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Football is a complex game, one that reaches beyond pure athleticism when played at the highest level. Strategy, having the right athletes on the field, and getting them to run the right play at the right time are as important as having the best quarterback or defensive squad in the league.
To call the plays, NFL coaches rely on technology. Specifically, they need wireless headsets that work perfectly in all types of weather conditions, and are tough enough to survive being thrown to the ground in anger.
I review headphones for a living, and despite the occasional temptation, I’ve never thrown a pair down in disgust when, say, the drivers distort on a track with deep bass. If I did, I expect they’d shatter, or at least suffer some serious performance malfunctions—not because of my brute strength, but because audio gear isn’t typically designed to be treated roughly.
So I look at the headsets used by the NFL with a mixture of awe and wonder. Bose, now wrapping up its seventh year as the official headset manufacturer for the league, is probably best known to consumers as the maker of noise-cancelling headphones and impressively tiny speakers. The NFL uses the Bose SoundComm B30 headset, one that needs to survive extreme weather and the less-than-gentle touch of a head coach, all while delivering critical communication in loud stadiums and domes.
How does it differ from a regular headset or a pair of noise-cancelling headphones? We spoke with former commercial pilot and current Bose senior product line manager for aviation, military, and broadcast, Matt Ruwe, as well as John Cave, VP of football technology solutions for the NFL, to understand.
Bose SoundComm B30: How It Started
The Bose SoundComm B30 is available in single- or double-earcup models, starting at $849.95. The double-ear version is far less popular with coaches, who like to have an ear available to communicate with refs and players. The headset comes with a built-in boom mic, as well as hardwired cabling to connect to the rest of the fairly complex audio signal chain that allows coaches to communicate.
The NFL approached Bose prior to the 2014-2015 season about designing the first active noise cancellation (ANC) headset for coaches on the sidelines and in the booths. It’s a little surprising it took the NFL and Bose that long to connect—not only was the QuietComfort headphone line the established standard for ANC, but Bose had a background in critical communication headset design for pilots and the military. Before committing to create a bespoke product with such a specialized use case, Bose wanted to make sure it was feasible, especially in the relatively short time frame the NFL had proposed.
“When we first started investigating the opportunity to use Bose technology on the NFL sideline,” says Ruwe, “several of us went to the nearest stadium to record noise profiles and observe how the headsets are used on the sideline in a live event. In this case, the first few games were at Gillette Stadium and lead acoustic, electrical, and system engineers—some of whom had been the original designers of our core aviation and military products—were able to gain valuable information to help formulate a design concept.”
Once Bose agreed to design the new headsets, Ruwe says, the company rushed to fully develop a working model in time for the season.
The first Bose NFL headset was the SoundComm B20, which incorporated much of the technology used for the Bose A20 Aviation Wireless Headset, as well as the Combat Vehicle Crewman Headset designed to be used in M1 Abrams tanks.
In 2016, Bose upgraded that model to what you now see on the sidelines, the SoundComm B30.
The Right Microphone
Unlike a microphone designed for broadcast, which might have a sound signature intended to highlight a particular announcer’s vocal characteristics in a flattering way, the B30’s mic is all about clear communication. Thus, much of the low frequencies are filtered out, and the high-mids and highs are sculpted to create the best possible scenario for intelligibility. In a stadium environment, this also involves rejecting sound from the far field, so while the mic is designed to communicate a coach yelling clearly, it’s also designed to keep the sound of the crowd out of the audio transmission.
The boom has been upgraded in recent years from a typical gooseneck to something a little more sturdy. It allows for ideal placement for optimum communication, but, as Ruwe points out, most coaches tend to move the mic around quite a bit during the course of a game, some even gripping it like a handle. The boom swivels and bends, but it has a built-in stop to prevent 360-degree rotation. This, Ruwe says, “prevents the logo on the boom microphone from being upside down, and allows us to angle the earcup to better match the contour of your ear while keeping the headband centered on top of your head.”
A foam cover protects the mic’s dynamic capsule, which highlights the 800Hz to 6kHz frequency range. Thus, deep lows and truly high frequencies are filtered out completely or dialed back to a degree. The perforations on the outer hard shell guard are part of the microphone’s acoustic design and are required to improve far-field noise rejection performance.
A Different Kind of Noise Cancellation
The ANC in a pair of Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 or QuietComfort Earbuds can be blended with ambient audio mics using a fader within the Bose app, but there’s no such app for NFL headsets, nor is there a fader or ambient aware/transparent listening mode—just an on/off switch that will almost always remain on during a game. Furthermore, the SoundComm B30’s ambient mic (one per earcup) and ANC circuitry work together to specifically respond to crowd noise.
