TED’s Microphone Headset by Sennheiser

Mina Sabet, head of production at the illustrious conference of ideas, explains the audio upgrade

In August 2021 at TEDMonterey, the inspirational idea-powered organization introduced a brand new headset microphone developed with high-end German audio brand Sennheiser. This week, these discreet but powerful devices make their Vancouver debut, finding a place on the faces of this year’s diverse roster of speakers. This aesthetic and auditory upgrade directly corresponded to a dislike of previous iterations—notably, by Chris Anderson (the Head of TED) and Mina Sabet (TED’s director of production and video operations) who sought something better.

Courtesy of Gilberto Tadday / TED

If you’ve heard a TED talk—in person or online—in the last seven years, then Sabet and her team had a hand in it. “We are really handling everything that happens when a speaker talks on stage and we are very focused on what the theater feels like, sounds like and looks like for the attendees, in very close collaboration with the conferences team and many other teams at TED,” she explains to COOL HUNTING.

Bevy Smith speaks at SESSION 6 at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2022, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED

Her comprehensive scope does not stop there. “We are concerned about what’s happening in the room,” she continues. “We’re working with curators and speakers ahead of the conference to help craft what will work best. And then, after that, we are thinking about the edit. We’re really responsible for so much. It’s a marriage between how does it work beautifully in the theater for our attendees and how do we translate that for our audience at home. It’s a carefully crafted dance.”

Platon speaks at SESSION 1 at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2022, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

Understandably, the microphone plays an important role at TED—where it must transport crisp and clear sound immediately, and also support capture for the digital audience later. “Audio is so important to TED,” Sabet says, but so is a future-forward aesthetic that aligns with the ideas that lend a platform to. As such, “We were also thinking about how the microphone looks. Our past microphones had a real big footprint. They looked clunky. To me, they were quite distracting and I wasn’t happy with them.” Sabet and Anderson set out on a mission to find something that met all their needs.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein speaks at SESSION 5 at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2022, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

Ultimately, familiar with Sennheiser’s reputation, Sabet connected with the audio pioneer’s director of customer development, Volker Schmitt, to co-design something that looks beautiful and doesn’t distract. This led to a mechanical redesign for which Sennheiser’s engineers blended a transducer (or microphone’s “ear”) from their MKE1 clip-on lavalier with a boom arm and capsule. “After several prototypes we landed on this design,” Sabet explains. “It was a lot of back and forth and testing out. We tested it out for a year and then the pandemic hit. Everything changed and we were delayed so we just continued testing.” From testing with hosts to at in-house events, TED’s production team got a sense of weight and longevity.

Jeanette Winterson speaks at SESSION 3 at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2022, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

“We really got what we wanted,” Sabet adds. However, the style of mic led to a cascade of alterations. “We changed our PA system to accommodate these mics because we had been using a cardioid capsule which really hears the speaker on the mouth side,” Sabet says. “You position the microphone so that it’s facing the mouth. These mics, however, are omnidirectional, hence the smaller capsule. We had to set the PA up to accommodate the room noise we were now capturing. That was a challenge at first but we accomplished it.”

Bill Gates speaks at SESSION 6 at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2022, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

Of course, these mics also have to work well with various levels of speaker clarity and confidence. “There are a lot of speakers who are soft talkers, there are a lot of speakers who are nervous when they go on stage,” Sabet says. “We had to design something that made sense for the way each of these speakers sounds.” Paying close attention to TED 2022, it’s quite evident that Sennheiser was able to achieve this, as well.

Hero image courtesy of Ryan Lash / TED