I have very little control over the sounds that I hear on a daily basis. I can noise cancel, I can listen to Spotify but still I hear building work, ambulance sirens, spats in foreign languages, co-workers chewing their food, toddlers on planes, flatmates having sex.
A First World Problem, to be sure, but when I can order a pizza from my wrist why shouldn’t I be able to control what I hear when I’m trying to do some work or get to sleep? The Here Active Listening system signals that augmented audio is here – a new branch of AR that lets you remix how the world around you sounds.
Here’s what you can do with it and why we want to see it built into regular headphones.
Here earbuds review: How it works
Here Active Listening is basically two completely wireless earbuds which connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth. What’s special about them isn’t how they reproduce audio, but how they capture it (with microphones) and process it. They act as a live equaliser in your ear, capturing real world sounds or live music and allowing you control the volume, filter out noises you don’t want to hear and even remix it. Oh, and they don’t actually play music so just get your head around that now.
For music lovers, the best way to describe it is that it’s like having a bunch of effects pedals in your ears. And it’s music that the makers of Here, Doppler Labs, are focusing on in the near future with high profile fans such as Hans Zimmer, Tiesto and Mark Ronson and a partnership to take Here optimised stages to this year’s Coachella.
Here earbuds review: Fit and form factor
Doppler Labs has done a really good job with the hardware here. The earbuds are light and comfortable and no-one will bat an eyelid when you pop them in your ears.
Sure as they sit in your ear, they stick out a little more than regular buds but compared to other hearables we’ve tried, in terms of fit you can forget about the Here Active Listening buds unless you really are planning to wear them for five hours straight. There’s three sizes of eartips to choose from to get the fit just right. They also look inoffensive, cool even, with a slight glossy finish to the black model we tried out (they also come in white) and the mic holes mimicking the Here logo.
That’s another consideration – I spend plenty of time with regular earbuds in my ears, listening to music and podcasts, so to avoid spending all day with one bit of tech or another in your lugholes, you’ll probably end up changing some of your audio habits. Chances are if you’re buying this device, you’re up for that anyway.
Here earbuds review: Active listening
I’m going to work backwards here because the first thing I did with the Active Listening earbuds was ‘remix’ music, obviously. But I just want to talk quickly about the more mainstream feature – referred to as ‘tune out’ and currently in beta. Some of Doppler Labs’ original Kickstarter backers were no doubt pretty excited about this. It is designed to improve your audio experience of well, the world – the office, the city, a bus, the subway/underground or an aeroplane.
In the Here companion app, you’ll find nine filters which at present you can’t tweak: airplane, bus car, city, crowd, office (loud), office (normal), restaurant and subway. These all offer different levels of noise cancelling and are designed to pick up and analyse the ambient noise in each of those different environments. Some (airplane, office) worked better than others so you’ll probably play around with which works for you for the environment that invades your ears the most. None offer 100% silence, rather a much muted version of what’s going on around you.
In the EQ screen of the app, you are also presented with a five point interactive graph showing the decibel level at 180Hz, 360 Hz, 1.1 kHz, 3.3 kHz and 6.8 kHz which is where, if you put the effort in, you can mute specific nuisance frequencies such as a crying baby or an annoying conversation. Future versions of Here hardware may use directional mics to allow users to mute or amplify specific voices.
The simplified volume dial for real life is also sometimes more helpful than the filter – it goes down to -22 dB and up to +6 dB and you just slide your finger around the onscreen dial to instantly hear the effects. I tried this in the street and suddenly the noise of speeding taxis faded away.
This kind of augmented audio of real life sounds results in a few things. Firstly, I found myself more attuned to the sounds my ears are capturing after using this device. Again, the target individual for this product is someone who already pays enough attention to sound that it can really distract them or cause stress. But after turning the volume up then taking the buds out, I felt a little like I stumbled into the one scene in silent movie The Artist that uses sound. Suddenly it was everywhere, wine glasses rattling on the kitchen shelf, the sound when I scratched my head, coughing! The difference was that now I could control it.
So I felt closer to the world around me but also at the same time, distant, with the world around me taking on a kind of otherness that’s hard to describe until you’ve tried these.
