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We Tried the Wearable Tech That is Augmented Reality for Your Ears

We have the scoop on the earbuds that allow you to control every sound you hear.

One of the many reasons I love going to concerts is that in attending one, I surrender almost all control over my experience. I fall asleep during movies I don’t like, my silent protest against someone making me see a Wes Anderson film (yeah, I said it.) If I hate the art at a gallery I just, you know, leave. But concerts cost money, and almost everyone goes in groups or pairs—I’m not likely to just bounce. Entirely at the musicians’ mercy, we're powerless against drum solos and spoken word interludes. But I love the surrender, because at a concert I and all the other attendees are having, whether we like it or not, the exact same art experience at the exact same time. That’s rare these days. Few of us listen to the radio, choosing instead Spotify playlists carefully curated to our preferred brand of afro-jazz gamelan, or whatever. Our TV watching habits are prescribed by demographics; we’re watching Game of Thrones, our parents are watching Blue Bloods, our little siblings are glued to Kendall and Kylie’s Snapchat stories. We have precious few communal art experiences left.


So the idea of Here Active Listening, an earbud system that allows you to curate your sonic world by, for example, lowering the bass or switching on background-obliterating white noise, rubbed me the wrong way right off the bat. Sound-altering ear plugs have the potential to kill the only completely shared artistic experience that I have left—concerts. Here just won best in show at South by Southwest, and has also received ringing endorsements from the likes of Hans Zimmer, who’s an investor in the company and held a listening session at his private studio. But still, I was a skeptic.

Noah Kraft, co-founder and CEO of the company behind Here, Doppler Labs, doesn’t think there’s such a thing as a completely identical music experience, anyway. “All of us hear subjectively,” he told me. "I played drums for eighteen years, and that unequivocally had an effect on my hearing.” So that golden ideal I hold up, of myself and hundreds of other people hearing the same sounds at the same—well, that’s probably not happening. We’re all hearing things at least slightly differently. The idea behind Here is that we should all be able to create individualized sound experiences, to be able to boost the mids if the sound guy’s an incompetent, or kill the volume by a few decibels to save your ears a week of ringing after the show. “If we went to a restaurant and someone put food in front of both of us and didn't give us salt or spice we would say we have different preferences, we have different tastes, right?,” says Kraft. "Your ears are on twenty four hours a day, but there was  no way to give you that kind of dynamic control to allow you to really understand how you hear.” I wasn’t completely convinced. Aren’t your ears supposed to ring after a punk show? Shouldn’t we rejoice in or suffer the terrible or wonderful sound quality at the shows we attend? But I wanted to give Here a fair shot, so for a week I incorporated the earbuds into my day-to-day.


The Second Here Sound Experience at Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Studios

From the moment I tried them, the buds felt like they were in my brain. There’s no delay, and the sound is altered the second you perceive it, which creates a seamless listening experience. “People compare it to Oculus a lot,” Kraft tells me, and the comparison is apt: Here is augmented reality for your ears.

The buds are easy to set up. After about half an hour of charging them—they conveniently charge in their carrying case, connected to your laptop via USB—you simply place them on your smartphone to pair them to the Here app. It’s this app that allows you to change the quality of the sound around you, either by adjusting the EQ to your specifics or using the pre-set audio filters, which are designed for different genres of music (“Dirty South") or non-musical soundscapes (“Office”). As I wore them on the subway ride home, I was relieved to turn down the volume of the train thudding into the station, of loud bro-versations, of teenagers in general. After placing the comfortable buds in my ears I immediate forgot they were there. By linking the Here tech to something we’re already used to—earbuds—Doppler Labs circumvents the major problem with wearable tech, which is that its concept is often too novel or its design just too ugly. (“We need to make this as much socially acceptable as it is tech, because if it’s not you’re Google Glass,” says Kraft. "And no one wants to be Google Glass.”)


But the big test of Here was a concert setting. I wore it to a Young Fathers show, where I sat in the back with other boring people who want to enjoy a beer without having any spilled on us. The sound guy didn’t give the opener, HXLT, much love, but with Here and my phone app, I could. I turned the treble way down, infinitely improving my listening experience. Funnily enough the pre-set filter that best suited the show was “Airplane.” And, to my considerable embarrassment, I turned the volume way down. The only problem I had was that I was so comfortable with the soundscape of my own creation  that whenever I turned to talk to my companion I did so way too quietly—I had totally forgotten that we were at a very noisy show.

So yes, I’m the sheepish convert. I’m a purist in theory, and I love the idea of the transcendental group art experience, but in reality I want to be able to hear the vocals and wake up the next morning without being afraid that I gave myself tinnitus. Here’s not yet available at the Best Buy near you—you can join the mailing list, but be warned that it’s currently 70,000 deep—but Kraft and co. are aiming to get it to market by the end of the year.  And I’ll try to stop thinking of my Here earbuds as the tools that will bury group listening. For me at least, they enhanced it. I felt far more engaged and present at that concert than I would have had I been distracted by the shitty sound and my ringing ears. With Here, I was truly there.


To learn more about Here Active Listening, click here.


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