The Sony Xperia Ear isn't just a small Bluetooth headset, it's a hearable that puts the internet in your ear. No screens. No looking down. No interrupting what you're doing - if you're down with voice interactions, that is.
By 2020, 9 million of us are predicted to be rocking hearables and that could be a low estimate. But since Her came out and convinced a bunch of sci-fi inclined movie lovers that this is the near future, we've only actually seen one product - the Moto Hint - focus on putting a virtual assistant in our ears. Everything else has been about fitness.
We've seen a second gen version quietly announced and we don't know what sales have been like but it's safe to say the Hint hasn't exactly been a gamechanger itself.
Now, Sony, which has much more experience and prestige in terms of earphones than Motorola, is jumping in with its first non-fitness featured smart earbud. The Xperia Ear handles calls, it will read out texts, you can ask it to search the web for you. It doesn't actually look that dorky. Here's how we got on when we tried it at Mobile World Congress 2016.
Sony Xperia Ear: Fit and features
The Xperia Ear is as big as the Hint but it's also seriously light, easy to get snug in the ear and comes with a bunch of ear tips to get the fit just so. It felt like I could easily wear this for hours on end whereas with the Hint, I tended to swap ears to combat the ache.
Sony's original release said that the Xperia Ear will arrive in summer 2016 in Graphite Black only but on the stand at MWC, Sony was showing off a range of colours including white, yellow and pale pink. These are the classic Xperia colours taking from its smartphone range. We can't help thinking that Motorola's faux wood and textured covers are a little classier but the new colours do at least mean a bit of customisation.
Instead of just tapping the device to activate voice controls, like on the Hint, you click the surface of the Xperia Ear - a much more satisfying experience when you can't see what you're touching and you want to know it has registered.
In the short demo, it worked every time and the noise signal to show that the hearable's mic was ready to pick up my voice command was pretty much instant. That's good to know as the Hint had lots of problems with losing its connection - the Xperia Ear pairs over NFC and connects over Bluetooth and we're intrigued to see how it holds up during real life testing.
I got to try out a few things including asking the Ear's virtual assistant to tell me the weather in Barcelona - I got the weather in Baltimore but hey, we were in the middle of the noisy Sony stand so we'll forgive it for the time being.
The assistant is called Voice Agent in the app and as far as I can tell, there's no personalising it as you can with the Hint and Motorola phones. Then again, clicking the bud makes more sense than saying "What's up, doc?" a bunch of times so this set up works.
The sound quality was good, definitely loud enough (another problem with the Moto Hint) and Sony confirms that the earbud can just be used for podcasts, calls and (if you must) music if you're not so bothered about voice controls. The voice tech is Sony's own but the Xperia Ear also works with Google Now so that expands the functionality if your whole life is in Google's cloud.
The charging case accessory is also modelled on the Moto Hint's - it's not as nice but does the same job by tripling the battery life of the smart earbud.
Sony Xperia Ear: Early verdict
We don't know the price of Sony's new hearable yet but if it's affordable this could really be a winner. We'll also need to test the Xperia Ear properly to make sure it's not a disappointment like Sony's most recent foray into ear tech, the fitness focused Smart B-Trainer.
For now, it's light enough and, you know, it works well enough, to be an intriguing device. No doubt version 2 will be smaller or Sony might just choose to make a pair of these with one smart Xperia earbud and one that's just wireless, for music. Then it would really be onto something.
The hearables trend is hotting up, with the biometric Bragi Dash going for the fitness angle and Google, Samsung and Apple all rumoured to working on their own devices. If Sony can price this right and get it into shops by the summer, it could have a shot at owning this category early on, something that Motorola never quite managed with the Hint.