.

10 khz tone.

RULE: Higher and higher frequencies, you’re getting to smaller and smaller waves. And all of a sudden, the length between the the microphone and your eardrum becomes significant.  

Pogue: Oh, my gosh. I see. And that’s why they always say these things work best on low rumbles or, you know, medium airplane hiss.

GAUGER: You know, that’s—that’s a key part of it. Cancellation needs to have long wavelengths—more slowly changing sound—because we’re always chasing the sound that’s gone into your ear. We can’t cancel at ten kilohertz when the wavelengths get so short. 

That was a lot to absorb, but here’s the bottom line: These headphones do great at canceling low sounds, like the dull roar of plane engines or A/C units or subway rumbles. They do lousy at blocking high-pitched sounds—like screaming babies on planes. 

And for that reason, all the fancy math and electronics and speaker movement we’ve been talking about are responsible for only half the quietness you detect when you put on these headphones. To keep out the high pitches, they use an entirely different system—one that’s almost embarrassingly low-tech.

GAUGER: This is actually something that’s annoyed me for, you know, as I’ve watched cancellation become a real big thing in the consumer space—people use “cancellation” to refer to anything that lowers the noise that’s going into your ear. 

Pogue: Right. 

GAUGER: And that’s not the case. Cancellation is when you use an out-of- phase sound to cancel the sound you don’t want. There’s also attenuation—the physical blocking of the sound. And a well-designed headphone uses both of those. The physical blocking at high frequencies and cancellation at low frequencies. 

Pogue: So the fact that they’re earcups pressed against your head, that’s not just for comfort or good music sound—that gets you part of the way toward lowering the volume outside. 

GAUGER: That lowers the high frequency hiss. It doesn’t do much against low frequency rumble, particularly if you designed the headphones to be comfortable to wear.  

You know, I have worn things in research labs that have, you know, incredible pressure against the side of your head, and you want to scream after 30 seconds. And those will block, you know, a fair amount of sound, but they still can’t block the low frequencies very effectively. So the challenge is how to put low frequency cancellation, high frequency attenuation—passive attenuation—and comfort together in a small headphone that people can wear and carry and use and enjoy. 

If you watch YouTube videos about noise-canceling headphones, you often hear the term active noise cancellation, or ANC. That is just the electronic part, the part that blocks the low frequencies. That’s the part you can turn on or off with a switch. 

As for the part where the headphones just entomb your ears inside padded cups—that’s passive noise reduction.

Pogue: So, John, you indicated that by the time you get to the higher frequency sounds, these pressure waves are only an inch big.  

Pogue: Does that mean, then, that it’s a matter of physics and not technology? In other words, no matter how far we go into the future with …miniaturization and faster processors—is it possible you could ever do high frequencies as well as we do low ones?

RULE: It is hard—you know, we’re working on it. You know, there are other types of sensors we could imagine. We’ve looked at sensing vibrations on your skin directly. Not sure what that would look like in a headphone. 

Pogue: Wow. 

GAUGER: A lot of people have commented over the years that if you sit in some environment with a lot of rumble, like an airplane or a bus or a train, you put on the headphones, it’s like you hear the voices around you better with the headphones. 

Pogue: Yeah. 

GAUGER: And that’s because this region where it’s active cancellation at low frequencies and passive reduction in high frequencies, they don’t stitch together completely smoothly and flat. There’s a range of frequencies in the middle where there’s a lot of voice energy. Where we’re least effective when you put these things together. And so the headphones knock the rumble down but let some of the voices through. 

OK, so back to our history lesson: Dr. Bose hired my guest Dan Gauger to develop these headphones in 1980. By 1986, they had a prototype. 

GAUGER: But we had some, you know, challenges in front of us. You know, Bose at the time was a much smaller company. We’d never designed a headphone. When we looked at the costs of trying to create a product, it was way out of range of anything that could be a consumer product. And we got involved in the Voyager project in ‘86.  

