Review: Trying to get some sleep with a music-playing pillow

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The author trying to drown out the voices in his head with the Dreampad pillow(Credit: Michael Franco/New Atlas)

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I don't sleep well. When the lights go off, the voices turn on. The voices in my head, that is. It often sounds like there are three TV channels and a scratched, skipping CD all playing at the same time in the back of my brain. So when I was offered the chance to try a pillow that promised to play just one sound that could drown out the others, I happily accepted. But did the Dreampad pillow really help? Let's just say it was a real snoozer.

The Dreampad pillow is the next iteration of a similar product released by the company in 2014. That version of the device was a long pad that you tucked under your pillowcase. The newly released model is a full-on pillow with the technology embedded inside. In both cases, the company says that the pad delivers sound to your brain through bone conductivity – the idea that sound can be transmitted to your inner ears thanks to vibrations traveling along your skull bones.

Like most bone-conductivity devices this tired tech reporter has tried out, the Dreampad was a disappointment. In fact, I have my doubts about whether there's really any bone conductivity going on at all.

The Dreampad has a small pocket on one side where you can either plug in your phone or MP3 player using a 3.5-mm cable, or you can attach the included Bluetooth dongle and stream to it from your device. Once the connection is made, the Dreampad app lets you send a variety of soothing soundtracks to your pillow. You can also stream anything else you want which meant I was able to try a book on tape, podcast and a sound-generating app called Relax Melodies during the three nights I tried out the pillow.

In all cases, the tracks came through as though … let's see how to put this … as though they were being played from inside a pillow. The voices, sounds and instrumentals were extremely muffled and a lot of detail was lost. Of course, when you're trying to sleep you don't really want blaring, sharp-edged sounds coming through your ears, so for some, the muted music of the Dreampad might be fine. Indeed, after allowing myself to relax and stop expecting clear sound, I could see how the contraption could soothe someone to sleep. Dreampad even has a host of research on its site saying that it does exactly that.

So it didn't work for me, but it might for someone else. Beyond the pillow's efficacy, what I found more suspect were the claims about bone conductivity.

"Our bones are natural conductors; in fact, every time you speak the vibration caused by your voice is carried by bone to your inner ear," we were told by a company spokesperson. "In the same way, music from the Dreampad travels internally to your ear. One positive aspect of this is that you're not disturbing others in the room when you're using the Dreampad. More importantly, as the vibration moves toward the bony area surrounding your middle and inner ear, it is triggering your body's relaxation response."

Because I had a sneaking suspicion that the sound from the pillow was coming straight into my ears rather than getting there through my skull bones, I shoved some foam earplugs in and then lied on the pillow on my back. I'm bald, so if there was going to be some bone conduction going on, I was giving the pillow a big area in which to operate. Unless I turned the volume up to max I couldn't really get much out of the pillow. Lying on my side with my ear mashed into the pillow was better, but it seemed a bit silly at that point. Also, when the volume was cranked, my wife could definitely hear the pillow, which certainly wasn't great for her sleep.

I've used a bone-conducting headset designed for swimming before and that device actually sounded better when my ears were plugged, because the sound really was traveling along my skull to my inner ear. I just didn't feel like that was the case with the Dreampad pillow.

Beyond that, one of the stranger choices made in the pillow's design was to use a Bluetooth dongle that blinks a blue light on and off while it's tethered. Even if you arrange the dongle in the pillow's pocket to try to hide it, the side of the pillow still glows. While it's possible to just not face that way, if you share your bed with anyone, he or she might not appreciate the pulsing glow.

To give the pillow some credit, I can say that it is super comfortable. I got the firm style to try out and even if I don't ever use the sound component of it again, I can definitely see it becoming one of my favorite pillows. And I may just give it some more time to see if I do in fact start to get hooked on muffled New Age tracks while I'm trying to doze off. At this point just about anything is better than the nightly earworm concert in my brain. Uptown Funk anyone?

Even though it's already manufactured the original Dreampad, the company has taken to Kickstarter to raise funds for the new and improved version. If you want to order one through the crowdfunding campaign, it can be had – with the blinking Bluetooth dongle – for US$109, which represents a significant savings over the sleep-stealing eventual retail price of $179. There are a limited number of pillows available at that price, and the cost will rise throughout the campaign as pledge tiers get filled. Delivery is scheduled for December, assuming all goes according to plan.

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