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Sony’s open-ear headphones make it sound like you’re always in a mall

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It’s like there’s overhead music playing, so you can still hear surroundings

For a couple years now, Sony has been trying to build headphones that let you listen to music without blocking sound from the world around you. There are already lots of headphones that try to do this in a high-tech way, by using microphones to record sound from the outside world and pumping that in over your music. But Sony is taking a decidedly low-tech approach: it’s making earbuds with a giant hole in them to let sound through.

The Xperia Ear are the latest incarnation. They were first shown around this time last year, and today at CES, we had an opportunity to try them on to see how they worked.

The result is actually pretty cool. I was able to hold conversations while wearing the Xperia Ear with music playing, and they weren’t a distraction at all. Because they’re mostly open, sound comes through loud and clear, and you can easily transition from paying attention to someone beside you to paying attention to your music.

This is both the great thing about these earbuds and their biggest downside. You don’t get the traditional headphone experience here of feeling like you’re surrounded by whatever music is playing — music playing on the Xperia Ear sounds more like ambient music playing overhead at a mall.

That’s not a knock on the sound quality so much as a statement of purpose for these headphones: they really are meant to keep you present and aware of your surroundings, just with a soundtrack playing in the background. It’s a nice idea and could be useful for cyclists (in places where it’s legal to wear headphones), pedestrians, and a whole lot of travelers and commuters who want to pay attention to announcements and unfamiliar surroundings.

Sony has also built a handful of touch and gesture controls into the headphones. You can tap on the left and right earpieces to skip tracks, change the volume, and activate a smart assistant (though that feature wasn’t enabled in the version I tested). The touch gestures took a little bit of work to get right and could definitely use some calibration as Sony continues work on these. What worked really well were the gesture controls, which let you snap your head left or right to change tracks. That worked too well, actually, because I kept changing tracks every time I’d turn to look at someone. That gesture is probably going to have to go.

The other downside to these headphones right now is their fit: because they can’t get that deep into your ear, they don’t have nearly as snug of a fit as traditional earbuds. I was really worried they would fall out at first, as though I hadn’t even put them in properly. I eventually got used to the feel, but they could probably use some fine tuning to give them a tighter grip. (The final model will include multiple earpiece sizes, so it’s possible that’ll help.)

Sony still doesn’t have a release planned for the Xperia Ear, and it continues to call them a concept. But they’re clearly getting closer and closer to a final, shippable product, so it seems like the company plans to ship these eventually.