Ah, yes, the Voyager project. It was an attempt to make the first non-stop, around-the-world flight in an airplane. A specially designed, weird-looking, super-light, carbon-fiber airplane. 

Narr: The voyager begins to lumber down the long runway. Its attempt to fly around the world is beginning. 

Anyway, because the plane was built to weigh as little as possible, it had no insulation. It was incredibly loud inside. 

The pilots would be sitting right next to deafening engines; the flight engineers calculated that by the end of the nine-day trip, the pilots would have lost 30% of their hearing. Probably not something they looked forward to.

Dan Gauger cold-called the Voyager team and invited them to try out his noise-canceling prototype. The two pilots, Dick Rutan and Jeanna Yeagar, tried out the headphones during their test flights; they were sold. On the day of takeoff, they became the first pilots ever to wear noise-canceling headphones. 

Ultimately, the Voyager flight was successful—they flew around the world in what amounted to a flying fuel tank, breaking all kinds of records. Here’s how CNN covered the landing:

CNN: “10 feet…6 feet.” “Down on the ground.” “Yeah-hah!” “It’s down!” “Welcome home.” “A feat no one ever thought was possible has occurred here at the Edwards Air Force Base.”

Unfortunately, the headphones conked out partway through the flight, as depicted in the 1992 TV documentary show Frontiers of Flight:

Narr: With two engines running, the noise was deafening. The electronic noise cancellation system had failed early in the flight. And the only things that saved them from permanent hearing loss were the form-fitting headphones that blocked out the worst of the sound waves. 

Even so, the Voyager experience taught the Bose team some important lessons. 

Gauger: That actually proved to be very, very valuable experience because—our early prototypes, the focus was just on active cancellation. We discovered as we started making headphones for people that, yeah, you really got to balance the active and the passive. And if it’s not comfortable to wear, it’s not a great solution. 

Active cancellation isn’t about more noise reduction. It’s about more comfort in noise. You put up with a lot of physical discomfort if the noise is really, uncomfortably loud. The challenge is to bring the physical discomfort of wearing something and the auditory discomfort of the noise down and balanced. And that’s what enabled us to go into the consumer market along with, you know, making things in China. 

In 1989, Bose introduced the world’s first active noise-canceling headphones, sold exclusively to pilots: A super-bulky, super-chunky device called the Bose Aviation Headset. It was a game-changer, because pilots could now hear radio communications without cranking the volume up to 11.

GAUGER: The first challenge was to try to find a customer, to find places like aviation, which is a very specialized consumer business where there’s lots of low frequency noise—talking about private pilots—that we could get a foothold in and we could keep learning. 

It’s relevant, by the way, that Dr. Bose never took the company public. If a company like that had stockholders to please, a 22-year R&D project that cost 50 million bucks would never have lasted that long. As Bose said in one 2004 interview, “I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs.”

GAUGER: It took a lot of patience and protection from Dr. Bose. 

Pogue: What do you mean? 

GAUGER: Well, there were executives, in kind of our darkest days in the late nineties, who very much wanted to shut us down. 

Pogue: Because it was costing so much money and nothing was coming out of it yet? 

GAUGER: We were just a drag on the company’s balance sheet. And we are a privately-held, long-term thinking company, but we do have accountants and finance people who, you know, try to provide sage advice. 

Pogue: So how do you measure the effectiveness of these earbuds and earphones? Is there some fake head with microphones where your eardrums would be?  

RULE: When we’re in the lab, we have these tiny little canal mics on these really, really skinny, skinny little wires, and we stuff ‘em in your ear. So this is what the engineers do in our free time, right? We go into a big, very reverberant lab room and we stick microphones down our ear canals, and then we measure—so we, we can measure the performance of all these different stages. 

In a perfect world, we’d glue something to your eardrum. And that would be fantastic. But nobody’s signing up for that. 

