Last summer, The Verge met up with a company called Doppler Labs. Back then, CEO Noah Kraft, showed us a prototype version of Here — earbuds that could enhance and augment the sound around you. It wound up being a really impressive tech demo, even if the experience was marred by a few nagging problems.
Today, Doppler Labs is announcing that the first shipments of Here are starting to go out to the company's 2,800 Kickstarter backers. And yesterday, Kraft invited us to Doppler's office in Lower Manhattan to try out the final production version.
The Here earbuds are quite unique. You don't use them to listen to music, like you would with Bragi's Dash or the Earin earbuds. Instead, they're almost like hearing aids — except instead of using them out of necessity, the Here earbuds are meant to please audio fanatics by giving them granular control over the sound that enters their ears.
That control appears in three different ways on the Here app. First, there's a master decibel meter that lets you control the volume of nearby ambient noise. Second, there's a five-band equalizer that allows for more precise control over the strength of each frequency of the sound you're hearing.
Here can turn down the noise of a crowd, or turn up the bass
The last option for control is filters (or profiles) for different situations, which the Doppler team have built out in advance so that you don't have to spend time fiddling with the equalizer. Riding on a bus? Just tap the "Bus" profile to drown out the low frequency hum. Walking around in a city? Tap the "City" or "Crowd" filters to tune out the murmurs and shouts. (There are also some crazier effects like "Echo" and "Fuzz.")
I've only been using Here for a little less than a day, but I can already say that the biggest problems we had with the prototype unit have been resolved. There's no more underlying hiss, the rubber earbuds create a much better seal, and the problematic occlusion effect — where you hear your own voice resonating inside your skull — has been mitigated.
That last one's important. If you're using Here in any setting where you'd want to maintain a conversation with someone else, the occlusion effect would make it really difficult. But I had the opposite experience. From the time I popped the earbuds in for the demo to when I was leaving the Verge office at the end of the day, I was able to hold conversations while using Here. Better yet, there were times where the audio sounded so good (and there was so little latency) that I had difficulty believing I was still listening to the outside world through a pair of earbuds.
The hardware is also better now, too. The earbuds have been trimmed by a few millimeters, which makes them a bit lighter and helps them fit. The carrying case has been polished up, too. It easily fits in a pocket and will charge the Here buds when you're not using them.
The hardware and software are much better than last year
Kraft says it's really all about the software, and promises that Here (and future Doppler products) will get better instead of worse over time. Doppler is already rolling out software and firmware updates to both the Here buds and the app, including things like venue-specific audio profiles (there's already a "Carnegie Hall" filter in the app).
A big test of that will be an upcoming partnership with Coachella. Doppler struck a deal with the music festival to let attendees skip the 30,000-person preorder waiting list and purchase a pair of Here buds. In return, Here-equipped Coachella-goers will be able to pop in the smart earbuds and use audio filters that have been tuned to the acoustics of each stage.
"So you could imagine you go to the Sahara Tent, you say 'I'm in the middle of the Sahara Tent,' and we'll actually have a filter for that that's perfect," Kraft says. With time and the involvement of artists, this idea could go even deeper. Kraft imagines working with artists that would want to fine tune the filters for the stages they're playing, adding things like reverb or echo. "The idea is that you can curate it for anything you want," Kraft says. "It's just basically algorithms in the back end."
This is where the power of a device like Here starts to make a little more sense. The smarter Doppler gets at creating these algorithms, and the better the company gets at using the other information you allow it to access on your phone (like GPS), the more interesting the product gets. When you show up for a flight at an airport, the Here app could automatically suggest you switch to that profile. If you always set it to office mode at a certain location, the earbuds could start suggesting that filter when you arrive.
Kraft's ideas for Here go even farther than that, and they start to sound almost sinister. "I sometimes sit here with [the decibel setting at] +6 with just the door open and eavesdrop on the office, it's kind of amazing," Kraft jokes. "You can hear, like, the little conversations that you're not supposed to hear."
The Here earbuds seem ready to tackle these everyday situations, but Kraft says they're meant for more aggressive settings like live concerts, or the hustle and bustle of a big city. With a little more time, we plan to put that to the test.
Here earbuds: Changing how you hear the world