It’s February in New York City, and I’m at a basement music venue in Brooklyn. I’m waiting to see Chumped, one of my favorite young punk bands, play one of their final shows. An opening act is playing pretty, slow indie music — which I’m fine with, but it feels a bit like the wrong kind of setup for the breathless set I’m expecting from Chumped. Their sound doesn’t quite fit. So I change it.
I pop in some wireless earbuds, pull out my phone, and start playing with an app. I throw an “audio filter” on and suddenly the band’s guitars sound jangly, and the music has a bit of an edge to it. The trio hasn’t changed one note of what they’re playing 40 feet in front of me. But in my ears, the experience is totally different.
This is the kind of power that Doppler Labs has hinted at since it launched a Kickstarter in 2015 for the Here Active Listening System — smart wireless earbuds that let you filter and alter the sounds of the world around you. The Here Active earbuds are what I had in my ears that night, and while they were only capable of audio filtering, they made me feel like I was wielding a superpower.
This summer, Doppler announced its next product: the Here One earbuds. They are essentially a revamped, more powerful version of the Here Active earbuds with the added ability to stream music from your phone. It’s the kind of product that could push Doppler’s take on “putting a computer in your ear” into the mainstream. I got a demo of the first Here One prototype last week, and that promise seems to be on track.
I only listened to a few minutes of audio streaming, but music sounded as good as you would hope considering the Here One earbuds use Bluetooth. But I was more impressed at how light and comfortable they felt. The old Here Active earbuds aren’t particularly heavy, but they feel like they lean out of your ears when compared to the new Here Ones. Doppler Labs CEO Noah Kraft says that the Here One earbuds aren’t markedly lighter, the weight is just balanced better.
The inside of the earbuds are also contoured, and the result was a very pleasant fit and seal — two things that are crucial to making earbuds, especially ones that filter outside audio, work in the first place. Earbuds are tricky as far as fit goes, so your mileage may vary. But I’ve tried a lot of truly wireless earbuds, and the Here Ones are by far the most comfortable.
On the audio filtering side, the one new thing I got to test out was the Here One’s ability to filter sound from different directions. Kraft flipped them into a mode where it was only letting in sound from directly in front of me, and then to a mode where they were only pulling in sound from behind me. (The first one makes sense as a way to amplify the voice of someone speaking to you. There’s no obvious reason for the second one yet other than to show off how versatile the earbuds’ directional mics can be — though for now, in the working version of the app, the feature is called “eavesdrop.”)
The app will also let users adjust the volume of audio from any direction with an interface that’s the equivalent of a radar chart. But the main screen of the app is where Kraft expects users to spend the most time. It’s where you’ll find volume controls for outside audio, any audio that might be playing from other apps, and whatever noise filters you might have active (like “jet engine” or “crowd”).
What I didn’t get to test is all the stuff that Doppler Labs is working on in, well, the company’s lab. As Wired revealed last week, Doppler has a working version of a real-time translation feature for Here One — though Kraft says it will be a long while before something like that rolls out to the consumer product. A more near-term feature is the app will have the ability to smartly suggest audio filters, meaning the Here One earbuds will notice things like a siren or a baby crying and prompt the user to instantly filter them out.
Kraft sees smart features like these as a major selling point for Here One, something a level beyond just the basic audio capabilities. Allow the phone app to access your location and the earbuds could automatically switch into a “restaurant mode” filter when you walk in to your favorite dinner spot. It’s the kind of feature that sounds ripe for integrations with other companies, services, and maybe even ad providers, and Kraft admitted that some of that is already in the works. “We have a lot of partners that we haven’t announced, so you’re digging in the right direction,” he said. “This should be a completely immersive system that’s obviously much more than a headphone.”
Doppler always focused on the smaller details when it talked about what the Here Active earbuds were capable of. Snare drum too loud? Turn that frequency down in the app. Can’t hear the singer? Turn that frequency up. The app and those earbuds were absolutely capable of performing these more granular tweaks, though — like Liz Lopatto, the Verge’s science editor, who tested them this summer at Coachella — I’ve found them to be less impactful at much bigger shows.
But it was going that extra step that night in Brooklyn that still sort of gives me the chills. With little to no effort, I manipulated a band’s entire raison d'être, and they had no idea. I’ve been asking myself how I should feel about that ever since, and I still don’t know that I have an answer. Do I really want to be manipulating my environment all of time, just because I don’t like what I’m hearing?
In some ways, the Here Ones seem like exactly the kind of wireless earbuds I’ve been waiting for. They’ll stream audio, but they won’t completely disconnect me from the outside world. They also offer direct control over that outside audio, a feature I found myself wishing for when I tested out the Bragi Dash earbuds.
That said, the Here One earbuds are going to be much more powerful than their predecessors. They’re going to allow users to filter and change the audio around them for hours at a time. And with them, Doppler is building the foundation for a smart hearing platform that sends us down the path toward putting legitimate AI in our ears. Making that kind of technology available raises a lot of questions. And while it might seem far off, it’s time to start thinking about the answers — Here One starts shipping next month, and will be widely available in early 2017.