GAUGER: There are, you know, mannequin heads, acoustic fixtures that you can measure headphones on. But if you really want to know what goes on in human beings, you have to measure on human beings. And you have to, you know, accommodate the variation across different people’s ears. 

Pogue: Yeah, I was going to say. I mean, if the whole problem to solve is that everybody’s ears are different, then no mannequin is going to do it for ya. 

GAUGER: Exactly. 

RULE: Exactly. 

Finally, in 1998, the noise-canceling headphones did start making money for the company. Both because they were a hit with airline pilots and the military, and because American Airlines began offering a streamlined pair to first-class passengers.

In 2000, the Bose QuietComfort headphones became available to everyone, and the rest is air-travel history. Noise cancellation makes the music or the movie you’re playing much easier to hear. And because you can listen to your music without cranking it to top volume, to rise above the roar, noise cancellation protects your hearing. As a handy bonus, 

Pogue: Sometimes you hear people say, “oh, it actually makes you arrive at the airport less fatigued...” How much of that is marketing baloney, and how much of it has been shown by studies? 

GAUGER: Ah, it’s not marketing baloney. It’s been decades since I’ve looked at the results of those surveys, but my memory is that something like 70% of the people responded that they felt less fatigued, particularly after like an international flight. And we never asked the question about fatigue—they were volunteering that information. 

I’ve seen some not-very-high-quality research papers about this that say that low frequency noise does tend to put you to sleep. You know, so—by making it go away, one would think that you’d be more relaxed, rested, less tired, from having been battered by that noise. 

By the way, Amar Bose was not the first person who ever thought of canceling sound waves in real time. For example, in 1934, a German engineer applied for a patent—not for headphones, but for canceling sound in one-dimensional situations, like in a duct. He didn’t actually build anything. And then, in the mid-fifties, an RCA engineer built a prototype of a noise-canceling headphone, but it never left the lab. It appears that Bose, the man, came up with the idea independently, and Bose, the company, was the first to commercialize it.

OK…so much for the history of noise canceling. What about the future?

That’s the best part. And I’ll tell you about it after the commercials.

Second Ads 

Before the break, I hinted that there’s more to the story of noise-canceling headphones—that the science still has somewhere to go.

Pogue: Is there such thing as noise cancellation in a room? 

RULE: It’s hard from a physics standpoint. When Dan was back actually inventing noise canceling headphones, I was in a post-doc lab looking at doing cancellation in airplanes—like in the entire body. That’s, you know, that’s what they want. They’re like, “can we just make the airplane quiet,” right? 

You know, it’s this giant 3-D problem. And the only place we care about is, you know, the entrance to your ears. 

In principle, if you had a microphone in a room and you had a speaker in a room, you could do the same kind of math, right? You could, you could sense a point in space and you could, you know, you can have a driver close to it. And you could cancel at that point in space. But everywhere else in the room would still be loud, right? And if you had two microphones, you could make two locations quiet. And if you had 100 microphones, you could make 100 locations quiet with the same math. But you see where this is going, right? It’s, it’s not practical to make all-room noise canceling.  

GAUGER: Now, under specific circumstances, you can start to do things. So you can do cancellation in a car. It’s a small space, much larger than an ear cup. You can’t do it to as high a frequency and as well as we can in an ear cup because of that. And you’re relying on the fact that you’re just going after the repetitive tonal characteristics from the, you know, turnover of the engine, the R.P.M. of the engine. So you can sense that—so—and, you know, get a little bit of a prediction ahead as to just what frequencies to go after. So under no circumstances you can do it in a larger space. Headphones are unique and special. 

Now, if you’ve been listening closely, you may have caught that part about the middle frequencies. Today’s headphones eliminate low sounds using noise cancellation circuitry, and higher ones by enclosing your ear in padded earcups. But there’s a gap in the middle register—the one where human voices live. 


GAUGER: This region where it’s active cancellation at low frequencies and passive reduction in high frequencies, they don’t stitch together completely smoothly and flat. There’s a range of frequencies in the middle where there’s a lot of voice energy. Where we’re least effective when you put these things together. 

