Sony's latest hearable, the Xperia Ear Open Style concept, is getting closer and closer to a full product. We had previously seen and used it twice - once at MWC Barcelona and a second time at a Sony Future Lab Program event just a few weeks ago.
This time, at MWC America, Sony had created a working model that looks good enough to actually sell. The idea is still the same: two spatial acoustic conductors and drivers transmit sound to your ear canal, connected to a module that sits just below and behind your ear. That's where all the technology is housed. All of this lets you listen to both the real world and your private sound at the same time, something Doppler Labs has also been working on with the Here One.
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A couple of things are new. First, the new design is starting to look less like a concept and more like a polished product. While Sony didn't want to confirm materials, as it insists it's still finalizing parts, it felt like a matte aluminum. If you've held an iPhone 7 or Sony's own Xperia phones you know what that's like.
Second, the shiny metal bit - a nod to the previous, all silver design - is contains a touch-sensitive control panel. You can swipe this area to increase and decrease the volume. The left earbud also relies on the right earbud to work. It has a proximity sensor that can tell when it's in your ear, and when it's in it'll start playing in conjunction with the right earbud, which does a lot more of the processing work.
Previously, the small rings that slot into your ear to broadcast that sound had been simple. They worked fine, but they were a little firm. Sony has redesigned those to contour a little better to the ear, and they're made of a softer, more flexible material. It was no trouble at all to put them in, and once they were in it was really comfortable. I couldn't even tell I had something in my ears, unlike in-ear headphones. Also, my ear canals are on the smaller side, I always struggle finding in-ears small enough to fit comfortably. I didn't have that problem with the Ear Open.
As for the experience, I listened to some Michael Jackson as a Sony rep explained things to me. As before, I could hear him and the music at the same time. The sound quality was a little better than the last time I tried it at Sony's Future Lab event. While I only tried one song, I can say the sound felt a little fuller than the sound on say, AirPods. They were turned up quite a bit, but I was still able to have a conversation with the Sony rep. Also, I could perfectly modulate my voice so I wasn't screaming.
If you're a big music person, you might not want the real world interrupting your music. It's a little difficult to concentrate on both things at the same time, one eventually turns into background noise. However, the idea behind the Ear Open is to give you music in situations where your attention might be called upon. Like, say, when you're running in a city, or at work, or speaking to someone who speaks in a foreign language and you need translations piped into your ear. That's something we've seen in the Bragi Dash Pro, by the way.
Sony is still working on other features to make the Ear Open smarter. It's working on the ability for the device to sense the sound around you and adjust the volume to compensate. So if you're in a loud environment it'll raise the volume to keep up. It's also got bigger plans, as Sony is keen to see this device used for real-time translation and AI personal assistants. For example, pinging your AI buddy to search for someone on Facebook before you meet someone at a party. Creepy, sure, but a good way to avoid an awkward encounter.
The device also has sensors like a gyroscope for gesture-based navigation. I wasn't able to try them out, but Sony said they were in there. Currently, those sensors are used alongside the proximity sensors to figure out when it's in your ears and ready to activate.
Sony also showed off a new version of the charging case, which Sony says will provide three to four full charges. The device itself will get you about three to fours hours of use, at least in its current form, netting you a total of 12 hours.
The Xperia Ear Open concept is still very much a concept, but Sony says it's getting closer and closer to a final product and an actual release. And, well, based on my hands-on time with it the Open Ear definitely feels like a device that's pretty much ready for primetime.
There are a couple questions left to answer. Right now it feels like the Ear Open sit in a spot in between the Bragi Dash, Here Ones and the AirPods. Its open design doesn't allow for the traditional music experience of the AirPods, and it's not as smart as the Bragi or Here Ones - yet. This feels like a product that'll do well with a couple niches, like runners or office workers. But for everyone else? That might depend on the price, whenever that's released, and when it releases.