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Here One review: a bitter taste of the future

Augmented reality (and streaming audio) for your ears

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I haven’t lusted for a product in recent memory as much as I have for the Here One. As someone who is overly optimistic about the idea of truly wireless earbuds, and as someone who was genuinely impressed by the technology behind (and social implications of) Here Active Listening — Doppler Labs’ first pair of earbuds, which let you augment the audio around you but didn’t feature audio streaming — this seemed like the perfect product for me. Here One looked like it would fall right in that sweet spot of bleeding-edge tech that you could still use every day.
The Here One earbuds are impressive in a lot of different ways: the sound quality is the best you’ll find on truly wireless Bluetooth earbuds; the hardware design is superb; and the sound manipulation technology is robust and a taste of truly augmented reality while scratching at some fascinating social implications. If Here Active Listening was meant to be a limited run proof of concept, then Here One was Doppler’s first swing at making a product that could appeal to a wide audience. But occasionally spotty Bluetooth connections and insufficient battery life handcuff the experience, especially when you consider the $300 price tag.

Hands down, Here One sounds the best out of all the truly wireless earbuds I’ve tested. Music is more clear and dynamic than on the Bragi Headphone, which I felt was the the best-sounding pair of truly wireless earbuds until now. Here One also makes AirPods sound pedestrian, but this is also thanks to the way the earbuds create a full seal in your ear (there is a variety of rubber and foam tips included in the packaging, too). Doppler Labs is quick to boast about how many software engineers it has on staff, in part because they’re not all dedicated to the augmented reality side of things. These people know their music, and it shows.

Listening to music on Here One is like fanning out a deck of cards. You’ll discover there’s more to songs you thought you knew well. It’s not an enormous difference, like the kind you’d discover if you were listening to music through an amp or on a device with a DAC, but it’s an appreciable one.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The horn parts I’m always humming along to on Dr. John’s album Locked Down haven’t changed, and yet on Here One it sounds like the instruments occupy different spaces around me, which adds to the complexity of the music. With Here One I was able to make out the wetness of Childish Gambino’s mouth (sorry) as he sings in "Zombies," a detail I had never noticed in dozens of previous listens. The earbuds also do a good job of handling high-frequency sound, too: I heard cymbal hits and high hat taps I had never noticed in the punk rock of PUP, and that music is usually muddy as hell on Bluetooth earbuds.

Here One sounds better than Bragi's or Apple's wireless earbuds

Something I also appreciate about Here One is that the hardware and software experience is simple and slick. With a quick tap to either earbud, for instance, you can pause that music and let in the sound around you. This is called "bypass" in the Here One app — which is fantastic, by the way — because it interrupts any music or audio filters that are working in order let in a baseline audio mix.

The bypass mode is super helpful when someone starts talking to you, but also if you just generally want to pull yourself out of your music for a moment and don’t want to pluck out (and risk dropping) the earbuds. It takes a minute to work up the muscle memory of striking the touch-sensitive part in the center of the earbuds, but once you do it becomes a simple and integral part of the experience.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

I (and some of my co-workers) have written about the mechanics of Doppler Labs’ audio filter technology before. What’s impressive about it is not just what it can do, but also that the sound coming through sounds so realistic. These earbuds are taking sound waves, turning them into digital signals, turning them back into sound, and it’s not only happening faster than you can notice, but it doesn’t sound fuzzy or digital.

Better yet, the earbuds place the sound in the correct space, so if someone is speaking behind me it sounds like they’re behind me. You can close your eyes using Here One and still know where everything is.

The thing to know with the way Here One uses this technology is that, right now, what you can do with audio filters and the "Live Remix" — an equalizer in the app that lets you raise or lower specific audio frequencies of the world around you — it isn’t that much different than it was on Here Active Listening.

There are eight audio filters at launch: Airplane, City, Crowd, Noise Mask (or white noise), Office, Restaurant, and two for enhancing and isolating speech directly in front of / behind you. Each filter is an attempt to supplement (or improve) your listening abilities in typically loud situations or ones where it’s tough to discern speech.

Restaurant mode helps block out general din while still letting in the frequencies that most voices travel in, and for the most part it works. The Live Remix mode, on the other hand, lets you shut out or let in specific audio frequencies on your own, almost like a "manual mode" for the predefined audio filters. (Live Remix also has its own suite of preset adjustments like "echo," "reverb," or "flange," which provide trippy effects but aren’t as obviously useful.)

Here One is going to gain capabilities down the road, which is promising

I fell in love with using the Live Remix mode at concerts when I was trying out Here One’s predecessor, Here Active. I spent years as a concert photographer and was always on the hunt for a reliable pair of earplugs, but I always had to settle for something that dulled the sound in really broad strokes. Doppler’s tech is the kind of thing I never even thought was possible: a product that could protect my hearing while also allowing me to tweak the sound mix live in my ears.

Doppler Labs says it plans to add to Here One’s augmented listening capabilities with regular software updates over the life of the product. For example, "smart suggestions" are on the way, where the app will be able to prompt you to turn on restaurant mode because it knows you walked into a restaurant. Doppler is also working on partnerships with brands and sports teams, so someday soon you’ll be able to wear Here One at a Cleveland Cavaliers game and get commentary or stats over the real sound of the game. Doppler’s even working on real-time language translation, though that will likely never be released in time for Here One.

