Here Active Listening review: Augmenting your world with a pair of earbuds

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Gizmag reviews Here Active Listening earbuds, which act like a real-time mixing board for real-world audio(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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If you could buy a pair of augmented reality glasses that made the world around you appear to get bigger or smaller, change colors, have glowing psychedelic trails, or make individual objects transparent ... well, that would be an AR product straight out of a sci-fi novel, far beyond anything we've ever seen. Now imagine that same product, only instead of sight it relied on your sense of hearing. Join Gizmag as we review Here Active Listening earbuds, which give you the power to fine-tune (or trip out) your ears' experience of the world.

Doppler Lab's Here earbuds began their public life as a Kickstarter campaign in mid-2015. Here is the rare Kickstarter that, after finally using it, we realized was much better than we had expected. These innocent-looking earbuds can radically transform your perceptions of the world around you.

Here Active Listening is a pair of wireless earbuds that pair with an app on your iPhone or Android phone. Inside each bud is a processor that tweaks the sound you're hearing in your environment based on your chosen settings, and broadcasts the remixed audio directly into your ears. Latency is imperceptible – coming in at under 30 microseconds (that's 30 millionths of a second) the delay is short enough for your brain to think it's hearing real-time audio.

What this amounts to is essentially a live mixing board for real-world sound.

Not only does the app give you a virtual volume knob for the world around you, there's also a five-point EQ graph (above) that lets you manually tweak the highs, lows and mids for environments like a live concert, movie or conversation with a friend. Where things get even more interesting is when you dig into the app's collection of preset layers and filter effects – including noise-cancelling ones.

The second day of testing Here Active Listening, I went shopping in a busy warehouse store using a Here filter that automatically tunes out crowds. The result wasn't quite 100 percent silence, but it was close. I could still discern nearby voices speaking directly to me (though they were much quieter than usual), but the background chatter, shuffling of feet and pushing of shopping carts all faded into nearly nothing. It was close to a feeling of solitude in public.

There's also an office tune-out effect that lets you do the same for your workplace (are the light bulbs starting to go off in your head yet?), along with noise-cancelling settings aimed at airplanes, subways, cars, buses and cities. And if you need some extra help in shutting something (or someone) out that's unusually loud, there's also the option of adding a layer of white noise.

On another outing to test Here, I was chatting with someone who was a bit of a loud-talker. I stealthily pulled out my phone, turned down the overall volume of my world and then, after a few seconds of experimentation, fine-tuned it even further by dampening the main frequencies of the voice. The result was a much more soothing conversation.

Here also has a preset human speech filter, which amplifies human voices above other sounds. This version of the hardware can't really isolate one person's voice among other voices (and this preset will also pick up other sounds that fall into a similar frequency to the human voice), but it still works well to lift voices above the din.

Listening to music on a Sonos speaker, I could use Here to tweak the audio to sound any way I wanted it to. Adding a super bass layer to the Beatles' "Come Together" made Paul McCartney's opening bass riff pound like I'd never heard it before. Using the stadium filter with Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" made me feel like I was in the audience of the recorded live performance from 1975. There is the drawback of not hearing the audio in its purest form – beamed directly to your ears – but audio from the earbuds is good enough that there's no concerning drop in pure sound quality vs. listening with no augmentation. For many people the differences will be outweighed by the complete control Here gives you. And, remember, this is all without affecting the audio experiences of anyone else around you. It's private, personalized musical control.

Other effects don't have such obvious practical purposes, but can still be incredibly fun. There are echo filters, as well as flange (think John Lennon's voice in "Tomorrow Never Knows") and reverb (which can make someone next to you sound like they're on the other side of a concert hall). These and similar filters can take a boring environment and spice it up into something new – which often means something psychedelic. They may sound like a novelty (and, well, they are) but keeping yourself stimulated in a dull situation can sometimes be a practical end in itself.

We haven't yet had a chance to test Here in some of its most obvious settings – airplanes (though the airplane cancelling filter did greatly reduce the volume of a loud vacuum cleaner), public transportation or live concerts. In the next few weeks we'll be doing just that, and will run a follow-up article afterwards.

