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Just hot air?​ Ian Brown takes Dyson’s $500 hair dryer for a spin

Dyson made a name for itself in the vacuum business and is now focusing its attention – and $100-million of research funding – on capturing part of the beauty market with its Supersonic hair dryer. Ian Brown took it for a test-dry at a Toronto salon.

Dyson made a name for itself in the vacuum business and is now focusing its attention – and $100-million of research funding – on capturing part of the beauty market with its Supersonic hair dryer. Ian Brown took it for a test-dry at a Toronto salon.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Just hot air?

Everyone from bloggers to Globe Style's own beauty editor has weighed in on Dyson's new $500 hair dryer. Now, it's Ian Brown's turn to decide whether it blows past the competition

Nnnnhhhhh sooooooo goooooood nnnnnhhhhh. The second thing I notice about Chanel, a hairdresser at Studio 67 in the downtown pineal gland of metrosexual Toronto, where the stylists have been trying out the new $500 hand-held Dyson Supersonic hair dryer for three weeks, is that she is seven months pregnant. The first is her gentleness as she sluices my not-abundant hair with hot water in a sink at the back of the salon. Chanel's touch is so soft yet assured it feels as if she might be rearranging the molecular structure of my brain. Nnnnnhhhhh.

As Chanel rinses, she talks about the Supersonic, the latest flare to light up the $83.5-billion (U.S.) global hair care industry (larger than the GDP of Cuba, Sudan or Guatemala). What billionaire Sir James Dyson, the master designer, inventor and so-called saviour of British industry (at least until he began to move his manufacturing facilities to Malaysia), did for the vacuum cleaner he may do all over again for that telling artifact of human vanity, the hair dryer.

Because the Dyson Supersonic has a tiny 13-blade turbine motor, Chanel says, the entire whining contraption runs "an octave higher" than a traditional dryer (which has an 11-blade motor), and therefore slightly quieter. Although not what one would think of as $500 quieter.

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"The funny thing about the hair dryer is," she says, gently towelling water from my hair before fluffing it shiny and dry with the Dyson wand, "they sound like vacuum cleaners."


Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

To understand how a genius designer and entrepreneur can in good conscience ask people (mostly women) to spend $499.99 for a hair dryer when it's possible to buy one for $12.99, you have to face a central fact uncovered by Dyson's designers (and others) in the course of four years of research into human hair: 75.5 per cent of all women in the U.S., and 92 per cent of women in damp Britain (Chanel pegs the number at 98 per cent of her customers in Toronto) use a hair dryer on a regular – or even daily – basis. A standard blow dry averages 20 minutes a session. Styling often adds another 20. If you blow dry your hair five days a week, that's three and a half days a year (eight months in a lifetime) blasting your head with hot air while you contemplate all you have to get done in the next eight hours.

One less obvious crux of the Supersonic's much-vaunted appeal – there are already YouTube channels, Instagram accounts and celebrity hairdressers touting and boosting the gizmo – is that it may reduce that time spent blowing in the wind, while avoiding the scorched and damaged hair blow dryers are famous for.

Then there is the Supersonic's radically redesigned look. On Amazon.ca alone, Canadians have 816 hair dryer models to choose from: Every one resembles a futuristic ant's head, an aggressive alien to be held at arm's-length while its owner attempts to channel its writhing force to human ends.

The slim, vertically oriented Supersonic, on the other hand – a small cylinder on top of a slim baton – resembles nothing so much as a sceptre, the mark of a true queen. That might be intentional.

Having invented, reinvented and redesigned 58 products, including the ballbarrow (his first creation, in which he replaced the front wheel of a wheelbarrow with a non-sinking ball), the vacuum cleaner (the Dyson Dual Cyclone bagless sucker), the air-multiplying fan, and even the hand dryer (the Dyson Airblade, which costs $1,500 and squeegees hands dry with a line of air and, some researchers insist, spreads more germs than paper towel, a claim the company contests) – having done all that, Sir James Dyson, now 69, is keen to reshape and resell increasingly personal technology.

The launch of the Supersonic also marks the public emergence of Dyson's 46-year-old son and inheritor, Jake, who recently rejoined the company after founding his own successful lighting company. The Dyson hair dryer is the first of a hundred new products the company plans to release in the next four years (rumours persist it is working on a driverless car), the fruit of £1.5-billion invested across four completely new portfolios.

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And why not? According to Forbes, the private company is worth $4.8-billion (U.S.), and netted $340-million profit (U.S.) on sales of $2.4-billion (U.S.) in 2015. The old man has been called "the Steve Jobs of suction." He's personally worth £5-billion.

Redesigning the ubiquitous hair dryer was both easier and harder than Dyson engineers anticipated. Easier, because the technology hasn't changed fundamentally in nearly a century; harder, because we still don't fully understand the mysteries of hair.

The first commercial hair dryer was invented by a French stylist, Alexander F. Godefroy of Paris, in 1890: It consisted of a frightening metal bonnet bolted to a chimney attached to a gas stove. The closest thing to a hand-held dryer at the time was two stoneware Thermicon bottles filled with hot water, between which one drew one's damp locks. That took a while.

