Under the Radar

Dan Wiggins & Periodic Audio: All About the Sound

Periodic Audio is a startup headphone manufacturer with a clear mission to make in-ear monitors that sound great to the engineers that designed them. They've made that audio quality their priority and created three models (the Mg, the Ti and the Be) that sound amazing at their respective prices. They've left a few things out of the equation to deliver their vision: a microphone, in-line controls, elaborate branding and flashy build quality.

Periodic Monitors are designed for listening to music. Period. If you're looking for the best sound for your money, these definitely should be on your list. One of the most impressive things about these monitors is that Periodic doesn't want to sell everyone a pair. They designed their products for a specific audience and made some interesting design choices to deliver their vision at a relatively affordable price.

Dan Wiggins shows up the Periodic Audio line at CanJam 2017 in Los Angeles.

Designer & Engineer Dan Wiggins

Founder Dan Wiggins got his start as a military contractor and the lessons he learned when he designed sonar systems have informed his later success as an audio . He talked with us about his career.

How did you get into audio?

When I went into college I wanted to go into electrical engineering.  That kind of was the good catch-all, engineering, at the time.  My opportunities where I was living in Seattle were pretty limited in terms of engineering schools, so I went to an electrical engineering school, Seattle Pacifc University.  While I was there I got an opportunity to do an internship at a company called Sundstrand Data Control. They were a subsidiary of Sundstrand Corporation and they did a lot of military work and a lot of defense contracting.

I got to work on pocket voice recorders and light data recorders, the airplane black boxes. I was building products that only got used when somebody died.  But that led to a chance to work on some military versions of that for Black Hawks and UA64s, which was really kind of fun. My my first, big introduction into the military world was all about how you have to overbuild and overdesign everything for an extreme case use.

Then I got an opportunity to do something really creative. I was working on the Mark 48/Mark 50 torpedoes. Sundstrand was doing test engines and control systems for those torpedo systems and they wanted to move into the sonar control end of it. The company built a group that optimized the position of all these sonar elements and the ceramic individual elements on the front of an array. I wrote a genetic algorithm, a piece of software, that automated the placement of those. This was back in the mid-80's. And it ran for about three days, came out with a really good solution.

On the strength of that solution, they offered me a job after I graduated. So I stuck with them for a few years and actually built a lot of torpedo systems and flight analyzers. I also did some vocoders and some float mic work, which was kind of cool.

I spent a good four or five years in the defense industry early on. I wasn’t a soldier, but I spent a massive amount of time on military bases around the world as a result. Checking things out, helping make sure the equipment that we built worked as it was suppose to and would accomplish the goals of what was needed and would survive. That was a lot of fun.

You've designed a high-end audio product that doesn't include all the "luxury" trappings that most manufacturers want customers to notice.

I'm also not a guy who is afraid of what the market is doing and how I'm going opposite.  In fact, I relish going the other direction.  A lot of people -- you know the whole crowd is running one way, likes their Bluetooth, so everybody has got to have a Bluetooth play.  And I'm looking at it going, you know what, I may be the guy who is not gonna worry about a Bluetooth play now.

Why? A couple of reasons. First, going Bluetooth means entering a saturated  market. If everybody else is going there, it's difficult to make yourself stand out. And #2, it's a way for me to stand out in just my general principles, the way I do things. Most audio companies would love to get into Best Buy and Target. We are not gonna let that happen. We don’t want that. Why? It's different. It attracts another group. I'm a guy who wants to stay small business. I don’t want to be a Bose, I don’t want to be a Beats.

I'm never really worried about what the market says or what people say or what the pundits and the media say you gotta do because I've never found them actually to be successful.

We didn’t even stop and do competitive analysis and who is out there at what price point. We didn’t do any of that. We just sat down and said let’s make a product for ourselves: mid-30's, mid-40's guys who love music, who work in a variety of environments, who have office jobs, who ride the subway, are not interested in high fashion and trying to make people look at me and go, oh, my god, he must be successful because he's wearing this kind of shoe. What would that guy buy?