At two of the loudest stadiums in the NFL, Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium and Seattle’s Lumen Field, crowd noise has been measured in excess of 135 decibels. (The threshold of pain is somewhere around 120-130dB.) At these decibel levels, Ruwe says, “typical active noise-cancelling headsets would easily be overloaded by the sheer amount of noise present.” This means the SoundComm B30’s ANC circuitry has to get creative.
As with typical noise cancellation, the headset attempts to create an inverse “anti-noise” signal that is just as loud as the sound it needs to cancel out. But, Ruwe explains, “if the stadium’s noise level exceeds the headset’s capability for full attenuation, which is possible in places like Kansas City and Seattle, the NFL headset has a system to compensate and elegantly reduce the performance without causing artifacts in the audio.”
When the crowd noise level gets intense enough, dynamic compression kicks in, and according to Ruwe, “it lowers the amount of gain that our active noise reduction system is putting out…so in the earcups, it’s going to seem like it’s getting louder. Of course, you can’t tell, because the outside is so loud anyway.”
This safety measure makes it easier for coaches to hear each other despite the roar of the crowd, and the adjustment in ANC performance is achieved with a gradual (but relatively swift) fade so that it’s not a jarring difference. “The change is implemented in a way that you shouldn’t notice it,” says Ruwe.
I gave the SoundComm B30 a little test run, though not at an actual game, sadly. Instead, I blasted recorded crowd noise at a high level from near-field monitors in my workspace, and the ANC works quite well. I must admit, it’s strange to have one ear open, hearing the cacophony, while the other is blocking it out. I wonder if NFL coaches all eventually experience hearing loss in one ear while the other one is just fine. At any rate, the ANC circuitry, aided by the padding on the earcup, does an excellent job of dialing crowd noise back significantly.
A Super-Tough Build
NFL headsets need to provide clear communication, but they also need to work in extreme heat and cold, rain, snow, sleet, and be able to withstand the splash of Gatorade, beer tossed from the stands, and any other potential game hazards.
“The boom microphone—that’s dunk-able,” says Ruwe. “You could stir a glass of iced tea with that.”
During the first season the Bose headsets were in use, Ruwe and his colleagues were glued to the TV on Sundays (and Mondays and Thursdays), but they didn’t care so much about great matchups—instead, they wanted to see how the headsets would perform in poor conditions. The weather maps would decide which games they’d watch.
It took a while for word to get out to the coaches that these new headsets worked differently—Ruwe would tune into a rainy game and watch in disbelief when coaches had plastic baggies over the boom microphone. “Why are they doing that?” he wondered, somewhat flabbergasted.
The answer was simple: Previous headsets didn’t work in the rain. Coaches and techs learned that the best way to prevent water damage to the mics was by covering them up with little baggies. Ruwe and his team had to explain this was no longer necessary.
With a game (and maybe job security) on the line, convincing a head coach to drop a decades-old habit and simply trust the technology was, understandably, a hard sell at first. But eventually, the baggies disappeared. And as you might guess, putting a plastic bag over a mic doesn’t do wonders for its ability to transmit audio, so once the bags were a thing of the past, NFL headset communication took a giant leap forward.
As for the ability to withstand a coach spiking it in anger, Ruwe says the headset’s frame is a blend of several types of plastics. “The primary material is a glass-filled nylon suitable for aviation-use cases, which is desirable for its high strength characteristics. The headband is a spring steel metal covered by this type of material. The ear cushions are a specially formulated foam specified by Bose and covered with a protein leather material. These are designed for both comfort and to keep noise out of the earcup.”
As I write this, I’m wearing the SoundComm B30, not because I need to call out a crucial play on 4th and goal, but because I want to see if the one-eared headset is actually comfortable to wear over a long period of time.
The foam is quite soft, and the earpads do seem to passively reduce ambient sound without the headset even being turned on. That said, I’m in a climate-controlled environment, not pacing sidelines in 90-plus degree heat, in which I can imagine a Miami Dolphins or Tampa Bay head coach getting a little warm in the ear. (Maybe that’s why Bruce Arians is wearing his a smidge off-ear in the photo below?) However, the earpad, the underside of the headband, and the pad that presses against the earcup-free side of the head are all impressively secure and comfortable.
Also Important: Battery Life and Emergency Passive Mode
Believe it or not, the SoundComm B30 headset runs on two AA batteries. Because it’s usually a single-earcup design, and the headset isn’t transmitting deep bass like you might hear through headphones, the batteries tend to last quite a while, about 60 hours. Coaches get a heads-up when batteries are low—an LED flashes yellow when you’re down to six hours, and red when you have less than two hours.
That said, the headset is designed for the unexpected. If for some reason the ANC malfunctions or the batteries run out of juice, the headset can be used in passive mode. The microphone itself is passive—it’s the ANC and EQ for both the mic and the incoming audio signal that are no longer available in passive mode. So, in the absolute worst case scenario, the headset still works, but it loses the ANC and EQ special sauce that battery power makes possible.
