When I was a kid, I used to put music on the family’s large speaker system and cup my ears towards the sound, making my own personal sound shaping experience. If you do it yourself now, you’ll know what I mean – cup your hands and place them behind your ears. You get a very different type of sound experience, and I always wondered what it would be like to wander the open world, being able to adjust how things… well, sound.
With the advent of headphones that connect to your smartphone, the ability to change the equalisation of music to your taste has been available for a long while now – just look at the line of successive Parrot Zik headphones, which have tremendous audio customisation. Then there is noise cancelling, which, like the Bose QC20 in-ear phones, blocks out almost all of the audible environment around you.
So when I heard about the Here Active Listening earbuds by Doppler Labs, they really piqued my interest. These were not traditional earphones, in that they would not stream music wirelessly from a smartphone or other Bluetooth source. Rather, they promised to change the aural space that you existed in, allowing you to effective have a pair of bionic ears to magnify, lessen, and enhance the sounds around you.
The Kickstarter project for Here launched back in June of last year, and it’s taken until now to see these in the flesh. There is something special about committing to a product, or really a concept, and seeing it arrive in a nondescript cardboard box 7 months later.
I’ve only had these for a day, but I’m ready to deliver my first impressions.
First off, an explanation of what these Here earbuds actually are. These are small, self powered earbuds that look like two wireless earphones. They actually have small processors inside that do all of the sound shaping, taking in noise from their own microphones and have a miniscule 30 millisecond delay – I couldn’t detect any delay when talking to someone for example. The earbuds have a companion app that you use to change the way the Here earbuds filter and equalise the sound around you.
The sound you get is eerily close to reality in terms of the 3D sense – I could tell when wind was blowing behind me, even when it sounded like a high pitched Darth Vader exhalation. This kept the sounds from being disorienting or unbalancing.
I took a walk in the local park, and tried various filters. The “Aphex” and “Psychedelic” filters in the “Tune In” section of the app were the most fun for this part. When I closed my eyes, I felt like the Predator, as the natural sounds of walking, leaves rustling were all enhanced and… bent, is the best way to describe it. All I needed was heat vision googles, and I’d easily hunt down Dutch and co like the Predator did all those years ago.
Back at home and I sat down with my daughter to hear her daily piano practise. This time I tried a few other filters. The one that made the most sense was “Carnegie Hall”. When I switched to that filter, all of a sudden I was transported to a huge, cavernous environment where the smallest rustle of a page turn was amplified and echoed. The piano sounded more epic and arena-like than I’d ever heard in my home. Once again I closed my eyes and it was easy to imagine a piano in the distance, on a stage where every movement and every key was magnified.
Aside from the filters, I also tried out the equaliser, with 5 points relating to five distinct frequencies to control. I found a comfortable mix that I could see myself using in normal social or travel conditions. And that’s the other thing about the Here earbuds – as a society (for better or worse), we’re used to seeing people with headphones on all the time. SO when I wore them to lunch, I didn’t receive as much as a blink from other patrons.
I can see why these will be used in musical situations over most other environments. The ability to customise the sound to your own taste is an incredibly empowering one. Up till now, there’s been augmented reality, which has mostly worked on vision-based, but these are the first to truly transform your natural listening experience.
The great thing about these earbuds is that filters can be created and uploaded to the companion app at any time, and already music events like Coachella are taking advantage by offering customised audio filters for different artists. This has huge potential to break open the so-called “hearables” category, and create a whole new individual experience – without taking away the social element.
Until next time!