That’s what we designed. It comes through in everything we did. I think we're being pretty successful with it. If that means that I'm only selling hundreds or a couple thousands a month instead of ten thousand units a month, so be it. That leaves more freedom and creativity for me. I have the ability to go out and invent new things that might only be attractive to hundreds of people a month, which is a lot more freedom than when you're trying to work for a company like Apple, where if it's not attractive to millions a month, you can't do it. So it gives me the freedom to avoid the commonality that comes with trying to please the masses.

The Headphones

The Mg (Magnesium) model retails for $99, the Ti (Titanium) for $199 and the Be (Beryllium) for $299. One of the first things you notice about the three models is their identical "good enough" build quality. Each pair is exactly the same except for the drivers and the color of each model's endcap. That creates a cost savings that has allowed Periodic to design monitors that seem lightweight and perfectly balanced when you're wearing them. They're by far the most comfortable in-ears I've ever tried.

What they're not is "rugged" or "sturdy" or "IPXwhatever." Don't wear them to the gym or on the trail. They're more than adequate for daily use but they're not designed to take a beating. They also don't look blingy or luxurious or like they're gunning for design awards. No one's going to see you wearing them in a coffee shop or at your desk and comment on how cool they look. Take that as either a plus or a minus.

More frustrating for some users might be the lack of a microphone and in-line controls. Designing and manufacturing good ones would have certainly added to the cost and could have distracted from the company's emphasis on audio quality. If a call comes in while they're plugged into your phone, you'll have to learn to take them out to accept a call. You'll either adapt or that will drive you crazy.

Buyers who care about audio quality also care about getting the correct left and right stereo imaging on their music. Periodic hasn't offered a good solution here: one of the grilles is red, something that's hard to see inside the tips if you're using them in poor light. The fact that the two earpieces are identical certainly saved money on molds and manufacturing costs but it would be nice if they had an easy-to-read L/R marking.

Each model comes with an identical round screw-top metal can of the smokeless tobacco variety. It's sturdy enough to protect your earphones in a pocket or a bag. It's another one of those design choices: the can is going to get the job done and allow the engineers to spend more on the drivers.

You get small, medium and large sizes of silicone, double flange and foam tips to customize your fit. If you're still using the old gear, there's an adapter for a 1/4" audio jack. If you're still flying airlines with old airplanes, there's an old-school airline adapter.



All three models share the same basic design. The polycarbonate shells are incredibly light and the metal ends create a counterbalance that relieves pressure on the ear. This really works! If they were wireless, I'd forget I was wearing them. The headphones have dual ports, one on the top near the metal cap and one on the bottom near the earpiece nozzle. Periodic says it reduces diaphragm motion and that design certainly contributes to a sense of presence and space even at low volume. They've also including extra-large transducer magnets, something that allows the headphones to require less power from an audio source, which in turn lowers the distortion.

OK, so what's the difference?

All three offer the same exceptional comfort. For $99, the Mg model offers excellent sound that's competitive with anything in the under $150 price range. The $199 Ti version is a considerable step up. The Titanium drivers offer a level of detail you don't often hear in in-ear monitors, an improvement that makes the audio from the Mg (and almost all other in-ears) sound like a solid block of sound.

The real story here is the $299 Be model. They're spectacular, offering a sound that's competitive with almost any reasonably priced over-ear, on-ear or in-ear headphones. Beryllium is the same mineral used to manufacture the drivers for Focal's (insane) $4000 Utopia headphones.

(Sidebar: I've always been someone who fervently believes that, once you spend more than $500 on a pair of headphones, you're probably just imagining the improvements. The Utopias really do sound like they should cost $4K. Depending on your bank balance, they're either shockingly or depressingly good.)

Paying $300 for a pair of headphones that don't include a microphone or in-line controls or a fancy carrying case might sound crazy to you. If that's the case, don't worry, the Periodic Audio Be headphones aren't for you. They may be simple, but they're incredibly well-made and offer a 5-year warranty against manufacturing defects. If you aspire to high-end audio on a limited budget, the Be headphones are an incredible bargain.


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