Review: Hooke Verse headset gives you 3D audio with no extra steps
You don't have to understand binaural 3D audio to instantly recognize how much better it is than standard iPhone mono sound. And with a set of Hooke Verse Bluetooth headphones, you can now have 3D sound on all your smartphone video. No extra gear, no extra steps, just a huge leap in the sound quality of your memories.
A quick primer on binaural 3D audio
Your smartphone records audio in mono – that's a single track, that's played back identically in both ears. A stereo microphone is basically two mics that are directional, and they play back a different audio stream in each ear, giving you a better sense of space.
But it's still not a great sense of space, because they don't perfectly replicate sound the way your ears hear it. There's one thing missing: a big ol' head in between them, and the intricately shaped ears evolution has gifted us.
Put it this way: if your right ear is a microphone, and a sound is coming from the left of you, it's not going to hear it the same way your left ear is. The head alters things, absorbs treble frequencies, makes it less distinct and clear. If a sound is coming from behind you, a similar thing happens to a lesser degree as your pinnae, the external flappy bits of your ear, make a subtle change to the sound.
The difference between sounds behind and in front of you is very small, but your brain is a master at decoding these tiny differences. If you close your eyes, you can pinpoint sounds in 360-degree space despite the fact that you've only got two audio inputs (your ears) to work from. Yet another example of the genius of nature's design.
Binaural recording is as simple as this: get two microphones, and make a stereo recording, but stick a head in the middle of it, and some ear shapes too, so that the recorded sound mimics the way your ears hear things as closely as possible.
The difference is astounding, 3D audio is absolutely beautiful to listen to and far more immersive than flat mono or regular stereo.
Mind you, you don't need to understand any of this to enjoy it, and you don't need special headphones or gear. Pop on whatever headphones you've got, and have a look at this video for a very quick snapshot of the difference:
Introducing Hook Verse headphones
"Anyone who hears it says the exact same thing: I wish everything was recorded that way." says Hooke Audio founder Anthony Mattana over the phone from his office in New York. "Why can't I consume all the media that I do on my phone and everywhere else, this way?"
The answer, largely, is technology. Binaural recording rigs have typically been very expensive. Mattana himself, in his days as a Broadway sound engineer, used to set a bulky, $15,000 binaural rig up to record and archive each show. "Part of my job," says Mattana, "was setting up the dummy head, in the seat right next to mine, and making sure it was at the same height as a normal human, and it was facing the right way. Every night. And I was looking at it and thinking 'well, use your own head, you dummy! You've got a head right here!' Within a week, I'd quit my career and launched a technology company."
The idea was simple. Smartphone users already wear something in their ears a lot of the time: headphones. The trick was to build a wireless, Bluetooth headset that was as good as anything else for walking around listening to music with, but that overrides the built-in mic when you start recording video or audio, and replaces it with CD-quality 3D audio. No extra gear, no extra steps.
The Verse headset is a pair of in-ear Bluetooth headphones, with tiny microphones on the backs of the speakers, and chunky behind-the-ear sections connected with a wire behind your neck. There's only one button, on the right side, which handles power if you hold it and play/pause if you tap it.
It pairs the same as any headset, and has a 9-odd hour battery – a little more if you're just listening, a little less if you're recording flat out.
To record binaural audio or video, you open the Hooke app … and start recording. That's it. There's controls if you want them, for audio gain, brightness, that sort of thing, but in general, if you're happy with the way your phone normally does video, that's what you're getting here – except with lovely binaural audio. The headphones play you the ambient sound as they're recording it, so you can tell if your gain level is too low, or too high and distorting, and fix it straight away.
If you don't like having them in your ears while you're recording, you can hang 'em round your neck. The binaural effect won't be as good, but you'll still have a pair of stereo mics vastly superior to the one on your phone.
They really do elevate the sense of immersion in any video you take, placing the viewer in the space with the camera and painting an audio picture of your surroundings that your brain automatically interprets into a 3D soundscape.
And when it comes to concert video, they smash it out of the park. If you're going to be that guy holding a phone up at a concert – and that's a pretty decent proportion of people these days – you're going to get a hideously clipped and indistinct audio recording.
