Every once in a while, I try a new piece of technology that genuinely blows me away. The first time I strapped on an Oculus Rift; my first experience with a self-driving car. My debut outing with Doppler Labs' Here Ones earns a place on that list too.
The Here Ones, an update to the Here Active Listening hearable we reviewed last year, are a pair of noise-cancelling smart earphones that manipulate and augment the way you hear the world. While we were impressed by Doppler's Here Active Listening, there was a big limitation: they didn't play music. The Here Ones change that with support for audio over Bluetooth, along with more useful ways to filter noise and the ability to let you interact with Siri and Google Now voice assistants.
I've now spent over a week with the Here Ones plugged into my lugholes. I've worn them in bustling streets, busy coffee shops and even on a plane. Doppler has found ways to make the Here Ones useful in a wide range of real-world scenarios, and my experience across many of them has left me duly impressed.
There may still be some way to go, and the Here Ones aren't perfect, but I've never been more excited about where hearables are headed. Here's my review of Doppler's new buds.
Here One: Design
I'm walking down the road listening to music. I turn onto a particularly loud and busy street, so I whip out my phone and roll the Here Ones down to -22dB (the lowest you can go) which instantly suffocates the sound of traffic. I then enter a coffee shop and tap one of the earbuds to activate the bypass so I can hear the barista. I make my order, collect my coffee, then tap again to pick up the music where it was paused, all without removing the earbuds or drawing too many perplexed looks.
The Here Ones are impressively small for what they do, aping the design of the Here Active Listening buds and coming in just a tad smaller than the Bragi Dash. They're sleek and snug enough that you might not immediately notice them if you were to look face-on at someone wearing them.
I seem to be in the minority of people not bothered by the design of Apple's AirPods, but those of you who do find the tiny toothbrush look off-putting will prefer the more clandestine shape of the Here Ones. They look like a generic pair of wireless earphones, and that's perfectly OK.
Doppler refers to the Here Ones as "in-ear computers" due to all the processing taking place inside, which makes the weight and size all the more remarkable. Each earbud is circular with a grille that lets the microphones "hear" the outside world, allows you make calls and means you can even speak to Siri/Google Now.
Included in the box are five extra pairs of differently shaped tips, so I'd recommend trying them all out to find which fit most comfortably before you start using the Here Ones. The earbuds themselves come in a charging case – again, identical to the one we got with the Here Active – that resembles a contact lens box, with a small light on the front that shines orange when the Ones are charging.
Here One: Sound
I'm getting on a plane. The moment I find my seat I pop my Here Ones in and hit the Airplane filter in the app. The world is suddenly drowned out and I'm back in my sound bubble. Then they start doing the safety demonstration, so in an attempt to be a courteous passenger I reduce the noise cancellation to let outside sound in without stopping my music. When they're done with the demonstration, I bring the sound back down again, and as we take off the raucous noise of the plane escaping the tarmac is mostly deafened by the noise cancellation and music.
The Here Ones are comprised of two main elements: real-world sound and streamed audio. These can be used simultaneously but it's only the real-world bits that you can manipulate. Doppler has made it easy to do this with a handful of pre-set filters that help you get the best listening experience in certain situations. These include 'City', which reduces wind and street noise, 'Crowd' which fades out background chatter, and the aforementioned Airplane filter.
The good news is that Doppler is taking the music aspect seriously too, and has produced a really good pair of completely wireless earphones for listening to tunes. I've switched over from my trusty Sennheiser in-ears, and the sound is just as warm and full with enough bass for my liking. Audiophiles may grumble at elements, but overall Doppler has done a good job here.
Of course, where the Here Ones outshine many other wireless earphones, including the AirPods, is in the quality noise cancellation. I like the AirPods but they leak a lot of sound, while the Bragi Dash let ambient noise in but don't give you precise control. The Here Ones give you both those things.
Streamed audio is something you can't manipulate, but you can layer it with the noise of the outside world, and there are a fair few scenarios (beyond airline safety demonstrations) where this might be useful. Maybe you're cycling and want to listen to music but not block the sound of traffic. Perhaps you're at a baseball game and want to listen to live commentary in your ear but still hear the game and your friends sat next to you. Or maybe you're one of those people with the impressive ability to chat while listening to music. Hats off to you – I think you'll like this feature.
Sound quality on calls I've found to be a little so-so, however. The mic pickup has proved to be consistent but the sound has been a bit muffled for both me and the person on the other side. When using Siri the mic has been good at picking up words even in busy spots, although sometimes I've had to raise my voice a little louder than I'd ideally like to when speaking to a robot in a public place. Both these features could do with some improvements over the first few software updates.