Beyond the Headset: The Rest of the Signal Chain
Of course, Bose’s headset is only the most identifiable on-camera component of a complex, multi-tiered communications system. Each sideline has several coaches talking to each other, wirelessly and over fiber, one of whom can communicate with a player on the field via an in-helmet speaker.
There are sideline technicians who arrive four hours before kickoff to test all the gear and oversee its use during the game. (Look for them on Sunday, they’re nicknamed “yellow hats” because of the baseball caps they wear on the sidelines.)
The signal chain from a headset’s mic to another coach’s earcup, it turns out, involves plenty of gear made by several companies not named Bose—and Bose must work with all of them to ensure compatibility. We spoke with John Cave, VP of football technology solutions for the NFL, about how the system works.
Both the microphone and earcup audio are carried to and from the headset via hardwired XLR cable. This cable connects to a belt pack intercom box designed by Green-Go Digital, a Netherlands-based manufacturer that got its start in wireless theatrical lighting design and eventually created its own intercom system to work with the lighting system.
The NFL uses a customized intercom box based on that technology. Each box features programmable buttons that coaches and teams can customize by coordinating with their “yellow hat” crew at the start of the season. The coaches can press one of four buttons and hear only the offensive coordinator, while another might be the defensive coordinator, and yet another could be all of the coaches. The configurations almost never vary during the season, unless there’s a change in coaches, in which case they typically get reconfigured according to the new coach’s wishes.
“We give them these large elevated buttons that are really far apart from each other, so it’s a very tactile feel,” Cave explains, the goal being to make it easy and intuitive for a coach to switch channels without have to look at the box.
The intercom box is then connected to a radio box, also on the belt, that wirelessly transmits the audio signals to other coaches. Rajant, a Pennsylvania-based wireless communications company that has designed VoIP solutions used everywhere from the military and mining sites to amusement parks and railways, developed the radio system, a meshnet technology that’s highly configurable to the NFL’s particular needs.
Rajant’s specialty is creating wireless signals for areas where a wired signal isn’t practical or possible, such as underground mines, using “breadcrumb wireless” schemes. Of course, everything is encrypted to prevent anyone in the stands—or on the other sideline—from intercepting the signal. (The NFL now operates on its own FCC-licensed radio frequency, under contract with Rajant, in all of its stadiums.)
Finally, there’s a coach-to-player wireless speaker inside the helmet of the quarterback and one player on defense. During a game, those helmets are identifiable by a green circular sticker affixed to the back. (The player has no mic—this is one-way communication.) That speaker is designed by GSC in Wahoo, Nebraska.
The speaker starts transmitting audio to the player at the beginning of the 40-second play clock, and when the clock is down to 15 seconds (or the ball is snapped, whichever happens first), the feed is cut and the speaker goes silent. The coach then hears a digital beep telling them the in-helmet speaker feed is dead. There is actually a person controlling this audio feed and manually cutting the audio transmission during every single play clock countdown in the game.
Joost van Eenbergen, owner of Green-Go Digital, designed the coach-to-player interface, which Cave describes as very unique. Only one coach can speak to a player via the in-helmet speaker, but all of the coaches can monitor that audio feed. “Joost also built the cut-off switch,” says Cave, yet another Green-Go belt pack unit. He jokes: “Why would anyone ever have an intercom system where they wanna cut somebody off?”
So when a coach blames their headset in a post-game press conference, headset is shorthand for a complex chain of near-military-grade communication devices and technology from four distinct vendors.
2021’s Super Bowl LV is the last time this system will be in place. Next season, the FCC-licensed radio frequency contracted by Rajant exits the picture. The FCC contract actually expired in October 2020, and the league has been operating on a special extension that expires at the end of the Super Bowl.
Cave and his colleagues are currently testing out a new system, wherein LTE-based transmission replaces the Rajant breadcrumb wireless technology. A combo intercom-wireless transmitter box, designed by—you guessed it—Green-Go Digital is currently being tested in empty stadiums. Cave and his crew had been testing it out in MetLife Stadium prior to our conversation.
Prepping this system during a pandemic in empty stadiums isn’t ideal, to say the least—you need people in the stands and large offensive tackle-size bodies on the sidelines to simulate a real game. Why? Because the human body absorbs radio frequency just as it can affect, say, the acoustics of a live venue.
Cave said some of the experiments to replicate a human presence on the sidelines involved stacking multiple five-gallon buckets of water to simulate 6’5″, 315-pound players absorbing the wireless signal. And so far, he notes with optimism, the run-throughs have have been flawless.In the meantime, there are four quarters (and perhaps some OT) of championship football to get through with the current highly reliable system intact.
For more on the Big Game, see How to Steam the Super Bowl From Anywhere and The Best NFL Streaming Services.
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