You may also remember that one of the biggest challenges of designing this stuff is that everyone’s ears are different.

RULE: You need to be able to take it out of the box and put it on anybody’s head and have it deliver them good performance. And that is hard, right? Getting it—getting a system together where the human head is a part of the system, right? 

Everybody’s ear canals are a little bit different. I always thought all ears were the same. And then I started working at Bose and started looking at ears very carefully. I was like, “Wow, they’re all really different.” You know, you just kind of don’t notice this. 

We need to solve that problem. We need to solve the problem of, how do we deal with head-to-head variability? Because we’re leaving performance on the table by not customizing to every single head we go after. 

And there they sat: Two problems that nobody had yet licked. Two related problems. If they couldn’t solve the ear-socket variability problem, then they’d never be able to lick the full-spectrum noise-reduction problem.

Well, after working at Bose for 38 years and shepherding the world’s first noise-canceling headphones into existence, Dan Gauger was approaching retirement. But he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory—or at least a blaze of engineering triumph. He wanted to lick those two problems. He wanted to see noise-canceling finished. 

Well, this year, according to John Rule, 

RULE: We’ve solved the problem, or at least  taken a big swing at understanding the differences in everybody’s heads and delivering the best performance we can give to each individual person. 

Pogue: Your headphones have been called, you know, QC 15, 25, 35, 45—is this going to be called the 55?

Rule: It’s going to come out in earbuds. 

Pogue: No way!

Rule: Because this problem is easier to solve in earbuds than in ear cups. 

Pogue: Why?

Pogue: Because the earbuds sit in your ear the same way every time. You know, if I take this, this  headphone I’m wearing and push, push it around on my head, push it back, push it forward a little bit—the process—the coupling changes. Earbuds are much more consistent. 

Pogue: Oh, really? I mean, it seems like—it seems like—you go to earbuds—then, you’re losing some of the, you know, the passive noise cancellation of the cups. 

RULE: Not as much as people think. Your outer ear is not the thing that does the hearing, right? It’s the hole in the side of your head that goes to your eardrum. So earbuds are very, very good at going right into that hole, right where you need it. They do provide, you know, enough passive. And then the active system can deliver as much performance as, as big earcups can. 

Pogue: What’s it called, and how do you do this customization? 

RULE: It’s called QuietComfort Earbud 2. We already have some QuietComfort earbuds on the market, but they’re, you know,  they’re a little large and have some other issues.  

But the QuietComfort 2  has been modified to, to closely couple the acoustics to your ear canal. So that was step one. 

And then we had to have a control system that would actually be able to deal with that variability. 

There’s no app. You’re just going to put these things in. They play a little startup tone and the startup tone has the measurement in it and the math is done before the tone has finished playing. 

We’ve figured out a way to basically get  a very, very fast measurement that happens instantaneously when you put the earbuds on and customizes your filter before you even know it. 

In other words, these earbuds actually take measurements of your ear socket every time you put them in. Based on the actual shape and volume of your actual ears, and based on how you’ve inserted them this time, they reshape the noise cancellation algorithms on the fly. You turn them on, they make this chime—


—and little tiny microphones listen for the acoustics of your ear. 

Pogue: How close do the buds come to matching the noise cancellation of the cups? 

RULE: These earbuds will provide more noise canceling than anything we’ve made, and anything that our competitors have made. 

GAUGER: If you get a good fit, it is markedly quieter than anything else out there. 

Now, I have no interest in being a marketing shill for Bose. They didn’t pay me to make this episode—I approached them about it. I don’t even get so much as a discount. We are gathered here today purely to talk about the science, which they developed. 

But I can confidently say that these earbuds do the most complete noise-cancellation job ever brought to market. I went to their grand unveiling in New York City last September. All these critics and reviewers showed up. Bose had set up an enormous room, with huge speakers all around, that blasted out a series of noisy soundscapes—major city sounds, aircraft interior, drunken party next door—and I’m telling you, these earbuds turned that noise into silence. Almost complete silence. Absolutely freaky. 

