During the last year we've seen earbuds go truly wireless, right as untethered headphones were picking up steam in the mainstream (thanks largely to Apple killing the headphone jack in the iPhone 7). That sets the stage perfectly for Doppler Labs' updated smart hearing wearable, which can both stream music and augment your audio environment. We've been testing Here One smart earbuds for the last couple of weeks.
Here One is almost the most exciting pair of audio gear I've ever used. The audio is surprisingly good for such a small pair of wireless buds, with impressive clarity, good separation and a fairly wide soundstage. The noise cancellation is great and fully adjustable. And you still get the company's trademark augmentations, which give you near-complete control over your audio environment: presets to optimize your soundscape in places like city streets or airplanes, white noise filters to block out especially intrusive sounds, manual EQ settings and even novelty effects like echo and flange.
The company also added directional microphones to this version, so Here One can amplify only the voices that are either directly in front of or behind you. It works well, and could come in handy in loud environments where you need your hearing focused in a specific direction. The company promises future software updates will further unlock the precision of the directional mics.
But with what can only be described as miserable battery life while streaming music, Here One is unfortunately still relegated to niche status.
Every time I streamed music continuously from an iPhone 7 – with noise cancelling turned all the way up – the buds consistently lasted just under two hours. (The company lists the earbuds as lasting "up to three hours.")
If you never listen to music for more than two hours straight – and are willing to take an hour-long break in between for the buds to juice all the way up again – then Here One could still be an exciting product. (Its battery case can hold close to three full charges.) But every time I tried to embrace this angle, I'd find myself really jamming out on a playlist, only to frustratingly have my music cut off by the scant battery life. I find these too-soon stoppages to be a deal-breaker for music streamers: Two hours simply isn't long enough for a US$300 pair of consumer earphones to last, no matter how many other cool tricks the product can perform.
In fairness, the company isn't marketing Here One as a standard pair of wireless earbuds. Doppler Labs sees it as the next evolution of last year's Here Active Listening, with One letting you augment your audio reality a little better than its predecessor did – while adding the significant bonus of Bluetooth streaming. From that perspective, it does its job well.
As with last year's model, you control the real-world audio adjustments in a companion app (which will be available for both iOS and Android). But if you need to pause your music and get a more immediate sense of your audio environment, a quick tap on the side of either earbud will jolt your ears back into the real world without needing to remove the buds.
So who are the niche customers who will want to throw down US$300 on Here One?
Well, if you want truly wireless earbuds with active-noise-cancelling tech, these are your only current option. (Though the battery life essentially tells us why other companies aren't making these yet.)
If you're, say, a new mother who wants to listen to music while keeping an ear out for cries from your sleeping infant, you can fine-tune Here One to amplify your environment while still hearing the music.
Urban commuters who want to stream music while walking or biking – but who also need to let in sounds like car horns but block out other background noise – could see this as the perfect solution.
Perhaps you go to live sporting events and want to combine a streamed play-by-play with the immediate atmosphere of the stadium around you. Here One can let you do that.
Those scenarios, though, are pretty niche. Some existing noise-cancelling headphones can let you tune the levels of ambient noise up or down (Bose QuietControl 30 and Sony MDR-1000X, for example), even though they lack Here's more advanced environmental tuning. I suspect these much longer-lasting rivals are going to be better choices for many of the customers facing these situations.
Considering the amount of fun (and, in some cases, practical) stuff that's going on inside this ambitious product, it's too bad to see it held back by such a painful Achilles' heel. The addition of great-sounding streaming makes Here One a huge step forward from Here Active Listening, which was essentially a concept augmented reality product. And perhaps in a year or two, more advanced battery tech will allow the company to deliver a truly killer follow-up product with at least double the streaming battery life. Right now, though, you have to go into it knowing your music-listening time will be constricted.
Here One starts shipping today, and is available to order for $300. For more on the real-world tuning aspect, you can revisit New Atlas' 2016 review of its non-streaming predecessor.
Product page: Doppler Labs