Ears are an increasingly popular place for wearable tech to sit, with a number of smart headphone and hearable startups now entering the space.
And it's a busy time for the category, showing the appetite is definitely there for fitness coaches, personal assistants and language translators in our ear, with no bulky wrist accessory or cumbersome display necessary.
Read next: Why hearables are so hard to build
Below, we'll explore devices which actually exist and that we've already tested, like the Bragi Dash Pro and Samsung Gear IconX 2018.
But in case you're not quite ready to buy your first connected ear accessory just yet, we've also detailed the smart earbuds and hearables to look forward to for the rest of 2018 and beyond.
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Best hearable: Bragi Dash Pro
Bragi's update to the original Dash takes everything we loved about the original and ups the ante. It's now got five hours of battery life rather than three. It's got real-time translation thanks to iTranslate, a '4D menu' that lets you use head gestures to navigate menus (a little complicated, but a nice proof of concept), and automatic activity training. A recent update also added Alexa support, for additional smarts.
The new model easily comes out on top in fit and comfort as Bragi is offering a (more expensive) custom-molded version, in partnership with hearing aid company Starkey. If you opt for that, you're getting a far better fit than anything else on this list. Go for the regular Bragi Dash Pro and they're still perfectly snug.
It also has all those same solid fitness tracking features as the original Dash, including run and swim tracking, plus the waterproof design along with the built-in music player make it our go-to model for swimming too. We found the heart rate monitor accuracy falls short of the Jabra Sport Elite, though, with the Dash trailing behind the chest strap by a lengthy margin as we hit the highest intensity.
Bragi comes out number one not only for being the most feature-rich hearable on our list, but for giving us fewest reasons to remove its hearable from our ears. And that's how it should be. Overall, the Dash Pro is an impressively smart hearable, even if the fitness tracking left us a little unsatisfied in testing.
Wareable verdict: Bragi Dash Pro review
Highly commended: Apple AirPods
AirPods aren't quite smart enough to be a true "hearable" just yet, more of a gateway drug and a taste of things to come. And while they might look silly, and not sound quite as good as some of the other buds on this list, there are plenty of reasons to like what they offer.
The Pods are compatible with the iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad and Mac, finding a connection instantly and pausing/resuming music as you take them out/put them in your ears. That's down to the optical sensors and a motion accelerometer that we anticipate could also unlock fitness tracking features in the future.
A double tap unlocks Siri to turn the volume up and down hands-free although the smart assistant integration is still something that can get better. Battery life is around the five hour mark and you do have that charging case to keep them topped up on the move.
The more streamlined hearable approach definitely works in Apple's favour. They just work and if you can live without more impressive features like fitness tracking or augmented audio, then they're well worth considering.
We're expecting the AirPods 2 with 'Hey Siri' voice controls, noise cancelling and water resistance. They weren't announced alongside the Apple Watch Series 4 in September but the second gen earbuds could still launch by the end of 2018.
Wareable verdict: Apple AirPods review
Best Apple AirPods alternative: Samsung Gear IconX (2018)
Dropping before the turn of the year, Samsung's second generation smart earbuds, the Gear IconX 2018, brought the Korean company's smart assistant Bixby plus battery life which blitzes the closest competition ‚Äď five hours of streaming music over Bluetooth, seven hours of standalone use and up to four hours of talk time.
Even if you have a non-Samsung Android smartphone in your pocket, the buds will tap into Google Assistant, but unfortunately there's once again zero support for iOS users here.
They have a snug fit and the wingtips sit comfortably inside your ears. We had no problem keeping these lodged in during workouts. We also really appreciate how they detect when you're putting them in or taking them out, powering up/off accordingly.
Like the Bragi Dash Pro, Samsung has its own version of 'ambient sound', allowing a certain amount of outside noise to pass through while your music continues. In practice, we found the passthrough much better on the Here One, but it still works fine on the Icon X.
As for fitness, the optical heart rate sensor had a tendency to report some strange readings now and then. It also fluctuated a little more compared to the chest strap in the higher heart rate zones. We wouldn't say it's terrible, but the Jabra buds performed better.
Wareable verdict: Samsung Gear IconX (2018) review
Best for translation: Waverly Labs Pilot
Waverly Labs' Pilot crowdfunding campaign built up a lot of hype, raising a total of $4.5 million. Essentially designed to be a pair of Babel Fish earbuds, offering real-time audio translation of 15 languages (plus regional dialects), we were consistently impressed with how the Pilot was able to accurately convert languages. It's not perfect just yet ‚Äď for example, it still finds noisy environments tough to work in ‚Äď but Waverly Labs' first generation sets the foundations for deeper translation smarts in the future.
Essential read: I went on a date using Waverly Labs' Pilot earbuds
It's not just its base smarts that are the selling point, either, with the Pilot also offering one of the more comfortable fits and sleekest designs on the market. And when you're not out on the streets translating, its excellent audio quality will ensure that these become your go-to earbuds when listening to music.
In terms of rollout, the startup began its first batch of deliveries to backers in December, with the rest being shipped out before the hearable hits the retail market this summer.