The first commercial hand-held hairdryer had appeared by 1915. It weighed two pounds, and employed the technology that still powers hair dryers today: coils of metal or ceramic were heated electrically, while a motor and fan blew air over them. Overheating and electrocution were common, though not as common as hair being sucked into a hair dryer's intake vents is today. The first hair dryers produced 100 watts of energy; today's dryers are 20 times as powerful. Plastic made them lighter but more breakable (a persistent problem, though Dyson has published videos of the Supersonic – just think about that name, and all the Jetson goodness it promises! – being whacked around like a baseball bat). By the late 1950s, the bonnet dryer (hilarious inflatable elasticized bag placed over the head and attached to a blower for two hours) and its more industrial commercial cousin, the salon hood dryer, were standard fare.

Dyson's innovations in the Supersonic are based, the company claims, on four years and $100-million worth of intensive research into hair and the science and ergonomics of drying it, all conducted at a lab built for the purpose at its sprawling campus in the town of Malmesbury, in England's comfy Cotswold Mountains. (Aethelstan, one of England's first kings, is buried nearby, though he is not known to have ever used a hair dryer.) Dyson attacked the research and design problem with his usual obsessive-compulsive zeal: 103 engineers were pressed into testing the effects of wetting and drying more than a 1,000 miles of hair samples, in the process "learning all about hair," as one of the company's engineers says in a video. Sucking dirt from a carpet turned out to be a breeze next to the challenge of making human hair look its best. Where British women wanted volume, the Japanese prized straightness, while many women of colour wanted curl removed. The team produced 600 protoypes, and have more than a 100 patents pending – 16 alone for the Supersonic's groovy snap-on magnetic attachments (smoothing nozzle, styling concentrator, diffuser for curly hair.

What the Dyson scientists discovered was – are you sitting down? – heat enables styling, but also damages hair. Yes! The very idea of scorching one's flowing locks with a heat gun on steroids is flawed. Hot air burns holes in a hair's shaft: Those holes let light pass through, rather than glossily reflecting it, which is why blow-dried hair often looks flat and lifeless.

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The Supersonic attempts to solve the problem in two ways. Glass bead thermistors in the doughnut-shaped chamber of the dryer measure the temperature 20 times a second, whereupon a microprocessor automatically modulates the double-stacked heating element.

At the same time, the dryer's digital motor – specially created by 30 in-house specialists on Dyson's leafy campus – is a miniature turbine, a tiny jet engine that revolves at 115,000 rpms, or about 1,900 times a second. ("Dyson should make a vibrator," one wag wrote in the comment section of an Internet video about the Supersonic. "Then they'd have to learn all about the vagina," another replied.) Coupled to Dyson's patented air multiplier technology, the tiny titan can blow three times the air it sucks. This is key. You can keep the Supersonic's temperature hot and move the dryer further away from the hair, without diminishing its flow; or you can turn the heat down (there are four settings) and move the dryer in close for precise styling, all without losing effectiveness. And because the Supersonic motor is below, rather than above the hand, as in traditional hair dryers, it is (arguably: some stylists disagreed when I asked) more comfortable to hold.

"It's kind of like the Tesla," Chanel says, widening her hazel eyes. "The price is, oh man. But it's a step towards the future." The next big development, she predicts, will be a cordless model – the Shangri-La of every hair stylist hoping not to strangle a client.


Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Chanel is deftly blowing my hair dry as she explains these details, lightly bouncing the Supersonic's shaft of warmth here and there across my grateful skull. She seems to be blowing my hair – or at least the hair I have – forward, into a style that is part Julius Caesar, part Pierre Trudeau, part Illya Kuryakin, and part aging would-be-hairier balding dude. The entire process takes less than three minutes. As is the case with all the Supersonic blow-dries I eventually witness, the new machine seems to produce loftier, softer, glossier, healthier-looking hair – even on my head.

But $500 for a hair dryer? That's the real question for Chanel. For that money you can buy a dishwasher or 25 books or (you knew this was coming) give dozens of villagers in East Africa access to clean water for years to come. No one who uses a hair dryer, especially every day, is a stranger to the guilt that is the price of vanity – especially politically conscious working women.

"That's $200 more expensive than the most expensive hand dryers on the market," Chanel observes. (Amazon's bestseller is Revlon's RV544F, for $29.16, despite the odd review that mentions "sparking and smoking" in the handle.) "For a professional it's worth it, for sure. But I'm still trying to decide whether it's worth it for a consumer. I can't imagine someone with average coarseness and thickness of hair needing this much power." Chanel herself has textured hair inherited from her father, who is South African and Haitian, and her English-Irish mother. "I'm always trying to pull the curl out," she says, "Now, there's a need for a $500 hairdryer."

Whatever its political implications, women seem to find the Supersonic super-duper. Studio 67 has already had clients walk in and ask for Dyson blow outs. Women have been gathering round to touch and discuss it in salons across the city. "I love the handle," one client says, giving it a heft. "I love how small it is."

It occurred to me, as I reluctantly left Chanel's soothing salon, that Sir James Dyson might have dedicated $100-million and 130 British engineers to creating something a little more socially useful than a hair dryer. (He is often accused by media and others of solving invented problems.) But if the speedy Supersonic gives women back even two days a year from having to relentlessly groom their hair, maybe that has already happened. Liberation can arrive in unexpected packages.

With files from Anya Georgijevic.

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