​These Earbuds Are Like Instagram Filters for Live Music

I augmented an M. Ward concert with Here Active Listening’s bionic ears.

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May 6 2016, 1:00pm

M. Ward performing at Webster Hall in New York City. Photo: Meg Neal

We talk a lot these days about augmenting and altering the real world by sticking a computer in front of your eyes, but what if you stuck a computer inside your ears? Get ready for it, because superhuman-like robot ears that can remix your sonic environment are on the way.

I'm referring to Here Active Listening, a pair of wireless Bluetooth earbuds that let you curate your personal soundscape by controlling and manipulating the noise around you. The augmented audio gadget, made by Doppler Labs, has been in beta for a couple years and is set to be commercially available later this year.

The idea is to add a little excitement to the sounds of the real world. It's marketed particularly for concerts, basically like Instagram filters for live music. With this in mind, I took my demo pair to a show on Wednesday to see if these bionic ears could actually enhance the listening experience.

First step, you wedge these rubbery pods into your ear canal so they fit snug in your ear. (Good luck doing this in a dark club two drinks in without losing one of them and throwing $200 down the drain.) The earbuds are outfitted with tiny microphones, and you adjust the sound parameters of the live audio with an accompanying smartphone app. Discover did a good job explaining how this works:

Here buds rely on signal processing algorithms that target certain sound frequencies as they enter the headphones. An internal microphone processes the sound waves, then a miniature speaker blasts additional waves to add, delete or alter the sound based on the chosen algorithm. Finally, a second microphone picks up the remixed sound wave and sends it into your ears. This entire process happens in less than 30 microseconds.

Here buds in their charging case. Photo: Meg Neal

It's basically like being the sound producer of your own world. If you're in a noisy crowd, a swipe of the finger turns down the volume in the room, just for you. The coolest part was playing with the equalizer. This lets you filter out certain sound frequencies and amplify others, which ostensibly means you could muffle the annoying woo boy behind you but turn up the music on stage.

At least, that's the idea. The technology isn't quite sophisticated enough yet to cherry-pick what sounds you want to block, though that's the long-term goal. Still, playing around with the EQ was very fun. I tested it on a bus ride through Brooklyn and was able to mask the rumble of the engine while still being able to hear the driver announce my stop.

In fact, the personalized volume control and EQ were so handy, augmenting the live music with stylized effects was probably the least interesting part of the tech. Personally, I found the music filters underwhelming. The app offers some standard effects like bass boost and echo, plus a bunch of custom sound settings like "dirty country," "8-track," "Carnegie Hall," or "small studio."

I cycled through a few of these at an M. Ward concert in New York, and just about all of them sounded worse than the real sound. (Though I quite enjoyed the "stratosphere" filter that made the rockabilly set sound like you were on an acid trip floating through space.)

M. Ward at Webster Hall in New York City. Photo: Meg Neal

It was also quite trippy to think while my friend and I were standing next to each other at the same show, we were having totally different experiences of the music. In fact, even if the volume level and sound effects I was hearing sounded superior to reality, it was a bit off-putting to know that it wasn't authentic.

I wondered what musicians would think of this, so I asked Sean Yeaton, Motherboard's former deputy editor who now tours as part of punk band Parquet Courts. He said it could be cool to match your soundscape to your mood in mundane settings like the grocery store, but immediately balked at the idea of giving the audience control over the live sound at concerts. He pointed out that it would be pretty fucked up to go see Nine Inch Nails only to make it sound like Jefferson Starship.

Yeaton said he could see the technology appealing to audio nerds who are excited to go to huge concert and sit in the audience tweaking the bass or something. Or maybe at a huge festival where you're far away and want to change the volume level.

But bands are often careful about curating their sound even in a life setting, he pointed out: Interpol, for example, travels with their own PA system and will replace whatever system is in the club with their own so it's all perfectly measured out to create a desired effect that the band is curating. From a performer's perspective, he said, "I could find a way to make it fun, but it'd probably be panic attack inducing."

He also pointed out that curating an individual experience runs somewhat counter to the very point of going to a show, which is sharing a mutual experience with other people. "It would just be another opportunity to isolate yourself," he said.

Doppler Labs CEO Noah Kraft had quite a different take. "Live musicians are actually totally embracing this," Doppler Labs CEO Noah Kraft told me on the phone later. Unlike a recording studio, in a live environment artists are already giving up a lot of control, said Kraft, who himself is a musician. "What we're doing is we're giving total curatorial control to the community."

Live music is the application for the sound-altering ear buds that Doppler is pushing right now. It sold about a thousand preview units to Coachella attendees in April to demo the experimental gadget, which has been generating a fair amount of buzz: About 80,000 people are on a waitlist to get ahold of the Here buds. (You can sign up here.)

Kraft also told me that the company is not interested in incorporating the technology into headphones to augment recorded music, which he said would take away from the careful work a producer puts into mixing the perfect track. I did try the buds out on some records at home however, which was amusing. Adding reverb to the end of "Back in the USSR" was fun, as was adding the "psychedelic" filter to "Dear Prudence."

But the company is really focused on enhancing the experience of live hearing as a fundamental part of daily life, said Kraft. "For some reason we've always just accepted, your ears are your ears, they're on 24 hours a day and you just have to deal with it," he said. "All of us hear the world differently. We're trying to take that subjectivity and give it back to the user."

That's a cool idea, but the product's not quite there yet. My takeaway after trying these for a week is that Here is a fun toy, but not incredibly useful beyond the basic volume control. The app lets you turn the din of the world up or down several decibels, plus there's a high-decibel mode that acts like a shortcut to limit the amount of noise entering your ears in a really loud environments like a concert, while still maintaining fidelity.

I actually had the most fun with the equalizer. It includes five adjustable frequency bands ranging from 180 Hz to 6.8 kHz. (For some context, the human voice is in the 85-255 Hz range.) In other words, with the swipe of a finger you can turn the volume down on certain parts of the soundscape and up on others. Eventually, Doppler wants to automate that process, said Kraft. There could be something like a "Mute Crying Baby" button so you don't have to manually fiddle with the sound levels.

Down the road, Kraft imagines the ear buds will function like smart ears that sense your environment and prompt you with suggestions for altering the sound. For instance, a geolocation feature could tell you've just walked into JFK airport, and the app will ask if you want to switch to airplane mode. Then the noise of the jet engine and baby crying in the front row are masked, but you can still hear the voice of the flight attendant.

"We want to be the computer in your ears—a la Star Trek, or Her"

Indeed, the company has some lofty goals that are stripped right out of the pages of science fiction. "We want to be the computer in your ears—a la Star Trek, or Her," Kraft told me. "We want to make it something that's almost superhuman."

He painted a picture of this futuristic scenario: You wake up after a great night's sleep because your earbuds muted your partner's snoring. While you're getting ready the smart assistant in your ears reads you some New York Times headlines. On the commute, it reads you your emails while blocking out the noisy rumble of the train.

An even loftier goal is real-time voice translation, like the Babelfishof Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame. Kraft said this is closer than you might think, estimating it will be possible to make the powerful supercomputer needed for language translation small enough to fit in your ears in less than 10 years.

As far as live music goes, the smart ears could know the type of music you're listening to, sense there's a wall behind you, and auto-adjust the perfect EQ for that seat, said Kraft. "We believe that every seat in the house should be the best seat in the house acoustically. And we can do this."