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AboutI'm Ben Hallert, and sometimes I do something interesting.  Is this one of them?
Audio Sombrero

› The Audio Sombrero

pen.gif The Audio Sombrero idea came about around 2001-2002.  While working to ship a big project, some co-workers and I were recovering from an in-house corporate dinner and began expounding on the limitations of portable audio.  I have no idea how the conversation drifted there, but we ended up talking about how stereo, while good, was just too limiting.  We all had our DVD theater setups at home, and surround sound had our attention.

While home theaters had made huge advancements, portable audio was just too limiting.  The new 'iPod' thing seemed to be the wave of the future, and it seemed like a natural leap to go from stereo digital music to full 5.1 surround sound.

But how to enjoy it?

We threw some ideas around:

After careful consideration, we decided that the actual answer was the Audio Sombrero.


untitled.gif When examined logically, it just makes sense.  The Sombrero has a stiff brim, curled at the edge for strength so you can hang a lot of weight from it.  This curl has the added benefit of created a 'protected area' for your digital audio player to live.  With speakers arrayed around the head and facing inwards, you could enjoy the wonders of surround sound without the bulky limitations of carrying around a Radio Flyer wagon with a pile of heavy home theater equipment, up until now the only alternative.

We threw the idea around, then eventually headed back to work.  The product shipped, time passed, our careers moved in different directions, and gradually, the Audio Sombrero faded into history.

Fast forward to 2006.  While working on one of my many projects of questionable relevance, I remembered that distant coversation and began to wonder whether I should just do it for fun.  During a trip to LA at the end of April, I spoke with a friend about the idea, and as I described it, I became more and more enthusiastic. 

Back in Oregon, I began, as the months passed, to plot.  Gradually, I put together a list of materials I'd need.  In depth, and with great ceremony, I drew up the following detailed notes on a piece of paper, transcribed for the sake of history:

"Need: sombrero, speakers.  Have glue.  One night to build?"

With the project documentation above in hand, I was ready. 

› Obstacle the first

A Sombrero is not as easy to find in Eugene, OR as you might imagine.  I visited various stores locally that specialize in mexican foodstuff/products.  I'd walk in and apologetically ask if they had Sombreros for sale.  It was weird, I was uncomfortable asking, as if I was going to offend them.  Each time, the answer was no.  Some of them had extensive hat collections, but they were mostly cowboy hats.  The cowboy hat, I discovered during this project, is the modern descendent of the Sombrero.  Oh.

One of the shops suggested I check a costume place.  I called around.  Apparently, the Sombrero isn't the kind of thing most of the local shops stock.

I turned to the Internet.  Froogle.google.com had a number of Sombreros available, but they either didn't have pictures or the prices were too high.  "sombrero for sale" and "sombrero dollars" didn't give me what I wanted either.  "paris hilton sombrero" didn't either, not sure why I thought it would.

Finally, it was time to check eBay.  Surprisingly, eBay's selection in Sombrero and Sombrero related merchandise was very complete.  Sombrero ashtrays, Sombrero patches for leather jackets, Videos for sale of people wearing Sombreros, they had it all.  Most importantly, they had actual Sombreros.  Some of the vintage 100 year old one were nice to look at, but I was thinking that modifying a family heirloom in the manner I intended would be quite right.  There were straw sombreros, something I didn't even know existed, but it wasn't what I was looking for.  After a bit of searching, I found The Auction.  For about $25 shipped, I had a fine felt sombrero with sequins and decorative rope braids delivered to my door.

Item one, check.

Next, I began collecting speakers.  A visit to the dollar store got me a tiny while stereo speaker intended for MP3 or CD players.  Cost, $1.  Sadly, it was their last one, so I couldn't use these tiny units for all of my audio needs.  At home, I found a nice looking pair of unamplified Sony speakers that were perfect, but I was still missing a center channel to go in front.  Perhaps this is a good moment to discuss the missing channel.
› No subwoofer?

Early on in the project, I determined that the subwoofer just wouldn't be part of the Mark I Audio Sombrero.  I wanted to avoid having a power source on the hat, and I couldn't find a sub that was small enough.  I knew that there were some expensive sony headphones with an inducer that would rest on the back of the wearers neck, but it just didn't seem practical.  Back in 2001, we had talked about mounting the subwoofer in the center of the hat, but cheap portable woofer technology just hadn't gotten to where I needed it by February, 2007.

Obstacle the second

I told my wife what I was looking for, and she did her best to help.  She found some promising looking speakers at 'Big Lots', but when she got home, we realized they were amplified and needed a DC adapter.  

A trip to Frys was in order.  Frys is a great and terrible place to shop.  It's the kind of place where you go to buy a Brita water filter, then walk out the door with $600 in computer equipment and get home before realizing that you've forgotten to get the filter.

The nearest Frys is 1.5 hours from Eugene, so I drove up in the middle of February to get the parts to upgrade my computer and maybe find some more speakers.  I found a $10 pair of the exact same Sony unamplified speakers that I had in hand.  It was kismet.

Back home, I set to work.  My choice of glue was the new Polyethylene stuff from Elmers that has a Minotaur on the front.  Apparently, if you're trapped in a labyrinth as a sacrifice by your people, this is the kind of glue you need.


I propped up the hat and carefully began attaching speakers.  I used electrical tape to mechanically hold them in place while the glue dried.  Amazingly, I was succesful in avoiding drippage onto furniture, a first.  I started with the surround channels.  Once dried, it was firmly in place.  I had planned on driving a screw & washer through the brim to hold it, but the glue was very strong.