Wareable verdict: Waverly Labs Pilot review
Best for augmented audio: Nuheara IQbuds
Nuheara raised ten times its crowdfunding target and started shipping out units of its smart IQbuds last year. Like the now-deceased Here Ones, these wireless buds focus on altering your experience of hearing the world, packing in noise cancelling and letting you mix your own balance between your music and the real world.
When we tested the IQbuds, we liked the sound quality, audio blending features and range of presets but were disappointed by music playback controls and battery life. If you're looking to grab a pair, note that Nuheara is about to push out two new earbuds ‚Äď scroll down for more.
Read this: Nuheara IQbuds review
Best for running: Jabra Elite Sport
The wireless Elite Sport seem to do it all ‚Äď real-time coaching, heart rate sensing and VO2 Max testing, plus sweat and waterproofing. Extras include audio pass-through (so you can pay attention to the world around you) and easy switching between calls and music.
In initial testing, we found the sports tracking, comfort and sound quality to be solid, but the HR tracking and charging case to be questionable. However, a software update has rectified some of these issues, as well as bumping the battery life up considerably.
If you prefer an option with wires, then you should definitely check out the Jabra Sport Pulse Special Edition headphones too. They also offer stellar sound, but crucially offer more reliable heart rate tracking in comparison to the Elite Sport.
Wareable verdict: Jabra Elite Sport review
Running hearable alternatives
The self-learning hearable, which raised $1.6 million on Kickstarter, offers real time coaching based on a user's own physiology. It'll interpret data to deliver actionable insights, such as weight loss optimisation, exhaustion level management and even running technique. Plus audio performance is aided, thanks to a partnership with Harman Kardon.
In testing, we found that Vi offered good heart rate tracking and the AI coach can be useful ‚Äď aside from occasional bugs, our only real beef was that the voice detection is too uneven.
The device itself looks like a standard pair of behind-the-neck running headphones, while GPS is tracked via a connection with your smartphone. Speaking of which, you can't use these to track exercise without having your phone with you. That might be a turn-off for some.
Overall, there's lots of potential here, and new features (such as treadmill tracking) have rolled out to the hearable. If you're into running and being coached to become a better runner, then these are worthy of your attention.
Wareable verdict: LifeBEAM Vi review
Oakley Radar Pace
Yep, the Radar Pace are a pair of sports shades with a hearable attached. Expensive, sure, but in our review we were very impressed by the coaching credentials. The conversational AI is awesome and learns your habits over time, though the occasional voice command is missed and it does need to pair with your phone to work.
Wareable verdict: Oakley Radar Pace review
Best smart assistant: Sony Xperia Ear
The Xperia Ear is Sony's take on the Moto Hint, but for any Android phone. The voice assistant is Sony's Xperia Agent (or you can choose Google Voice) and you can interact with it to get news, missed calls and messages, weather, Google searches and more.
It comes in Graphite Black to start, with more colours promised but not yet available, and it has a battery life of 3.5 hours ‚Äď plus Sony has put a lot of work into the call and audio quality, as you'd expect.
Since these are now a little long in the tooth, it may be worth waiting for Sony's new hearable, detailed below.
Wareable verdict: Sony Xperia Ear review
Here's what's coming next in the world of hearables. Some are crowdfunding projects, some are concepts, and some are announcements from bigger companies that haven't materialised as real products yet.
Samsung has filed a trademark for Samsung Buds which we imagine will replace the Gear IconX. But we don't know a lot about them at this stage including just how smart they are and when the Buds might land. Expect its voice assistant Bixby to be on board at least.
For 2018, Nuheara is rolling out two new hearables, both of which are putting a focus on augmented audio. The IQBuds Boost bring more customisation and amplification than the existing IQbuds, along with something called Ear ID that will calibrate the earbuds to give you a personalised sound.
Meanwhile, the LiveIQ buds are focused on noise cancellation, helping you block out the sound no matter your environment. The IQBuds Boost will set you back $449, while the LiveIQ buds will be under $200 and will ship later in 2018. We're currently testing the LiveIQs so look out for a review, coming soon.
We saw many translation hearables dropping just before the turn of the year, though the MyManu Clik managed to get out slightly ahead and begin shipments of its buds in October 2017.
The difference between fellow crowdfunding success Pilot and Clik is that this UK startup's hearables will be able to translate 37 languages in real time. Language packs are synced and stored on the buds, which can detect the language someone is speaking after a sentence. Yep, it doesn't need a data connection.
The translation buds are available to order through its website, though beware of the lengthy wait before expected delivery.
Mars translation buds
Okay, it's another pair of translation buds, but these ones promise to do something special. Rather than one person wearing the buds and the other holding up the smartphone ‚Äď or requiring both parties to own their own pair ‚Äď the Mars earbuds will let you simply stick one bud in the other person's ear and ‚Äď hey presto ‚Äď you're translating.
They currently support English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, and are expected to ship this summer. We've seen them working in action, so we have reason to hope these will make it to a product as promised.
A fitness tracker-like band worn around the wrist, Sgnl looks quite different to other hearables in this feature. But trust us, it's deserving of a place on the list. Sgnl uses bone conduction technology to send sound through your hand ‚Äď put your finger up to your ear and you'll be able to take calls, hear notifications or even listen to audio when watching a video on your phone.
Better yet, after so much waiting we finally have a confirmed release date. Sgnl is set to start shipping soon and will cost $249 when it does.
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