We tend not to notice how sound affects the way we perceive the world. Here in New York City, my day is filled with screeching brakes, truck pistons, sidewalk chatter, and the dull drone of window air conditioners. And when I go to a concert, the volume, mix, and quality of the sound can subconsciously affect how much I actually enjoy the evening. Noah Kraft, CEO and co-founder of Doppler Labs, thinks about these issues a lot, and he believes his company can improve our lives with what he calls "hearables." Ask Kraft what the goal of Doppler is, and he says, "we want to put a computer, speaker, and mic in everyone's ear."
That's precisely the idea behind Doppler's Here Active Listening System. Here is a pair of small battery-powered buds (I suppose you could call them Here buds) with a microphone, a speaker, and a near-zero-latency digital sound processor (DSP) designed to alter, in real time, the way we hear the world.
Here is not a hearing aid, it's not a Bluetooth headset
Kraft is adamant about what Here is not. It isn't a hearing aid, it isn't a Bluetooth headset, and it isn't a sound recorder. The primary goal of the system is to enhance the sound of live performances, custom tailored to the listener's own preferences and perspective. It's a niche product aimed at audiophiles who really care about the way things sound.
Here aims to enhance live audio in three ways. First, there's a simple volume control. The microphones take input from the world, and Here either attenuates or amplifies the overall volume. Second, Here can apply a suite of equalizer effects to emphasize or suppress certain frequencies in the sound spectrum. The system will also target specific frequencies with anti-noise to further suppress, say, the frequencies of a baby crying, or an overactive hi-hat cymbal in a live mix. Lastly, Here also comes with a set of effects like flange, reverb, delay, fuzz, and bitcrusher to further mess with the world around you.
You control all of this through a smartphone app, which sends your settings to the buds via Bluetooth. However, all the processing occurs in the buds themselves; the app is simply a remote control for Here.
I tried a prototype of the system, and I have to say it's a pretty intense experience, if a bit unpolished at the moment. The effects certainly work; removing high frequencies in the room we were in de-emphasized the whir of the air conditioning, and adding bass to a roving banjo in the Doppler office beefed up the sound. These changes would certainly be useful at a concert if the mix is sloppy.
The sensation of quickly turning on cavernous reverb during a conversation is trippy and fun, even if it does amount to what's ultimately a gimmick. I could see some subtle effects being useful in a small jazz club, to add ambience to a dead room, but I can't see myself applying fuzz or bitcrusher to any live performance at all.
One interesting thing about Here is that it somehow preserves the directionality of sound. The buds are close enough to the inside of the ear that you can still pick up front / back and left / right differences. It is difficult to have a conversation while wearing them, however, since they fall victim to the occlusion effect, where your own voice resonates through your skull. Here is specifically designed for concertgoers, not conversationalists.
The low latency of the buds is impressive, too — there was absolutely no lag in the sound coming to my ears. There are some issues with the early prototypes I tried, though. There's a thin layer of grainy noise underneath everything, like a bad cable running to an overdriven guitar amp. The pair I tried also had trouble with high-volume input, and they'd clip and distort anything above a normal spoken level. I would chalk these problems up to very early hardware; Here is still over six months away from shipping.
The problem I'm most concerned about, however, is the seal between the buds and my ear. Even though the final version will come with three rubber tip sizes, I found it very difficult to get a good seal. This is important, because in order for things like overall volume control to work, Here needs to be able to work in complete isolation from the outside world. I tried on models of the retail versions, and I still felt like there was a lot of sound leaking in, either around or through the rubber.
If these complaints seem picky, that's because they are
If these complaints seem picky, that's because they are — and they should be for this type of product. Here is certainly a niche product, but that's by design. The goal is to develop a product for true audiophiles who will act as ambassadors for in-ear wearables. This was the strategy with Doppler's first product, Dubs, which were simple earplugs aimed at music fans. Dubs were a gateway product for the company, and Here is the next step in a slow progression toward bionic ears.
That's not to say Here hasn't seen much interest. Doppler launched the product on Kickstarter, and the campaign raised over $635,000 — more than double its goal. The company also received $17 million in series B funding just this week. Doppler is playing a slow and steady game, and hopefully that funding and cautious pace will help it succeed. Here will retail for $250 when it eventually comes to market, and Kraft indicates that it's a fairly low-margin product. The company's goal right now is simply to get Here into as many influential ears as possible and start a conversation about in-ear wearables.
I'm excited to see where Here goes. Nothing else I've seen is attempting anything this ambitious, even if it is for a niche audience. The prototype is promising, and the final product is still about six months away. The idea of having a computer in your ear is extremely compelling, and I'm looking forward to the possibilities it opens up. If Here succeeds, we could see live performances specifically designed to interact with in-ear processing, or downloadable sound profiles for live venues. And if Doppler continues to build in-ear systems, we may someday have tiny virtual assistants in our ears, or real-time translation piped into our heads. But for now, I'll be satisfied turning up the bass at the next concert I go to.