Hear Active Listening System - Audio Augmented Reality

August 03, 2016

The current fad is undoubtedly Nintendo's Pokemon Go, a game that leverages the augmented reality experience by combining location information and the phone camera.

Now, imagine an augmented experience on audio. Doppler Labs' Here Active Listening System, that originated from Kickstarter, is one such product. These are full wireless earbuds with a twist - they don't play music (it's not their purpose)!

Only 10,000 pairs were produced in Doppler Labs' initial production run. They went for USD 249 each and we got our hands on one such unit for a spin. We give you some first impressions.

Who is it for? 
Folks who want a novel way to listen to their surroundings.

There are 2 colors - white and black of which ours was the latter. 

Now for the unboxing:

Just slide off the outer layer to access the inner box simply marked with the 'here' logo. 

Lift open the cover and we get the Here charging case along with some info on the underside of the box.

Once the inner layer is out, we have 2 compartments - left for the charging cable and right for the spare buds. 

We popped out the packaging contents to reveal:
  • Hear Active Listening earbuds
  • Silicon tips (S / M / L) 
  • Charging capsule
  • Charging cable
  • User guide + sticker

Now to the Hear earbuds - they weigh a relatively light 10g. Putting things in perspective with other full wireless buds, the Samsung Gear IconX weighs 12.8g while the Earin tips the scales at 7g, though each of their features differs very greatly.

The case is made of sturdy plastic and serves to store and charge the earbuds at the same time. There's a 4 LED power indicator inside while the side of the casing sports the micro-USB port for charging. When closed, a front LED shows whether charging is in progress (orange means ongoing / green when full). The buds last about 5-6 hours depending on usage and the additional power delivers up to 10 hours more.

The centerpiece of the buds is definitely the app. Without the app, these buds simply don't work. The smartphone app works on iOS (v8.4+) and Android (v5.0+) and provides some preset filters .

Once installed and connected, there are 3 tabs to play around with:

1. dB adjustment
You can move from - 22dB (silence) to +6dB (noisiest) and there's a hi-dB Mode that adds a layer of noise to whichever decibel level you choose.

2. Live EQ 
Includes various filters like Bass Boost / Echo / Flange / Fuzz / Noise Mask / Reverb. To give an example, if Echo is selected, any sound you here will be echoed back. How about that.

3. Filter
This tab offers Tune In and Tune Out filters. To be honest, quite a few sounded very similar, if not identical, to each other.

Here goes: 
a. Tune In 
There are a whopping 15 filters: 60s Sizzle / 8-Track / Aphex / Carnegie Hall / Classical Music / Dirty South / Flat / Hallway / Human Speech / Psychedelic / Small Studio / Stadium / Stratosphere / Super Bass / Tiesto Mode. 
I couldn't help but get the feeling that there were quite a few overlaps in terms of sound. Psychedelic fluctuates from a zoom-in and zoom-out sound while Stratosphere actually sounds the same except the intensity is more pronounced.

b. Tune Out (Beta) 
Ok, these 9 filters are in 'Beta' mode and it shows - 
Airplane / Bus / Car / City / Crowd / Office (Loud) / Office (Normal) / Restaurant / Subway.
Bus replicates a noisy bus environment while Crowd comes across like very heavy rain. Office (Loud) adds a whole lot of static sound. Interestingly, Airplane, Office (Normal) and Restaurant sound almost exactly the same - complete silence.

Update (9 Aug 2016):
The buds tended to disconnect every now and then when using iPad (iOS v8) and Sony Xperia XA (Android v 6.0). Most times, reseting them by inserting a sharp object into a hole under the charging case will do the trick.

This is a very novel concept where the purpose of the buds is to deliver a different listening experience of your surroundings. It is not to listen to music :)

That said, the overall experience is quite unique. I for one, am not used to putting on a noise-controlling device that regulates (or distorts) ambient noise in such an interesting manner. As such, it's a likelihood that trying this out will give polarizing experiences, depending on what each individual expects to hear. 

Availability / The Future
Currently, the Here Active Listening System is not in production. If you want to get it in Singapore, you simply can't 'cos there were only 10,000 units produced thus far.

However, it will be released in a new form by Christmas 2016. It will be called Here One and this version will incorporate music playback (yes!). Pricing is to be determined.

Credit to Doppler Labs + Leader Radio Technologies for an evaluation unit.

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