Although headphones may be a great way of immersing yourself in the music, they also have a nasty tendency to isolate you from external noises that you need to hear, such as ringing phones or people who are yelling at you. Electrical/computer engineer Shari Eskenas first attempted to address this situation with her SoundBrake device. Now, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, she's back with the new-and-improved SoundBrake 2.0. We gave the thing a whirl.
The basic idea is still the same.
You start by plugging the device into the headphone jack of your stereo, computer, smartphone, etc, then plugging your headphones into it. You then switch it on, press its sample button, and let it "hear" the room's ambient sound level for a few seconds. As long as that level subsequently stays the same, the device will allow the music to reach the headphones, without any loss in quality. Should a louder noise occur, however, it'll temporarily silence the music.
There are two new features in this area. First of all, an LED on the new version lights up when it's sampling the ambient sound, letting you know to keep quiet while it's doing so. Secondly, whereas the original model simply muted the music, the 2.0 goes the extra step of piping the "interrupting" noise into the headphones, to help you hear what it is.
If the SoundBrake is getting triggered too often – or not often enough – you can adjust its mic sensitivity level. While the original version only had three such levels, though, the new one has five. A light bar display shows which level it's set to, which is again something that the original lacked.
These bells and whistles are all very well and good, but … does the thing work? The short answer is yes, it does.
One problem we found with the original was that it was too easily triggered by things like creaking chairs, rustling clothing or clacking keyboards. If the sensitivity was set to the point that this wasn't a problem, then it missed other sounds such as telephones.
The 2.0 seems to strike a better balance at ignoring the sounds that you make while moving or working, while still picking up on other noises. That said, particularly enthusiastic typing or chair-creaking will still set it off, and it sometimes still misses things like a phone ringing in another room. When using it with a laptop, we found that it helped to place the SoundBrake on a little folded-up cloth – this isolated it from vibrations coming through the desk, while still letting it hear the room.
The new model is also much sleeker and solidly-built than the original, which is always a good thing. It should be noted that unlike a pair of headphones, the SoundBrake does not draw power from the device it's plugged into – it has its own battery, which reportedly should be good for about 50 hours of use per charge.
Overall, we'd say that the SoundBrake 2.0 is good for people who are sitting in one place, and who have their phone in the room with them. We wouldn't rely on it for really important things like alerting headphone-wearing cyclists to car horns, though, which is one of its suggested uses.
Eskenas is currently raising production funds for the device on Indiegogo, where a pledge of US$68 is required to get one. When and if it reaches production, its retail price will be $89.
UPDATE (June 20/17): The crowdfunding campaign has now moved to Kickstarter.