Ears are the right place for wearable tech. So says a growing number of smart headphone and hearable startups. And while 2017 might have been quiet so far, the appetite is certainly there for fitness coaches, personal assistants and language translators in our ear, no bulky wrist accessory or cumbersome display necessary.
We'll start by looking at the devices which actually exist and which we've already tested, like the Here One, Bragi Dash and Samsung Gear IconX. In case you're not quite ready to buy your first connected ear accessory, we've also given you a quick update on the smart earbuds and hearables to look forward to for the rest of 2017 and beyond.
Bragi Dash Pro
Bragi's new 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.
There's also the Dash Pro tailored by Starkey, which will allow you to go in to an audiologist and get a Dash Pro customized for your ear. Fancy! If you have a hard time finding earphones that fit then it's definitely worth the extra to get a customized version. 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
Here One is Doppler Lab's first widely available hearable, after its successful experiment with the Here Active Listening. And if you don't care about in-ear fitness sensors, it beats pretty much all the competition.
One adds music streaming, layered listening and Siri/Google Now controls to the initial features of noise filtering, cancelling and augmenting. The two wireless earbuds have one flaw - a short battery life, though the case does double as a charger.
Read this: Apple AirPods v Doppler Labs Here Ones
Nuheara raised ten times its crowdfunding target and started shipping out units of its smart IQbuds in January 2017. Like the Here Ones, these wireless buds focus on altering your experience of hearing the world. It also packs noise cancelling and lets you mix your own balance between your music and the real world.
When we tested the Nuheara's, we liked the sound quality, audio blending features and range of presets but were disappointed by music playback controls and battery life. Plus in the ear, Doppler Labs' efforts do look more sleek than these.
Read this: Nuheara IQbuds review
Samsung Gear IconX
We've tested Samsung's first Gear IconX and we're now expecting to see second gen IconX at IFA. It's a tidy price from Samsung considering that features include touch controls, 4GB of storage for music plus fitness and heart rate tracking.
The IconX's will even connect to apps like Endomondo, Runkeeper and Strava. But it's not perfect - the buds do a lot of things well but nothing brilliantly. It's Android only as well, sorry iPhone owners.
Wareable verdict: Samsung Gear IconX review
Jabra Sport Elite
The wireless Sport Elite seem to do it all - 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 testing, we found that the sports tracking, comfort and sound quality is solid but the HR tracking is questionable and there's a big flaw with the case.
Wareable verdict: Jabra Sport Elite in-depth review
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 offers good heart rate tracking and the AI coach can be useful - aside from occasional bugs, our only real beef was that the voice detection is too uneven. Overall, there's lots of potential here.
Wareable verdict: LifeBEAM Vi review
Where next gen hearables at?
- Are people ready to wear smart earbuds?Bluetooth headphones are doing big sales - here's what next
- What hearables can learn from AirPodsThey’re far from perfect, but they can teach smarter earbuds an important lesson
- On the horizon: Real-time translation earbudsThe what's what of translation hearables
Oakley Radar Pace
Yep, the Radar Pace is a pair of sports shades with a hearable attached. Expensive, sure, but in our review we were very impressed by its 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
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 still not available, and has a battery life of 3.5 hours, plus Sony has put a lot of work into the call and audio quality, as you'd expect.
Wareable verdict: Sony Xperia Ear review
Moto Hint +
Motorola has put two of its Hint attempts on sale so far, the second one was announced with much less fanfare than the first. This second-gen Moto Hint is the same overall look and design as the first Hint with better audio and a 17 hour battery life. Features wise, you can listen to messages and updates and relay voice commands to your smartphone.
Here's what's coming next in hearable. Some are crowdfunding projects, some are concepts and announcements from bigger companies that haven't materialised as real products yet.
Pilot's crowdfunding campaign got off to a crazy start, raising a total of $4.5 million in the end, but we had some questions about this language translating earbud from NY startup Waverly Labs. It's essentially designed to be a pair of Babel Fish earbuds, offering real time audio translation of various languages, a couple of European ones to start with. You can now expect it in fall 2017, rather than the initial estimate of May.
$249 (RRP $299), waverlylabs.com
You wait ages for one pair of translation buds... Mymanu Clik is shipping to this summer. The difference here between Pilot and Clik is that this UK startup reckons its 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.
£155 (RRP £280), mymanu.com
Make that three translation hearables. Lingmo's earpiece and microphone setup promises to translate spoken conversations or written text within 3-5 seconds. It currently supports English, Japanese, French, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, German and Chinese using IBM Watson to help perform its translating party piece. You can order them from the Lingmo website right now and they should start shipping in July.
$179 (for one) or $229 for two, lingmo.global
Sony Xperia Ear Open Style Concept
A new one from Sony. If you were expecting a tweak to Sony's single earbud, you're dead wrong. The Xperia Ear Open Style Concept is a totally new form factor with all the tech tucked behind your ear and an open earphone. They come as a pair so you can listen to stereo music but it's much the same features from the Xperia Ear - tapping to speak to Google and Sony's voice assistants and getting updates in your ear on your schedule, news, the weather etc.
This is just a concept for now as Sony is waiting to see how they are received before it makes a reality - we're not sure about the current form factor but we do like the direction Sony is heading in.
Announced way back at CES 2016, Misfit's Specter magnetic earbuds handle music, sleep and fitness tracking but are sadly still MIA. If they do eventually launch, they will also be compatible with Misfit's Link platform, letting you access apps, services and gadgets - we presume via voice controls.
Specter was supposed to launch in Spring 2016 but Misfit has massively missed that deadline. They've also disappeared off of Misfit's site, which definitely isn't a good sign. A little while back, Fossil VP Sonny Vu told us that Google Glass should have been a hearable so we may yet see the Misfit Specter - or something similar from Fossil Group - later in 2017 or in 2018.
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