I’d like to be able to re-order and re-name these filters as well as save my own. Considering that Doppler Labs is already talking about the Here Active Listening earbuds intelligently switching between presets using machine learning and info like your location, I think I can be patient. That would be a dream – leaving the house to a busy city street, jumping on a bus, then out onto the street again and into the office, with finely tuned AR audio throughout.
Even within 60 minutes, all sorts of noises from vehicles, building work and the hell that is other people can assault you within that space of time and smart earbuds that can protect your ears – and stress levels – without you getting your phone out, opening the app and hitting ‘city’ sounds wonderful. Apple Watch integration is also reportedly in the works, another promising move.
Here earbuds review: Music
The other big chunk of people who will be interested in buying this will be musicians or audiophiles interested in remixing live audio in their own private environment. Doppler Labs did a bit of a soundcheck in Brooklyn and as we said earlier, this year’s Coachella will have Here optimised stages with special filters and listening experiences.
There will no doubt be an element of silent disco etiquette at the festival – you really do forget that the music isn’t produced by the earbuds. Every individual using Here Active Listening could have a slightly different experience of a live performance.
The decibel dial will come in handy for live gigs – there’s a high dB mode – if you go to a lot and are worried about the effect on your hearing. But it’s the effects and filters I spent the most time with. First up, the 14 ‘tune in’ filters are self explanatory and can really change the mood of the same music.
They are: 60s Sizzle, 8-Track, Aphex, Carnegie Hall, Classical Music, Dirty South, Flat, Hallway, Human Speech, Psychedelic, Small Studio, Stadium, Stratosphere and Super Bass. Again, I wished I had a little control over each setting – I liked the Small Studio preset, for instance, but sometimes it was a bit much.
Music fiends could easily spend hours dabbling with the same live EQ graph as I described above. This is where things get precise allowing you to control different frequencies individually – bass, mids and trebles. Plus you can add effects from six choices, up to two at at a time – bass boost, echo, flange, fuzz, noise mask and reverb. It’s not as satisfying as twisting knobs and pressing pedals but you can’t take those to someone else’s gig now can you. Then again, Here Active Listening is about the live audio experience so you can’t record your reworkings either.
It’s all pretty instant with no latency (well technically, 30 microseconds) and the sound quality is excellent – of course it doesn’t match the sound you get without the buds in, but it’s clear and crisp enough to allow you to enhance what you’re hearing, not ruin it. You get a sense of spatial audio, too, so it doesn’t just sound like you’re listening to music via earbuds but from musicians in front of you.
One problem I do have with using Here in a music context is the transition between no filter and layering on a filter or vice versa jars a bit and I often felt like the volume was also changing at least for a split second. That’s fine when using Here in an everyday, on the go context but a pain when listening to music. In this instance, automatic filters would take all the fun and experimentation away but gestures such as swiping forward or longpressing on an earbud might work well in addition to more granular controls in app.
The other sidenote to remember is if you start adding effects to your friend’s living room jam, as I did, then everything you hear will reverb or flange – you tapping your foot, the traffic outside, people chatting. That’s the difference between remixing the music via traditional gear and this personal, private device which alters everything streaming into your ears. Fine for musicians with quiet studio space but worth considering for lesser audio nerds looking to use this in gig environments.
Here review: Battery life and charging
The official battery life for the Here Active Listening system is five/six hours – whether you get to this will entirely depend on how you’re using it. During one quite intense ‘tune in’ session of about 20 minutes, where I was mucking about with the Here app pretty much constantly, the battery life dropped 10%.
If you’re an everyday user rather than using it for music purposes, this should cover both commutes plus a couple of hours when you’re trying to really get your head down at the office. For music lovers, you’re probably less likely to use it out and about and the case’s extra juice should see you through.
Because, as now seems customary for hearables, the Here Active Listening buds come in a carry/wireless charging case. It’s compact and neat – in general I treated these with more care than my cheap Sony earphones or Bluetooth Sennheisers so I actually used this.
The case itself charges via microUSB, offers another 10 hours of battery life and has an LED on the outside which turns orange when charging and green when the earbuds are fully charged. This is really quick which is nice, though the case does take a while to charge to full so this is probably an overnight or at your desk job.