But the current version of Here One often feels too much like a tech demo because it the current applications are so limited. And that’s a problem that’s only made worse by some of Here One’s shortcomings — the biggest of which is battery life.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The Here One earbuds last about two hours if you use them for streaming music from your phone. That’s regardless of whether or not you’re also using audio filters, too. If you just use filters or any other outside audio augmentation, the earbuds can last about three hours.

Here One comes with a carrying case that charges the earbuds. It holds four extra charges and it takes about an hour to recharge the earbuds. The case helps mitigate the earbuds’ short battery life, but it’s far from making the experience tolerable.

The short battery life is a drag

Two hours of battery life on Here One means the device’s capability flies in the face of some of its intended use cases. Forget about using the Airplane mode for a full cross-country flight, or even during a half shift (let alone a day) at the office. Going back to how I would have loved these for shooting concerts, I think of it this way: I would want to use Here One to listen to music on the subway ride to the venue, and then just walk in and switch to an audio filtering mode during the performance. But with a two-hour battery life, there’s just no way this would be possible.

Doppler Labs CEO Noah Kraft has told me that the version of Here One that’s shipping this week is optimized to work the best as opposed to being economical when it comes to battery usage, and that this could change over time. As Doppler gets more data on how and when people are using the earbuds, Kraft argues, they could start doing things like sending less power to parts of the earbuds that you’re not using to make the earbuds last longer.

Either way, we’re still talking about small optimizations. Here One is never going to have the five- or six-hour battery life of competing devices like the Bragi Headphone or Apple’s AirPods. The bottom line on Here One’s battery life is that these can’t really be your main earbuds.

Another shortcoming is related to the microphones in each earbud. Here One is supposed to let you "put a soundtrack on your world," since you can listen to music without blocking out the noise around you. But the earbuds’ microphones are too sensitive to wind, so the soundtrack on your world idea only works if you’re walking around a city full of really gentle breezes.

The "City" filter dampens wind noise, but it is still a bother, and the earbuds’ general sensitivity to wind means that phone calls and the use of voice assistants are tricky propositions when you’re outside. Walking down the street on a bitter cold day — a situation where I'd rather dictate notes or texts — it failed me in the face of a slight breeze. I asked Siri to "remind me to buy an onion and an avocado on the way home," but was met with a note to "buy an onion in an hour" when I glanced at my phone.

Meanwhile, making calls is possible indoors, but I had to turn my head sideways while walking down the street in order to block the wind so people on the other end of the call had a fighting chance of understanding me. You're always going to have a little trouble when the microphones are all the way up in your ear — this is partly why Apple went with the bud-and-stem design of AirPods — but I was expecting Doppler to offer a slightly better cut at this problem.

The Bluetooth connection is occasionally a bother

The last problem I had with Here One is something every maker of truly wireless earbuds has struggled with: the Bluetooth connection between the earbuds and the phone. With a clear line of sight, you can walk 30–50 feet away from your phone and experience zero hiccups in the connection. But I’m six feet tall, and when my iPhone 7 was in my back pocket — especially when I was walking around outdoors — I often ran into connection dropouts.

Wireless earbud makers are really up against a wall when it comes to the physics of Bluetooth connections, at least until the standard gets upgraded. But Here One is behind the Bragi Headphone when it comes the strength of that Bluetooth connection, and both are behind Apple’s AirPods.

In the right settings, Here One makes you feel superhuman

Even in the face of these problems, the handful of use cases when Here One's tech just clicks are enough to illuminate the power of what Doppler has hit on with its take on augmented reality hearing. Because when you’re in one of those situations, Here One feels like it’s giving you an almost superhuman power. It was impossible to use Here One without thinking about all sorts of fascinating sociological questions about where, when, how, and why people might want to use a product like this.

To wit: Here One might help you hear your friend or family member better in a restaurant, but will it complicate the conversation because you have a piece of tech in your ears? Wearing the earbuds at a concert might let you compensate for a lousy-sounding venue, but when you start adding on your own effects, aren’t you then playing with the integrity of the experience? Should a line be drawn between turning down the frequency where the snare drum lives and adding on a filter like "flange," which can essentially change the band’s genre?

These are all questions I was starting to think about after using Here Active, and I was dying to see if I could start to form answers with Here One. Unfortunately, its limits got in the way.

There are some other, more subtle issues I noticed with Here One. When I used certain audio filters like the directional "speech enhancement," my own voice in the mix didn’t totally sync up with how fast I was talking. These are things I absolutely have faith in Doppler Labs to iron out as things move forward, though.

Battery life and Bluetooth, on the other hand, feel like deal breakers for anyone who wants to use Here One a lot. These earbuds are capable of doing a few fascinating things, and they’re part of a new wave of augmented reality products that are going to make us ask some really tricky questions.

I was hoping Here One would be my first real taste of that future we see in sci-fi books and movies, where a computer in your ear can change your perception of the world around you. Here One shows that future is closer than ever, but it falls short of being the product that gets us there.

Photos by Amelia Holowaty Krales
Edited by Dan Seifert