Gluing the surround channel

I then glued the stereo channels.  90 degrees opposed from the front of the hat, they aim inwards.  I braced them with tape, and after they dried, I tackled the remaining center channel.  After some soul searching, I decided to cut one of the unamplified speakers off of the stereo jack but decided to leave an inch or so of cable so that a sub channel could optionally be added at some point in the future.
Watching glue dry
I then used a razor to cut a slit near the back of the hat to run the cables through.  I threaded them through the decorative rope where possible to keep them from flopping about, then pushed the plugs through the brim so they were clustered together at the back of the hat.
The completed product

When done, I had to stop to admire the hat.  Instead of looking completely outlandish, it seemed to come together pretty well.  With all the impartiality of a parent, I modeled it in front of my bathroom mirror and decided it looked perfect. 
Me wearing the Audio Sombrero for the first time!

The Audio Sombrero is all about being suave.

The stereo speakers were mounted to the outside of the brim and consequently pointed outwards slightly, maybe 30 degrees.  The same applied to the center channel, which looked kind of like the head to a donkey.  I considered the decorative possibilities of this, then decided against doing anything that would make the hat look silly.

Initial reactions

I brought it into work and casually wore it around the office.  Nonchalantly, I'd walk through the cube farms.  People I'd pass would look up, do a double take, and then 9 times out of 10, would smile and get it.  The remaining folks asked me what it was, and when I described it, nodded thoughtfully, often before suggesting that I should make more.

The only problem...  I couldn't really try it out!  As far as I know, none of the portable audio devices support full surround sound.  The Audio Sombrero was literally ahead of its time!  I considered plugging it into the surround channels on the back of a PC, then dismissed that as far too practical.  Finally, I found a partial solution.  I had purchased a new MP3 player for my wife that had dual headphone outputs.  Whoever came up with this idea is brilliant, it can give music to two people at the same time. 

I plugged the stereo and surround channels into this and started a song.  While technically not surround sound (it was just the same stereo channels repeated in the front and back), the difference was immediate.  I know logically that I only have two ears, but I swear that I could hear the music behind me as well as around me.  Maybe the ear has more flexibility than I think it does, or I'm really good at convincing myself, but each of the people to whom I demoed it in this configuration were surprised at the audio quality.  Especially considering how poorly unamplified speakers like this traditionally work.

We discovered something else, wearing an Audio Sombrero is much more social than headphones.  With headphones, you're isolated from your surroundings.  People don't talk to you, it's hard to be in a conversation with them on because people can't tell if you can hear or gauge your involvement.  It's very anti-social.  The Audio Sombrero, on the other hand, is like the Nintendo Wii of speakers.  Other folks hear the music, but unobtrusively, and they can still talk to you like a normal person.  Well, as normal as anyone wearing a sombrero with speakers can be considered, anyhow.

Shipping it out

I did the project with one goal in mind.  Shipping it to the two folks I had formed this with after dinner all those years ago.  My intention: to send it to them out of the blue.  I wanted it to be a little bit surreal, and continuing a five year old conversation by having the hat show up at their door unexpectedly seemed like the perfect foil.  It's a gift, a little art project from a friend who wanted to do something a little different.

After I finished it, I swore some of my other LA friends to secrecy.  I sent them photos, but asked them to embargo the info until the package was there.  One thing I couldn't do, however, was avoid teasing one of the targets with messages to the effect of 'It's coming'.  I wanted to do something similar to an Apple pre-announcement campaign where, once you knew the answer, you realized that the clues were in front of you the whole time.

Jerry, my target, was agitated.  "It's Coming." I messaged him, then signed out just as he responded to the effect of "WTF?  What?  What's coming?!"

First taunt

A couple days later, I repeated the message, then clammed up.  I sent a photo of the glue and the empty plastic package from one of the speakers on my project bench with the word 'Deslumbrara' (spanish for "To be dazzled" and phoneticaly similar to Sombrero) superimposed.  The trailing "A" in the word has an accent, and I carefully edited it to be a small musical note.  I was met with a fleet of question marks from Jerry.  I could tell that he was trying to figure out whether I was being coy about something interesting or just tiresome.  Maybe a little from column A, a little from column B.

Second taunt

I shipped the hat (So long, buddy!  You are going to a better place!) to Brendon (the other target), then messaged Jerry with an extreme closeup of some of the sequins and braids and the tracking number.

Current status

3/2/07 - Out for delivery.

I received the following addition from Brendon, the recipient:
"3/6/07 - Sombrero received in Santa Monica
3/8/07 - After inspection by bomb sniffing dogs, Brendon opens the package while Jerry cowers behind the door, in case it is a bomb
Quite a nice project.  However, there are some problems in the workmanship.  Maybe you are simulating what to expect from your gang of child workers in Indonesia.  The front speaker had come loose from its adhesive, and dangles in front of the eyes (see Jerry's pictures).
Thank you, Ben.  It'll be a real conversation piece!



My goals were to do do a little bit of art, to take a casual after dinner funstorming session and make it real, and to make a couple friends think the world is just a little bit stranger than they thought it was.

Going forward...  well, I had only meant to make the one as a joke/art project, but after wearing it, now I'm thinking about the Mark II Sombrero.  Hmmm...  what features will IT have?


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