Ears are an increasingly popular place for wearable tech to lie, with a number of smart headphone and hearable startups entering the space. And it's a busy time for the market, showing the appetite is certainly there for fitness coaches, personal assistants and language translators in our ear, with no bulky wrist accessory or cumbersome display necessary.
Below we'll explore devices which actually exist and which 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, we've also detailed the smart earbuds and hearables to look forward to for the rest of 2018 and beyond.
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.
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
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 - scroll down for more.
Read this: Nuheara IQbuds review
Samsung Gear IconX (2018)
One of the latest options to drop are Samsung's second generation smart earbuds, the Gear IconX 2018, which bring the Korean company's smart assistant Bixby and battery life life which blitzes the closest competition - 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.
Wareable verdict: Samsung Gear IconX (2018) review
Jabra Elite Sport
The wireless Elite Sport 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 initial 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. However, a software update has rectified some of these issues, as well as bumping the battery life up considerably.
Wareable verdict: Jabra Elite Sport 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 and there's more features to come including treadmill tracking.
Wareable verdict: LifeBEAM Vi review
On the hearables beat
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
Despite many translation hearables dropping in the latter half of 2017, the MyManu Clik managed to get out slightly ahead and begin shipments of its buds in October.
The difference here between fellow crowdfunding success 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.
The translation buds are available to buy through its website, though beware of the lengthy wait before expected delivery.
Moto Hint +
Motorola has put two of its Hint attempts on sale so far, and the second iteration 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.
It's not just MyManu and Pilot building the translation hearable hype, with Lingmo's earpiece and microphone setup promising 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.
Products are shipping, though the site tells us they're currently sold out.
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 built up a lot of hype, raising a total of $4.5 million in total, 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. After initially failing to meet its initial estimated delivery in May, Waverly Labs told us recently it is now aiming for fall 2017. However, as of yet, we're still waiting.
$249 (RRP $299), waverlylabs.com
Nuheara IQbuds Boost and LiveIQ
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 haven't yet been priced, but will be available to buy from this April, while the LiveIQ buds will be under $200 and will ship this summer.
Mars translation buds
Ok, 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 - or requiring both parties to own their own pair - the Mars earbuds will let you simply stick one bud in the other person's ear and -hey presto - 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 on our list. But trust us, it's just as deserving as a place on this list. Sgnl uses clever bone conduction technology to send sound through your hand. 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 shipping out this March and will cost $249 when it does.
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.
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