It's been more than five years since Apple first introduced Siri and we started having conversations with our devices. Amazon's voice-based Alexa platform, Microsoft Cortana and Google Assistant have broadened the conversation in recent years and so perhaps it's no surprise that we now have Vinci, a pair of wireless headphones with a smart assistant built right in.
Vinci boasts an unusual but compelling combination of features, including the voice assistant, a funky touchscreen interface, local storage, a comfortable fit, quality sound and compatibility with Spotify, Soundcloud and Alexa.
The basic idea behind Vinci is making the headphones the entire listening system, not just a peripheral attached to a smartphone or other device where your audio actually lives (although it can connect to a smartphone as well). For audiophiles like us, it's a very intriguing concept and there's lots to like about Vinci, but based on our experience over several weeks with two different iterations of the device, it doesn't seem quite ready for primetime.
The first version of Vinci we tried crashed on first use and after restarting it seemed to work well enough, so long as we stuck to playing songs from local storage or from Spotify. But the moment we switched to Amazon and tried to access some Alexa features like playing our "flash briefing" of news, it repeatedly crashed again.
The company believed a recent software update may be to blame and sent us a fresh, up-to-date Vinci to try again. This time the system still struggled to interface with Alexa – never could get it to play our flash briefing – but it no longer went totally bonkers and crashed after each hiccup (maybe just every third hiccup).
We were really disappointed that we couldn't get Vinci to do everything it promises because there's a lot to like here. The headphones are quite comfortable, the sound quality is top notch and the whole thing is a relative bargain at just US$129.
Some people are sure to find the notion of wearing a big touchscreen constantly displaying goofy visualizations on the side of their head a little off-putting, but dare we say it actually felt like kind of a cool look to us dorks. The touchscreen also worked quite well and reliably for controlling playback, volume and summoning the voice assistant to listen to our next commands. Sensors in the headphones also notice when you take them on and off your head, to pause playback accordingly.
Unfortunately we can't say the same about the helpfulness of the voice assistant itself, which is supposed to be summoned by simply saying the trigger phrase "Hello, Vinci," but often seemed to be sleeping on the job. The trigger phrase only worked about 20 percent of the time and it seemed to help if we spoke in our loudest and most upbeat voices, as if it was demanding an attitude adjustment of us. Needless to say, it was often much easier just to tap the touchscreen to get Vinci's attention.
Getting Vinci to call up the right artist can often require a little patience figuring out exactly how the software thinks their name should be pronounced. Less common names like The Mowgli's or Madeon can take a few tries, to say nothing of trying to play tracks from Deadmau5.
Supposedly, Vinci uses "powerful machine learning" and biosensing software to curate a personalized audio experience based on preferences, heart rate, location and other factors. But it was never clear to us how or if this was happening, because even after weeks of use, whenever Vinci said "Here's a song you might like," it always seemed to be an old Motown or folk artist we haven't listened to in years for good reason.
Here's a demonstration of what it can actually do in terms of recommendations right now, which is basically just to play situational playlists:
Fortunately, all of Vinci's shortcomings seem to be things that can be fixed via simple software updates, namely stabilizing the system's custom OS and improving natural language processing and integration with Alexa, which it draws much of its utility from for just about all functions beyond playing music.
From watching the promotional Kickstarter video below, you're led to believe that Vinci is the best voice assistant ever, but it simply can't perform all of the requests in the video, at least not yet. Some of the features, like wireless charging and noise cancelling, are only available in the Vinci Pro edition, which we weren't able to try, but can be pre-ordered for $189.
The hardware itself is actually pretty impressive for what you get. The battery lasts up to seven hours with the screen on and almost twice as long with the screen off. You can connect Vinci to your streaming services via Wi-Fi or a cellular sim card, and there's 16 GB of local storage (32 GB in the Pro edition) for when you're not connected.
Currently Vinci is expected to ship in the coming weeks and we'll be anxious to hear what those early adopters think. Like many other crowdfunded products, Vinci is promising the world but based on our experience it isn't delivering on that promise.
The good news is that all the pieces do seem to be in place to fulfill that promise eventually, but there's no guarantee that they will all come together. If you expect this to work exactly as in the above video, you will be disappointed.
All that said, at a minimum, Vinci gives you a pair of quality wireless, internet-connected headphones with an OS and voice assistant that are currently marginal but could get better for under $200. That's not a bad deal, and if it eventually does everything the company is promising, that's just gravy.
Product page: Vinci