Not with the Verse headset. There's a reason Mattana used to use binaural rigs to record his Broadway shows; the sound puts you in the theater. If you get the gain right – and you do need to get the gain right – it won't distort up until 140 decibels, Mattana tells me, which is where the human eardrum starts tearing. Well past the point where a live sound engineer ought to know better.
The sound isn't going to beat a recording taken off the sound desk, but it'll kick butt over your standard smartphone sound, and actually make some of your concert videos bearable to watch back.
Hooke believes people should care about sound quality as much as they care about video quality. Thus, as a $5 add-on to the app, there's a set of audio filters you can apply to schmick up the sound.
They're basic, if you've ever spent any time behind a mixing desk. Things like echo/delay, reverb, wide stereo, noise cancellation and a "concert" filter. But that's the point; these things have been built by passionate sound engineers who want people to start paying attention to audio. Even the most basic filter tools, applied as quickly as the Mocha filter in Instagram, show users a taste of the magic of sound engineering.
This kind of education could well cause a spark in some users – a spark that inspires them to pay attention to audio and appreciate it more, to learn a little more about the genius of a great engineer, and likely to make sure they're choosing superior audio tools when they start recording their own videos. Everyone's a winner.
The key tech innovation behind Hooke Verse
Binaural mics have been around a long time. Bluetooth headsets have been around a long time. And we've already tested another 3D audio recording set of earphones – the Sennheiser Ambeo kit. So what's the big deal about the Hooke gear?
The answer is in the software, specifically the Bluetooth communication codec the Verse gear uses to talk to your phone. The basic codec doesn't allow for stereo audio to be sent from a Bluetooth mic to a phone, so Hooke had to create its own, or go with a wired headset like Sennheiser.
"When we started developing this," says Mattana, "there was no product in the world that could send two channels of lossless, CD-quality audio over Bluetooth, to a phone, with no latency – or so little that when I listen back to the video there's no separation between the video and audio. That had never existed before.
"This codec we've developed allows us to send dual-channel, lossless, 16-bit, 44.1k wav files over Bluetooth at 0.0043 milliseconds of latency. There's never been a product that's done that, and there's never been a Bluetooth codec that's been incorporated in a product to do that."
So, the Verse is wireless, and it works on both Android and Apple phones, and the team owns its own patents.
Oh, and if you prefer a wired headset, no worries. The Verse headset works just as well over the included wired connection, which means it plugs in to other audio recording gear just fine as well.
Are they perfect? No. I can see some ways the Verse headset can improve going forward. For one, despite the over-ear design, they don't seem to want to stay on my head or in my ears all the time, no matter which of the six different ear tip options I try. But I do have slightly weird ears according to my audiologist, and no one else in the office had the same complaint.
Secondly, the headset isn't great for phone calls. Ambient noise on the street frequently overpowers your voice, and your voice comes through as distant and muffled as you might expect from something that's recorded from inside your ear. I guess you can pull one ear out and speak directly into the mic, but it's not ideal, and there's other in-ears out there that seem to have some intelligence built in to combat this problem. I doubt this will bother millennials, who seem to avoid actual spoken phone calls at all costs.
Thirdly, I'd like to see some kind of auto gain option on video recording. I know that's a dirty word to audio engineers, but I'm expecting a lot of people to turn the gain up for regular daily use, then lose their precious concert recordings to distortion, or just think the gear can't handle loud sounds, when it can. At a loud concert, you're not going to be able to hear the instant audio, either – so maybe some audio meters on screen to help people set the gain? That's probably a little too sound-geeky for what Hooke is going for, but educated users will enjoy it!
Finally, the Bluetooth connection has occasional hiccups when my phone's in my pocket or my hand's over it. This is not an uncommon issue with Bluetooth headsets, and it's rare and intermittent here – but there's others that seem to have found ways around it.
The Hooke Verse headset retails for US$189 in white, or mysteriously US$239 in black, despite the fact that they function identically. The former represents a US$30 premium over a set of Apple AirPods, which seems to us like a small price to pay for such a leap in audio quality and the ability to create immersive content.
Source: Hooke Audio