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The Coming Wave of Bionic Hearing Gadgets

Startups like Doppler Labs are building earbuds that will let you turn down the volume on crying babies and pump up the bass on live music.
August 14, 2015

In a windowless office on a tiny San Francisco side street, Noah Kraft is making me hear things in a way I’ve never heard them before.

I’m wearing a wireless earbud in each ear. The devices, which are white and look kind of like big Altoids mints, are the latest prototype built by Doppler Labs, a wearable-technology startup of which Kraft is cofounder and CEO. Kraft is sitting diagonally across from me, chatting, and using an iPhone app to manipulate the sound of his voice and the relatively quiet background noise of the office in ways that only I can hear.

He adds an echo to his voice. He raises and lowers the bass, treble, and midrange. Then he stands up and walks several feet away, but he sounds as loud as if he were yapping right in my ear—until I take out the earbuds and confirm that he’s actually speaking pretty quietly.

There are already plenty of companies out there selling ear-worn devices like hearing aids and Bluetooth headsets. Doppler’s products are neither of those. It’s one of a few companies working on wearable gadgets that aim to augment the average person’s hearing: you’d be able to adjust the bass and treble at a concert with a few swipes on an accompanying smartphone app, or block out specific noises like a crying baby or the hum of an airplane engine.

The wearables market is growing at a rapid clip: the market researcher IDC says shipments of wearable devices tripled during the first three months of 2015, to 11.4 million. Though most of these wearables are wristbands, Doppler and other startups focusing on sound enhancement, like Nuheara and Soundhawk, believe consumers are getting comfortable enough with technology worn on the body to put it in their ears.

“Reality isn’t half bad,” Kraft says. “If we can enhance it and optimize it a little bit, that could be a really cool thing.”

Kraft knows it won’t be easy to convince the average person, though. For that reason, Doppler’s first product, a pair of $199 earbuds called Here, will be aimed at audiophiles, and sales will be limited when they start shipping out in five months. The company is making 12,000 pairs of them, Kraft says, and has already sold about 3,300 through a Kickstarter campaign that raised $635,000 (more than twice the company’s $250,000 goal); anyone else who wants them can sign up on a wait list.

Doppler’s earbuds work by using algorithms to cancel out sounds you don’t want to hear as they enter your ear, while letting through the sounds you do want. It’s all controlled with a smartphone app, and the company plans to include settings for situations like live music and travel. When I tried it, it did work, though I didn’t get to test it out in a stressful situation like a plane trip with a crying baby.

Nuheara, meanwhile, is trying to do something similar to Doppler but also plans to let users of its forthcoming wireless earbuds connect with digital audio—music, phone calls, and, on the iPhone, Siri. David Cannington, a cofounder of Nuheara and its head of sales and marketing, says an iPhone app will let users do things like adjust background noise to enhance music they’re listening to or boost their hearing in a noisy restaurant. Cannington says the company hopes to have a working prototype by the end of the year and to start selling the earbuds in late 2016 for “less than $300.”

Like all kinds of wearables hitting the market, though, those made by Doppler, Nuheara, and others are facing formidable challenges with technology and comfort. Since they tend to use Bluetooth for communication between the in-ear device and a smartphone app, they depend on that wireless technology to work well—and as anyone who’s used a Bluetooth headset knows, the sound quality can be choppy even over very short distances.

I didn’t encounter this when trying Doppler, but I did notice some fuzzy sounds when my long hair brushed past the earpieces. And sometimes when Kraft spoke to me I got the sensation of being in an empty concert hall or train station. As he explained, the company is still tweaking sound quality to get things like echo cancellation just right.

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