Here One: Audio filters and features
I'm sat in a cafe. Noise levels are peaking with the lunchtime rush so I stick in the Here Ones and enter my sound bubble. Then I tap on the 'Enhance Speech (Back)' filter and bring the volume back up. I can now clearly hear the people on the table behind me talking, but the rest of the room is much fainter. Without the earbuds I can only make out bits of conversation, but when they're in my ears the words are more distinct. I feel like a spy. And a tad creepy.
Another day, I'm sat opposite a friend and try a filter that instead enhances sound from the front. At the tap of an icon his voice is more pronounced while the clatter around us is washed out, and I can more easily focus on what he's saying to me. The Restaurant filter meanwhile amplifies all voices nearby, which makes it better for situations where you're sat with more than one person.
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As I mentioned earlier, there are several preset filters to play with, but you also have the Live Mix setting, which switches off all filters and lets you mess around with the EQ to fine-tune a profile that suits your situation, or to simply isolate a specific sound.
Chances are that a lot of people won't know what they're doing when they first open this bit of the app, but it's intuitively designed so that it's easy to work out, and you'll be able to hear the different frequencies move as you play with them. You can also add neat effects like echo, reverb, flange, fuzz and a bass boost. When you've found your perfect mix it sticks, even if you quit the app.
Doppler has also added inputs into the earbuds themselves that mean you won't always have to reach for your phone. Taking out either bud will cause the music and/or sound filter to automatically pause, and it will resume when you reinsert them. This works great, though the tap feature is a little uneven.
As I've mentioned in some of my examples here, tapping a finger on the earbuds lets you perform some quick functions that are particularly useful in moments where you need to filter in outside noise. One tap switches on the bypass that lets all sound through and pauses any music; another tap applies the filter again. Two taps will activate Siri or Google Assistant, which you can speak to through the mic. So far I've found this quite hit and miss, sometimes having to go for a second tap to get it to register, and it can be a little annoying.
Here One: Battery life & Bluetooth
Sadly however, the battery life is pretty poor, and easily the biggest negative of the Here Ones. You'll get up to two hours if you're just streaming music, three if you're exclusively using the real-world sound control features. Most of the time I'm using a combination of both, which means I'm usually hovering at the two-hour mark or just under before the voice tells me the battery is low. You'll get about three charges from the case, which is good, although it takes almost an hour to charge the earbuds back up to 100%.
So really it has to be episodic, and that might be fine for some people, but as the Here Ones rarely disconnect me from the outside world I find myself wanting to keep them in for much longer than the battery allows. Sadly, it stops the Here Ones from being my go-to earphones, as much as I want them to be. Over time I'm hoping Doppler finds a way to rebalance the power consumption to we can squeeze a bit more life out of them.
Another problem that occasionally arises – and one I've also had with the AirPods – is the Bluetooth connection. It can get choppy, although there seems to be no way of knowing when it will happen. It's rarely been a problem, but there have been a couple of times where it's started stuttering and I've had to remedy it by switching which pocket my phone was in (even if it wasn't closer to the earbuds, moving its location seemed to kick the stream back into gear).
One final limitation at the moment is Android support. Right now the Here Ones work fully on iOS but are limited on Android to the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7 at launch, although Doppler says it will be expanding the range of supported devices soon.
Here One: What's coming next
The Here Ones are very impressive, if let down by poor battery, but I'm more excited to see where Doppler takes this product over the coming months and years.
Doppler is working on a real-time translation feature, and although the company told me it has no timeframe for release, this could turn out to be the killer app. In the more immediate future it's going to be releasing more noise filters, and a feature that will suggest mixes based on your location and the time of day. If and when the AI elements start getting smarter, thing will get more interesting – Spike Jonze's Her is creeping closer and closer to reality.
When I spoke to Noah Kraft, CEO of Doppler Labs, he said he believed the Here Ones had an episodic use case. Maybe you'd pop them in for a bus ride, take them out again when you get to work, then put them back in when you go for a midday run. Having used them for a while now, I actually feel differently. Being able to listen to music, block out unwanted noises and hear people when I choose to, there are few reasons for me to ever take these out of my ears. Yes, I feel a bit odd wearing them in a social situation when nobody else has anything in their ears, and that anxiety isn't going away until devices like this get more ubiquitous – but they will.
In our last Wareable 50 list we placed hearables as our big bet for 2017. After spending time with the Here Ones, I am more confident than ever that we made the right choice.
- Fantastic augmented audio
- Noise cancellation
- Rich sound
- Lots of features and customisation
- Two hour battery life
- Sometimes doesn't register taps
- Bluetooth sometimes choppy