Japan Airlines’ Intriguing Headrest Speakers


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I just had the chance to fly Japan Airlines’ Airbus A350-1000 first class, and it was an unforgettable experience. This is one of the world’s very best first class products, both in terms of the hard and soft product.

While I covered the details of the flight in a previous installment, in this post I wanted to talk about a feature of the carrier’s premium cabin seats that we’ve never seen before, and which I was looking forward to experiencing…

Basics of Japan Airlines’ new A350 headphone-free stereos

The Airbus A350-1000 is Japan Airlines’ new flagship aircraft, and it features an all-new passenger experience. There’s a lot of amazing tech at the seat, though arguably there’s one feature that raises the most eyebrows.

First and business class seats on the jet have the world’s first headphone-free stereo feature, in the form of built-in headrest speakers. That’s right, you can literally blast the audio for your preferred movie, TV show, or song, directly through your headrest.

This is one of three ways you can listen to audio through the inflight entertainment, with the other two options being using the airline headphones, or using your own headphones via bluetooth audio.

It’s shocking to me that a Japanese airline was the first to innovate this, given how much value is placed on respect for others in Japan, plus the general culture of silence in many public places, like trains.

This is technology you’d expect to be rolled out on an airline flying out of Miami, where we’ve just completely normalized doing anything without headphones at airports and on planes, from discussing shady business dealings, to watching a Daddy Yankee music video.

Japan Airlines has headphone-free speakers

Are Japan Airlines’ in-seat speakers disruptive?

I was curious to experience these speakers firsthand. Just to give you a sense of what they look like, below is the first class headrest, and you can see the pattern, and how each of the widgets has a built-in stereo.

Japan Airlines A350 first class headrest

Then whenever you select an option from the inflight entertainment, you’ll be asked for your preferred sound output option, choosing between the headphone jack, bluetooth, or the in-seat speakers. You can then also control the volume.

Japan Airlines A350 first class audio options

So I was curious what the trick is with these headrest speakers, so that you can hear the audio, but that it’s not disruptive to others. Well, the answer is that there is none. Rather it’s just that your ears are potentially a few inches from the speaker, while the next person will be several feet away.

A few thoughts:

  • For the person using the headrest speakers, at maximum volume I’d say the audio is loud enough to hear everything that you’re watching, though the sound may not be very “rich,” and those without great hearing may struggle
  • You can definitely hear other peoples’ audio from a distance, though it’s at a very low volume; it’s sort of like hearing two people talking very quietly in the distance, where you feel like you might be hearing a whisper, but you can’t fully make it out
  • The A350 is such a quiet jet, especially in first class, since the cabin is so far from the engines; I imagine that contributes to hearing the audio more easily from a distance
  • Business class seats are much closer to one another, so I could see this being more disruptive there; however, for the business class seats near the engines, I think the engine sound might drown out any audio

I had some fun with another passenger putting this to the test. There was this adorable Japanese avgeek seated right in front of me, who was as enthusiastic about this flight as I was. So I turned on my headrest speaker to maximum volume playing J-pop, and I asked her if she could hear it in the suite in front. She said that she could, but only a little bit.

The Japan Airlines A350 first class cabin is really quiet

Bottom line

One unique aspect of Japan Airlines’ new A350 is that first and business class seats have built in stereos, so you can enjoy entertainment without using headphones. I was curious about this technology, and it’s more or less what I was expecting.

There’s no magic here, but rather the audio is just a decent volume when you’re a few inches from the speaker, so the further away you get, the less you hear it. This definitely isn’t fully soundproofed, in the sense that those at other seats may hear your audio. However, it’ll be more like a whisper than anything else.

Personally I think this technology is kind of unnecessary when you have the option of bluetooth audio, and it’s a bit surprising to see a Japanese airline be the one innovating in this space. But hey, it’s cool nonetheless!

What do you make of Japan Airlines’ headrest speakers?

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