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Review: What It’s Like to Have Super Hearing Abilities

With Here earbuds from Doppler Labs, you’re in control of your aural environment, and it’s pretty sweet.
February 12, 2016

I never thought much about what it would be like to change the way the world around me sounds; if I don’t like the sound of a street musician or the din of a busy shopping mall, I either put up with it or leave.

This week, though, I acquired the superhuman ability to simply adjust the noise to my liking, and it’s pretty great. I’ve been testing out Here Active Listening System, a pair of wireless Bluetooth earbuds that work with a smartphone app that uses algorithms to change the way you hear anything from rock concerts to construction noise, with hardly any latency.

Created by a startup called Doppler Labs, Here offers a sort of augmented reality for your ears (see “The Coming Wave of Bionic Hearing Gadgets”). As such, Here is nothing like your typical Bluetooth earbuds or headset. It’s not meant for listening to music privately or making phone calls; in fact, it can’t do either of those things.

What it can do, via the app, is let you swipe to adjust the volume on a conversation you’re having with a friend who’s standing in front of you (or, say, a TV show you’re watching without having to change the sound level for anyone else who’s watching). You can play with an equalizer to fine-tune the bass, mid-range, and treble tones you hear while listening to music, or tap on one of many preset filters to give tunes a specific sound.  There are also eight different filters, still in “beta,” meant for eliminating noise in specific situations—on a subway, bus, plane, or office, for instance.

Here Active Listening System's earbuds and smartphone app let you enhance sounds you like and block those you don't want to hear.

Here isn’t yet widely available; Doppler Labs recently began shipping it to people who bought it through a Kickstarter campaign last year, and is allowing anyone who bought a ticket to the Coachella music festival in April to buy a pair of the earbuds for $199. The company, which raised $17 million in venture funding last summer to help build the product, hopes to sell it to anyone who wants it later this year for somewhere between $199 and $299, CEO and cofounder Noah Kraft says.

That said, the buds I’ve been using are clearly a finished product. They are pretty comfortable—I wore them for up to an hour at a clip over several days, and had no trouble keeping them in my small ears. Cleverly, they come in an oblong black case about the size of a harmonica, which stores them securely and also acts as a portable charger.

Here Active Listening System includes two earbuds and a storage case that's also a portable charger.

Popping the buds into my ears was strange at first. I started out in my office, which is usually pretty quiet except for the incessant whir of the fan on my laptop and a giant server cabinet, and swiped the volume meter down. The noise was suddenly quieted, as if I were wearing ear plugs. I tapped the “Office (ambient)” filter, and the sounds disappeared even more, replaced by some white noise.

Things got a lot more interesting when I ventured onto the mean streets of San Francisco. I passed by a man drumming and singing on Market Street, tapped Here’s “aphex” filter to give his sounds more of a spacey feel, and then played around with the live equalizer and another filter to give his drums a nice boost of bass. It felt surreal—and fun—to stand there, manipulating the music he was playing as he was playing it live in front of me.

When I was ready to move on, I tapped on the app’s “city” filter and wandered off down the street. This filter and a “crowd” one proved useful for dampening the noises around me while walking around downtown and through a loud food court in a nearby mall.

A rendering of what makes up each of the Here earbuds.

Later, I futzed with the graphic equalizer to make the tunes sound just right at a pizza place while eating lunch. It was kind of like being in the bubble that earplugs offer, but with the ability to not just block sounds but also tweak and even improve them.

Though I could hear if someone was speaking directly to me while using these filters, it was muted—I needed to switch to a “human speech” filter or take out one of the earbuds to talk to a clerk at a store.

I also wished I could have saved the volume and equalizer settings I came up with for specific places; Kraft says an update that makes this possible will be coming in a month.

There are definitely some situations where the Here buds aren’t that helpful, though, and may actually make your aural experience worse—such as when I took them along to go out to dinner with my husband at a bustling restaurant with awful acoustics near our home in San Francisco.

As we sat down, I tapped the “human speech” filter and immediately realized that it amplified not just my husband’s voice but also the voices of everyone around us (“What are they saying?” he asked, though I was determined not to eavesdrop). Eventually I managed to futz around with the equalizer in such a way that I seemed able to home in on his voice, but it took at least half an hour and didn’t make him sound much better than when I just removed the earbuds.

More often, though, using the Here buds made me feel like I had a strange new ability that nobody else around me knew about—an ability I’d like to keep playing around with.

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