Like the rest of New York City, I looked outside my window yesterday and thought I’d been transported to the apocalypse. It’d been cloudy when I went on my morning run, but it hadn’t been orange. It’s then that I noticed all the notifications I’d silenced working heads-down that morning — texts from family and friends about Canadian wildfires, air quality indexes, and so, so, so many memes.
One text read, “Hey Vee, when are you gonna break out the Dyson Zone?”
When I reviewed the Zone in April, the air purification aspect seemed more science fiction than real life. My biggest enemies had been stinky car exhaust fumes, the NYC subway system, and maybe some overzealous pollen. To me, the $949 Zone had felt like a proof-of-concept gadget seeking to solve some faraway problem — either in the future or in distant locales with worse daily air quality. But here was a chance to briefly ignore the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s recommendations, venture outside with the Zone on, and really put the air purifying features to the test. And if you’ve already seen the TikTok, you know that things didn’t go exactly as I’d expected.
Define “good” in this dystopian hellscape
A quick note: I don’t recommend anyone strap on a futuristic pair of headphones that double as a wearable air purifier and stride out into hazardous conditions. My spouse wouldn’t let me out without an N95 mask, and my editor reminded me that under no conditions was I to put my safety on the line for Content. Also, my mini-test was exactly that. A mini-test, and it wouldn’t pass muster for scientific rigor because I was out there for all of 20 minutes and had no other sensors to compare data from. My goal was to get out there quickly, see what the Zone told me, and get a taste of a future where people theoretically wear devices like this on days when orange smog blocks out the sun.
So yes, I did flip when, after a few minutes of walking, I opened the MyDyson app to see the “Air Quality (NO2) around me” metric was in the green. It was, the graph said, Good. Surely not. The air still smelled like someone was burning 1,000 cigarettes, even as I kept pinching down the bridge of my N95 mask for a better fit. I walked around my neighborhood a few times, gaping at the graph even as I could hear the Zone’s fans whirring loudly.
I was baffled and, frankly, sensorily overwhelmed. The Zone, which is primarily a pair of noise-canceling headphones, did a good job of dampening the wailing sirens from fire trucks echoing across the river in Manhattan. But you could still hear them if you’re not playing music. (And it really felt wrong to put on some jaunty tunes at that time.) Even so, it’s also amazing — not in a good way — how quickly you can become used to absurd circumstances. Once I had a chance to gather a quarter of my wits, I remembered that the Zone only live tracks nitrogen dioxide.
Dyson determines air quality based on the concentration of nitrogen dioxide and “other oxidizing gases.” The filters in the cans are supposed to capture ultrafine particles, odors, and nitrogen dioxide in city fumes. The EPA says that NO2 pollution in the air largely stems from emissions from cars, trucks, buses, power plants, and off-roading equipment. The apocalyptic soup I was in was wildfire smoke. And that is a potent cocktail of particulate matter, carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and other trace minerals. When they spread and damage man-made structures, it adds other chemicals and gases to the mix.
The only thing the Zone was telling me was that, in the area around me, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide was not at a harmful level. It was not saying the air as a whole was of good quality.
But shouldn’t Dyson provide that context? Technically, it does. At the top of the app, you can see a banner that tells you PM2.5 and PM10 ratings. PM2.5 consists of microscopic particles measuring less than 2.5 microns, while PM10 refers to slightly bigger particles under 10 microns. The former often comes from burning fuels and organic compounds, while the latter can be found in dust, pollen, and mold. Both are inhalable and can cause adverse health effects. As far as wildfires go, these are more useful metrics in gauging air pollution, along with the Air Quality Index (AQI).
If you swipe down, you’ll see a larger readout of the data average for your region. That included a big readout of “Very Unhealthy” and, in smaller numbers underneath, the AQI. If you look at that, you can at least put two and two together that no, in fact, the air quality was shite.
I have some concerns here. I consider myself a reasonable, level-headed person, and most people in my life would agree. I was aware of all the above before stepping out into the orange haze. This nuanced information flew straight out of my brain and into the polluted smoke as soon as I started walking around. I’ve never experienced wildfire smoke before! It smelled terrible! I kept thinking I was walking around in a video game — and judging by the looks I got from other masked-up New Yorkers, I’m pretty sure they also thought I was some kind of video game or anime character. Those were the things running through my head first — not the science of particulates, filtration systems, and app design.
It’s my job to poke around through apps to read educational text and look things up. I doubt the average person would stand around in conditions like yesterday and think, “Wait, let me swipe to see the more detailed environmental information Dyson has provided.” They’re going to look at the big graph with the moving green line and think, “This is fake news.”
So does it work for wildfires?
Dyson claims that the Zone can filter out particles as small as 0.1 micron, which is theoretically smaller than the PM2.5 and PM10 particulates. I have no way to test the accuracy of that claim, but I can tell you the visor does not form a seal around your nose and mouth.
Against my better judgment, I did walk around for a few minutes with my N95 mask off, the fans going at full blast, and as little space as possible between the visor and my mouth and nose. Did I feel a cool blast of noticeably cleaner-smelling air in my face? Yes. Was it refreshing? A little, yeah. Did I also smell and breathe in the horrible hellscape around me? Also yes. With the N95 mask on, however, I didn’t feel as if that cleaner air pocket got through at all.
Speaking purely from a practicality standpoint, it does not make sense, then, to buy the $949 Zone thinking it will help you the next time — and I’m sure there’ll be a next time — the sky turns orange. Again, this is a pair of headphones that can filter nitrogen dioxide when you’re walking around a “normal” level of “everyday” city pollution, provided you don’t care that people might stare at the futuristic design or that the air filtering kills battery life. I did not walk out yesterday with a full battery charge, but I had about 50 percent when I walked out into the smoke. It didn’t last more than 20 minutes with the filtering on.
There’s some consumer-level schadenfreude to be had from this experience. “Oh man, look at the expensive futuristic gadget that doesn’t even 100 percent protect you!” In a time of economic turbulence and horrible news cycles, there’s catharsis in laughing at tech companies. Apple’s new Vision Pro has the same fundamental problem. You want people to pay how much for a thing that does... what again? Have you seen inflation pricing, skyrocketing mortgage rates, and mass layoffs this past year?
But unlike the Vision Pro, you could argue that Dyson is thinking about a more urgent problem that needs solving now. I don’t think a $949 device that’s mostly a pair of headphones is the answer to what we’re going to do about worsening air pollution. I do think, however, that the Zone as a concept is onto something. It is not the only smart mask out here addressing terrible air quality, but it happens to be the one most people are intrigued by. The smog-filled cities of science fiction are no longer quite a dystopia. They’re here, now, and perhaps it’s time more companies started thinking of what to do about it.