I tried earbuds that completely changed how New York City sounded around me

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Business Insider

Last summer Doppler Labs made waves by introducing earbuds that didn’t play music, but instead customized the sounds around you. The concept was that the “Here” earbuds would let you turn the bass up during a concert, or tune out the screeching of cars on the street.

It got a lot of people’s imaginations going.

After a runaway success on Kickstarter, Doppler was able to raise $17 million from venture capitalists to make the design a commercial reality.

In February, the Here buds shipped to Kickstarter backers, though they still aren’t available in stores.

I’ve gotten a few chances to try them out, at various points of development, and they feel truly otherworldly at times.

Here’s what my time was like:


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Business Insider

Music

Before the first shipment of the Here buds, a lot of the focus was on music, CEO Noah Kraft told Business Insider. That was the piece of the project early backers were most passionate about.

I tried out the final version, and the music effects are undeniably cool. They allow you to bass-boost live music, or mess with things like reverb and flange. You can even alter different frequencies of sound – like bass, mids, and trebles – and they allow you to easily remix live audio.

But most people aren’t going to music concerts every day, and I wanted to try out the Here buds’ other side as well.


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Commuters make their way through heavy crowds in New York.
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REUTERS/Keith Bedford

The city

I decided to wear the buds as I went about my daily life in New York City, to see how they could change the way I experienced the sounds of my life. The key to this was their presets, which try to optimize your hearing for environments like “city,” “bus,” “crowd,” “office (loud or normal),” and so on.

Using the “city” setting completely changed the way I heard New York. The buds blocked out the constant din of the city, but unlike earplugs, most individual sounds floated through. I could hear people talking, music, or a car door shutting. They made the city a more serene experience, and if you are easily bothered by loud noise, I could see you wanting to use this setting.

This setting was perfect for wandering. I felt a slight disconnect from my environment, at least at first, but it made me notice small things. It’s great for daydreaming.

But there were parts of the “city” setting I didn’t like. It made my own voice feel alien, like when you listen to a recording of yourself. It simply didn’t sound like me when I talked. And wind was an issue. I found wind tended to mess with my Here buds – to a lesser scale than it would an unprotected mic, but still noticeable.


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Business Insider

The office

Using it at my office had its pros and cons. The buds made it easy to concentrate when writing, and I could definitely still hear people when they talked to me. (They didn’t block out too much noise.) But there was something weird about listening to people’s speech that made me not want to have a full conversation with the buds on. I could hear, but perhaps since some frequencies are blocked, I had the sensation that I might miss the next word (even if I didn’t). It’s not ideal for a dinner-table conversation.

That said, the buds have a different convenient setting called “human speech,” which makes people’s speech more audible. It’s great when you are having a hard time hearing someone talk, like at a crowded bar, though it makes their voice sound a tad wonky.

One of the strange things about using the buds at work was that I began to notice sounds I never had before. When I took away all effects (to make sure the default wasn’t distorting anything) I heard a buzzing that wasn’t familiar. I thought there was something wrong with the buds, so I took them off. The buzzing was actually our climate-control unit in the office.


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Reuters

Airplane

One of the most impressive experiences I had with the Here presets was when I boarded a plane. The low drone of the plane on the runway immediately zipped out when I turned on the “airplane” setting. I could hear people talking around me, but it didn’t even sound like I was on a plane anymore.

What the buds didn’t help with, unfortunately, was the baby crying loudly two rows away. One of the initial pitches of the Here buds was that it could potentially cut out a baby’s crying. This would have been perfect for scenarios exactly like this one: Where you are trapped in an enclosed space with a baby that is not yours for an extended period of time.

But alas, Kraft said that filter has been tough to build. Babies crying, by evolutionary design, actually hit a bunch of different sound points, he said. But his team is still working on it.

In all, the Here buds filters feel a bit like colored glasses meant to block out sunlight. They work, and make it more pleasant to navigate the world, but something feels a slight bit off as well. They are fun to play with, but unless you find noise to be very bothersome, the true value of the Here buds probably still lies in their quite remarkable music functionality.

You can join the waitlist for Here earbuds here.