One of the most important aspects of Here is that, unlike listening to music through headphones, your brain doesn't perceive the sounds as coming from the tech products in your ears. If I activate an echo effect and snap my fingers two feet in front of my face, it sounds like the snap is coming from two feet in front of my face (just like if I wasn't wearing the earbuds). Then the echo of the snap seems to reverberate from that same spot in the air, after I've moved my fingers. It's a trippy sensation. My ears and brain perceive the audio experience as 3D, spatial and delightfully accurate.

The buds themselves look fairly subtle and we don't think they'll appear awkward to those who do notice you're wearing them (no need for Google Glass-like self consciousness here). They're comfortable enough to wear, though after several hours it does feel good to take them out and let our ear canals breathe. The package includes three sizes of silicone ear-tips to help you find your best balance of comfort and seal.

Battery life comes in at around six hours per charge, though it can vary depending on (we're guessing) the amount of noise in your environment and which filters you're using. Under some conditions, ours only drop about 5-7 percent per hour, while in other situations they sometimes lost closer to 15-20 percent per hour. It's been hard to pinpoint exactly what causes those variations, but we'll keep an eye on this as we continue to use Here. Either way, the six hour estimate is, in our experience, a pretty sound (if not conservative) ballpark.

The earbuds include a portable charging case (above), which holds an extra two full charges. Factoring in a short break or two for recharging (and giving your ears a rest), you could otherwise wear Here from morning to night.

As awesome as Here is, this first version is still early adopter gear – when looking at the average consumer, we'd say its practical uses are somewhat niche at the moment. This isn't likely something you'll want to buy just to use while sitting around your house (though that can be fun too). If all you need to do is tune out an airplane engine on your next flight, a good pair of active noise cancelling headphones will do the trick (they'll also play music and take phone calls – two things Here doesn't do). If you want to amplify voices to compensate for mild hearing loss, you can buy a Bluetooth amplifier earpiece like Soundhawk that's designed specifically for that purpose. Here can meet many of the same ends, but Doppler Labs doesn't recommend it to compensate for any degree of hearing loss.

One minor inconvenience with Here is that if your audio environment is changing frequently – if you're, say, quickly jumping from inside a car to the windy outdoors to the noisy inside of a store and over again – you may find yourself needing to pull out your phone to tweak your settings every time you switch environments (especially if there's wind, which can sound like a hurricane in the microphone if you don't account for it in the EQ settings). Perhaps a future Here smartwatch app could make those shifts a bit more convenient for people who own something like an Apple Watch or Gear S2.

Having said that, Here's all-around combination of noise cancelling, environmental volume controls, human voice isolation, music EQ and other wacky/fun effects combine to make it a groundbreaking augmented reality product. It lets you curate your environment without needing to change your environment. Unless you count corrective lenses or hearing aids, this is something humanity hasn't previously been able to do.

We're also excited to see how Here evolves over time. Doppler Labs' founder/CEO Noah Kraft tells us the company is exploring the possibility of directional mics in future hardware revisions, which could zero in on one person's voice while cancelling out other voices. He also wants to explore a machine learning back-end to allow the consumer experience to be as dead-simple as possible.

"If you can't go to JFK," says Kraft, "get on a plane and have it say 'using your positioning, we see you're in JFK. Are you on a plane? Do you want to go into airplane mode?' If you can't just hit 'yes' or 'no' then the system isn't smart enough, in our opinion, to go mass [market]."

It's still early days for Here, as the first units are only now starting to ship to Kickstarter backers, but the company is going to be listening closely to customer feedback about this v1 version and evolving it from there – that evolution includes both software updates to this model and future hardware updates.

Doppler Labs is also partnering with Coachella to get Here in the ears of attendees of the Indio, CA music festival this April. Kraft sees the Coachella partnership as more than just a marketing opportunity (though it is certainly that); it's also a way to gather feedback about Here from a core demographic, to help light the path moving forward. "10,000+ people, including the most discerning artists in the world," says Kraft, "they're gonna walk around with this incredible computer in their ears, curating their live environment."

If you're eager to curate your own environment but aren't heading to Coachella, your best bet to get your hands on Here is to sign up for the waitlist at the company's product page below and hope for an invite to buy an early pair for US$249. Failing that, you could always keep an eye on eBay (and possibly pay a premium).

We'll continue to keep a close eye on this innovative product as it evolves. And stay tuned for Gizmag's follow-up review of this v1 version of Here, after we spend a few more weeks using it in different environments.

Product page: Here Active Listening

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