When we last checked in with Doppler Labs' Here Active Listening System earbuds, they were a promising prototype, one that had the potential to change the way people digest live music and the world of sound around them. The young audio company has a presence at this year's CES festivities, and it's showing off an updated (and improved) version of the earbuds and software that impressed us so much.
The core appeal of Here hasn't changed: it's a set of in-ear processors (like a tiny computer within a wireless earbud) that can selectively transform the sound you hear in almost real time. The buds haven't physically changed much since July, either: they're a little glossier, but they're still lightweight and unobtrusive. I didn't have much of a problem achieving a decent seal, a good sign given that was one of the older version's biggest potential problems.
I hadn't tried any in-ear processors before donning a Here set tonight, and I found myself surprised by their power and versatility. My demo from CEO and co-founder Noah Kraft started with basic volume adjustments from the attached app, but he quickly moved on to adjusting select frequencies that completely transformed the crowded CES show floor. At one point in our conversation, he blocked out all of the background crowd noise in such a way that I could hear him speak perfectly clearly a few feet away from me; it was borderline disorienting. This is a feature Here's improved in the months since we last saw the product. As Kraft put it, it's perfect for enclosed settings like planes where one crying baby can ruin your trip — if you find the right setting, the wailing might as well not exist.
Doppler also includes a variety of presets that attempt to duplicate the aural atmosphere of famous musical locations around the world. Kraft pressed a button and popped me into the hushed, reverb-rich world of Carnegie Hall, and I could've been transported to the EDM paradise of Coachella's Sahara Tent a minute later. There was a slight lag between Kraft's manipulation and the effect within the earbuds, but the effect itself was immediately palpable, even in a sub-optimal audio environment.
Doppler eventually wants Here to use machine learning
The company is getting ready to ship its first batch of earbuds, but they won't be available to the public just set. A select group of Kickstarter backers, musical professionals (like Quincy Jones and Tiësto), and VIPs will use the earbuds in what's basically a semi-private beta: their use will help further develop the device's algorithm and refine its physical characteristics. Doppler is on track to achieve public availability by the end of 2016, and Kraft confirmed the device won't cost more than $300, a small increase from the $250 quoted in July. As the platform develops, Doppler's hoping it can replace some of the app's functionality with machine learning. Imagine a set of earbuds that notices you take the subway to work every morning and learns to block out squealing wheels and loud commuters. That's the company's goal for Here; they have some work to do to get there, but the existing product's pretty impressive.