You always hear one of San Francisco’s BART trains before you see it. The ear-splitting squeal, like metal against metal against a thousand screeching cats Autotuned up three octaves, rattles your brain right out of your skull. The din is so horrible BART has spent five full years trying to fix it, to no avail.
Here One Wireless Earbuds
There is nothing quite like suddenly, magically muting the world. Layered listening is a wonderful way to soundtrack your life. They look a lot better than AirPods.
I don’t care how cool your tech is, two hours isn’t enough battery. There’s a lot of setup, and a lot of futzing, in getting this right. You could buy a lot of really good headphones for this price.
A few days ago, when I stood on the platform at the Montgomery stop in downtown San Francisco, I didn’t hear the train coming. I didn’t hear the people on the platform around me, either. Or the droning, inscrutable announcements regarding which elevators are broken. (Spoiler: all of them, always.) I didn’t hear much of anything. Just blissful, near-perfect silence.
Life’s a little quieter when I’m wearing the Here Ones, a new pair of earbuds from Doppler Labs. These $300 buds are headphones and then some. They put a volume knob on the real world, letting you control what you hear and what you tune out. I’ve been wearing them on planes, in crowded train cars, in the office, and on my living room sofa. The Here Ones are a terrific, if slightly hamstrung, set of headphones. They’re also one of the most jaw-dropping tech demos I’ve tried in a long time. And they’re pretty solid evidence that you might want computers in your ears. Soon.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, the Here One buds are straightforward. They have no weird dangling handles, or wing tips, or clips that go behind your ears. They’re just two cylinders, in either black or white, about a nickel in diameter and and two iPhones wide, with a tip you shove into your ear canal. (The buds ship with three sizes of the interchangeable tips, in both foam and silicon.) They’re really light, but large enough that they might strain against smaller ear flaps than mine.
They might hurt to wear for long periods of time, but you’ll never find out. The Here One’s battery only lasts about two hours in the best-case scenario. The charging case will recharge the buds about three times, which at least means you’re not constantly looking for an outlet. But the Here Ones really can’t be anyone’s only headphones.
The battery’s a particular shame because the Here Ones are actually terrific. They connect consistently and solidly over Bluetooth and NFMI—I can make them stutter by covering my right ear with my hand, but I’ve never had the audio cut out unless I was trying to make that happen. These tiny buds somehow boom with bass, sparkle in the highs, and generally sound far better than your average earbud. There are three mics in each bud, which make for fantastic phone calls and Siri recognition. Of course, for $300, that’s precisely what you should expect. I was still impressed.
My favorite part of listening to music with the Here Ones is where Doppler’s device starts to go beyond traditional headphone fare. When you first put the buds on, rather than the sudden feeling of quiet and isolation, you still hear the world around you. The buds themselves are processing ambient sound in real time, and sending it through to your head. The sound comes through a little tinny and strange, like you’re hearing it over the radio (which is pretty much exactly what’s happening), but it works. So by default, when you press play on your favorite new Future track, the music mixes with real-world sound rather than drowning it out. In the Here One companion app, you can then go in and control the mix. Want just your music? Swipe down on the app’s screen and drop your volume to -22. Want to ride your bike safely but still hear “Draco” soundtracking your commute? Keep the volume at 0, and let inside and outside sound co-mingle.
Doppler calls this “Layered Listening,” and it’s the absolute best thing about the Here Ones. Sometimes I want complete isolation from the world, but sometimes I need to hear if someone’s calling me or when the timer goes off. With the Here Ones in my ear, I can do both. At any time, a tap on either bud sends them into “Bypass Mode,” which turns off your music and brings the sound back to zero. That’s what you press when you need to hear the subway announcer, or chat with the barista. Tap again and the beat goes on.
The big, audacious thing Doppler is working on goes far beyond headphones. It’s trying to teach computers to hear, to understand what sounds are and which ones humans want suppressed or augmented. Already, the Here One app has a list of “Noise Filters,” one-touch ways to erase certain auditory annoyances. Tap “Airplane,” and the rumbling jet engines and whirring air conditioning vents just vanish. You can turn down the din of a city, turn a throbbing crowd into a small soiree, even pump white noise into your ears to brute-force mask everything else. You can also augment sounds, adding reverb or flange or fuzz to what’s happening in the world. That part is a great demo, and in most cases completely useless.
The filters aren’t perfect yet—to my ears, Office and Crowd sound the same, and the Enhance Speech filter doesn’t seem to do anything at all. The ones that do work feel like magic: I slept better on a plane than I ever have, because I could have quiet without having the eery black-hole isolation you get from noise-cancelling headphones. Be forewarned: you’ve never noticed how loud the world is until you have the power to turn it down. Once you do, you never hear things quite the same way ever again.
I slept better on a plane than I ever have, because I could have quiet without having the eery black-hole isolation you get from noise-cancelling headphones.
There’s a lot going on here, and it comes with a hefty learning curve. You’ll spend the first few minutes of your Here One ownership getting everything properly connected, tuning the buds to your ears, and getting accustomed to all the buttons and knobs and swipe-y things. Even after that you’ll spend a lot of time aimlessly tapping and swiping, hoping for a certain result but never exactly sure how to get there. After a while, I mostly just used the filters and the volume controls.
Interface problems tend to work out over time, though. It’s the tech here that’s the hard part, and Doppler’s further along than I even expected. I find myself increasingly bored by evolutionary developments in smartphones, laptops, and all the other gadgets we use. Everything’s always a little better, without ever being new and different. The Here Ones genuinely feel new and different.
If you’re looking for a pair of headphone and nothing more, you can probably do better for $300. You can probably do better for a lot less than $300, for that matter. Right now, Doppler’s audience is going to be early-adopters who won’t mind the battery shortage and clunky interface, and people who want to wear them to concerts or games rather than leave them in all day.
But this company is on to something. Long-term, Doppler’s work has all kinds of medical implications, translation use cases, and more. Even now, it’s one of the more thrilling gadgets I’ve tried in a long time. Controlling the world’s sound is a superpower I never imagined having, and one I don’t want to lose.
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