For example: This is the “before” recording:

office before.aiff

And here are the new earbuds with full noise canceling turned on::

office after.aiff

And sure enough—the reviewers went nuts.

YouTuber: The noise canceling is really impressive, probably the best out there right now.

Josh: And let me tell you. If you want the best noise cancellation available today,  these earbuds are probably it. It just cuts everything out.

Youtuber: Out of everything I’ve tested, it cancels the most noise.

You know what? I don’t use those new amazing earbuds. I wish I could, but I can’t. Because—my ears aren’t even close to normal.

I have a birth defect. Like thousands of other otherwise healthy babies each year, I was born without an antitragus. 

The antitragus is the little piece of cartilage along the bottom of your earhole that supports earbuds from underneath. At least on your head. I don’t have it at all. So regular earbuds do not stay in my ears.

End music. 

Pogue: How much can I look forward to these new earbuds fitting me and staying in and working?  

RULE: We have this thing called a fit kit, where we’ve separated the tip from the little rubber ring, right?

You can find one of the three sizes that fits into the hole, and then one of the three sizes that sort of sticks to the, you know, the slightly outer part of your, you know, part of your ear. And we’ve spent a lot of time on that. We’ve measured hundreds of heads, scanned ears to, you know, to figure this out. Because as we said earlier, everybody’s all a little bit different. 

Well—it didn’t work on me. The buds kept falling out of my ears, no matter which tip size I used, no matter which support ring I attached. The Bose staff kept passing me higher and higher up the executive chain at this unveiling event, and nobody could make them stay in. I mean, this doesn’t affect most people. But it breaks my heart. I really want that kind of noise cancellation!

Pogue: Could this technology eventually be brought over to a cup?

RULE: There are some different challenges with cups, but it’s certainly something we’re working on. 

Today, lots of companies make noise-canceling headphones and earbuds. People say the latest Sony headphones have caught up to Bose’s headphones, although nobody’s caught up to those new Bose Earbuds.

And it all stemmed from Amar Bose’s 1978 flight to Boston. 

Oh yeah—about Dr. Bose. He spent many years teaching at MIT during the day, and running Bose Corporation on the side. Here’s him teaching an MIT acoustics class in 1995.

Bose: There’s nothing like having done something and worked and worked and worked on it. And it’s like going through many, many, many blind alleys, and you finally get something… that satisfaction is enormous. And there’s another degree of it, which shouldn’t be, but it is. If what you were trying to do  was thought to be impossible by others, you get more satisfaction. That’s pure ego. It shouldn’t be, but it is!

In 2011, two years before he died, he made an appointment to see Susan Hockfield, then the president of his beloved MIT. He said he had a gift to bestow.

Susan:  I came into my office. And I remember exactly how we were sitting. And he told me that he had decided to give the majority of the Bose corporation to MIT. 

That’s right. He gave the company to MIT. Nonvoting shares, so MIT has no control—only the rewards of the company’s success.

Susan And I remember sitting there with  tears coming to my eyes, and looking at him, trying to figure out what he had just said. And I stammered insufficient thanks. 

Windup music begins.

You know, it’s cool having a podcast where you can go after great unsung inventors like these guys. For me, noise canceling headphones have always seemed like magic—and now I get to hear the magicians explain the trick. And just this once, finding out the answer isn’t disappointing; this time, it’s equally cool to find out how it’s done. RULE: And now we’ve gotten to the place where it’s like, airplanes are not the only place, the only place in your life that’s noisy. City streets are noisy, subways are noisy, buses are noisy. Your house, if it’s full of other people, is noisy. And, you know, sort of recognizing that there’s a way to control, you know, kind of the noise in your environment—you know, just like putting on sunglasses if the sun is too bright—you’re like, well, “the noise is too loud. Let’s turn it down!”