My colleagues have been enthusing about the golden opportunities presented by wireless earbuds for a while now, although for such a conceptually simple product, their development seems to be forever delayed. At this year’s IFA, though, I got my hands on what seems like the category’s best hope: the Bragi Dash. After my time playing around with the Dash I’m convinced that wireless earbuds are definitely a viable technology, but I’m skeptical that the device of people's dreams will be delivered any time soon.
The Dash, theoretically, is a pair of noise-canceling, touch-controlled earbuds that double up as a fitness tracker, with internal sensors measuring everything from distance traveled and steps taken to the wearer's pulse. They also function as a Bluetooth headset and have their own 4GB of internal memory, meaning you can leave your phone at home if you go for a run. They were originally funded by nearly 16,000 Kickstarter backers to the tune of $3.4 million, but have since missed successive shipment dates, with their promised arrival pushed back from November of last year to sometime this August. And, they've been delayed again.
Bragi’s Marijo Sarac tells me that the company is now hoping to deliver the Dash Beta 3 (the pair I tried out was the Beta 2) to backers who chose the developer option on Kickstarter in "the next couple of weeks," with the final product supposed to ship some time soon after that. After the product's repeated delays and seeing the current state of the Dash, I have strong doubts about this time frame, but this skepticism didn't dim my enthusiasm for the product itself. Even in a half-finished state I could see its appeal.
Once you’ve fitted the Dash buds snugly in your ears you tap them to start playing audio. Tapping and swiping on the right earpiece controls your music, while the left is dedicated to activity tracking. Tap once on the right bud to play whatever's up first in the internal memory, tap twice to cycle through playlists, and swipe up and down for volume, or left and right to skip tracks. It’s simple enough to remember, but the system has a few drawbacks. For a start, if you tap the Dash too hard and push the buds deeper inside your ear canal, the action can be a little painful and sounds ugly — try tapping on your ear canal now to see what I mean. Secondly, the gesture commands themselves aren't that precise, which leads to more insistent taps and more ear pain. By the end of my brief session with the Dash I was getting better at controlling it, but for this to be a truly "intuitive" product, as its makers claim, there needs to be some improvement here.
On the positive side, you can just stream music to the Dash directly from your phone or tablet via a Bluetooth connection, and Bragi says it's going to implement motion controls using the Dash’s accelerometers. In the future, says Sarac, users will be able to activate the Dash’s fitness tracking mode simply by jumping up and down on the spot, or receive a spoken weather report by looking up into the sky. There will also, he says, be the option to program your own movement macros using the Dash’s app, though at the moment, the only working motion control is that the Dash automatically pauses music when one earbud is removed. It's a convenient feature, but more are needed.
The earbuds themselves are fairly anonymous pieces of plastic, with gently pulsing LEDs that let you know that they're turned on. They're charged in a rechargeable carry case which can top up the batteries multiple times — a much needed option, as a full battery for the Dash only lasts 3 hours. The buds also offer a noise-cancelation feature as well as the option to feed through audio from your immediate environment using external microphones, which are toggled by swiping forward on the left earbud.
Testing these earphones outside near a sound system, the noise-canceling wasn’t the best I’ve heard, although this might have been because the buds I had weren’t quite the right size for me (the retail version will come with sleeves to fit 97 percent of ears, says Sarac). The audio passthrough, though, was incredibly good, allowing me to listen to music and hold a perfectly legible conversation while the thumps of the nearby speakers were dimmed to a background pulse. This mode would be fantastic for anyone who likes to listen to music while they bike, allowing them to stay aware of their surroundings. The audio quality was impressive too, with both classical and rock music sounding equally rich and full on the little buds — although that's to be expected from a product that will cost around $299 when it finally goes on sale.
both the sound quality and audio passthrough were impressive
Overall, though, my verdict on the Dashes — like the product itself — has to be delayed. I’m now sold on the idea of wireless earbuds, especially those that turn on automatically when you put them in, that allow you to easily skip through favorite playlists, that track your runs and even give you live feedback on how far you’ve gone with a nod of your head. But this is the dream of the product and not the thing itself. What I tried were some good quality wireless earbuds with touch controls. We still haven’t really seen what the Dash can, or cannot, do.