Muse 2 is the follow-up to Muse, a brain-sensing headset from Canadian startup InteraXon that's all about keeping you calm.
The second generation device once again works with a smartphone app to create your own personal meditation assistant, holding your hand on the path to inner peace with audio guided mindfulness sessions. The headset’s suite of advanced sensors read movement, heart rate and brain signals and use the data gathered to monitor the effectiveness of your meditation time.
The app offers a range of coached lessons across four key areas: body movement, heart rate, breathing and mental activity. You can choose which of these you wish to focus on, with each session carefully constructed to help you improve this one aspect of your meditation.
The Muse 2 headset will set you back after which all the guided sessions are free. That might sound like a significant outlay, but when you consider that a lifetime subscription to the leading meditation app, Headspace, costs costs considerably more than and for that you don’t get any concrete data-driven insights into the effectiveness of your meditations, it’s actually quite competitively priced.
I've been putting Muse 2 to the test to find out if it delivers on the promise to help you relax. Here's my full verdict.
Muse 2: Design and comfort
Muse was first launched back in 2014, but the design has been significantly refined in this latest headset. It’s sleeker, lighter and, as a result, more comfortable to wear.
However, the major update with Muse 2 is not the new slimline design, but the addition of new sensors. In addition to five EEG (electroencephalography) sensors that read brain activity, there’s an accelerometer and gyroscope for tracking movement, and an optical PPG sensor that monitors heart rate and blood flow from the forehead. These sensors are used in combination to assess breathing rate and rhythm.
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The headset weighs just 40g and is about the size of small set of headphones. You wear it wrapped around your forehead and behind your ears rather than over the top of the head, a bit like a character out of Star Trek. You’re most likely to wear this in private so that’s no big deal.
The front band of the headset houses the small strip of electrodes and the optical heart rate monitor while each arm extends behind the ears with a soft silicone hook. This holds the motion sensors but also acts as the anchor for keeping Muse in place. The headband loop is adjusted much like an old-school set of overhead headphones, with an extendable band that you slide to find a good fit. And fit is crucial for Muse to work accurately.
The positioning of headset and sensors has to be extremely precise, and though there are very helpful animations on the app to show when it’s tracking correctly, this can be hit and miss. It’s by far the most fiddly part of using the device and even once you establish the correct connection between your forehead and the sensors, it doesn’t always feel entirely secure. It feels like it’s missing a strap around the back of the headset to hold it firmly in place.
That said, once the headset is in place it’s comfortable enough to wear. The last thing you want when you’re trying to block out the world around is a piece of distracting hardware stuck to your head that you’re constantly aware of. Thankfully after a while you forget you’re wearing the new Muse.
Overall the design is neat, compact and relatively stylish for a piece of neurotech. Muse feels much more like a mainstream piece of consumer tech than some of the headsets I’ve tested, such as the weight management aid Modius, which can be a bit medical to look at.
However, the hardware feels quite delicate, particularly the front strip that contains the EEG contacts and the heart rate sensor. I didn’t bash it about in my tests, but you get a sense that it won’t take too many heavy knocks. That makes it all the more surprising that there’s no carry or storage case included to keep it protected. If you wanted to transport this from home to work or on your travels this could become an issue.
Muse 2: Getting set up
Muse takes less than 15 minutes to set up. In addition to the headset you’ll need your smartphone, the app (available on iOS and Android) and ideally a set of Bluetooth headphones to listen to the audio guidance. You can just use your phone speaker, but the experience is much better over headphones where you can tune into the subtle changes in sound that let you know when you’re achieving the calm state you want.
The headset connects with your phone via Bluetooth and once you’ve paired and connected once, it should auto connect as soon as you switch your Muse on and open the app. However, I found there was often a delay in the app finding the headset. So you have to be patient here.
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Unsurprisingly for a device that wants to help you find inner calm, Muse works really hard to make you feel comfortable during set-up. And it succeeds. The guidance in the app, from the first time you fire up the headset, through each different type of meditation – and what’s about to happen in each session – is excellent.
Muse artfully explains the technology and how to use it correctly to get accurate and optimal results. As I’ve mentioned much of this covers how the headset needs to be worn to ensure the sensitive sensors can do their job.
Before each session Muse needs to calibrate to ensure it’s reading correctly for that unique session.
Muse is very sensitive and picks up electrical activity from muscles around the eyes, jaw, and brainwaves from visual processing, so by doing a relatively quick calibration before each session, it’s better able to filter ‘noise’ from the signals that may corrupt your data.
This will initially be a bit frustrating but the nature of the technology means it’s crucial that the sensors have the right connection and your brain activity is being accurately read. And once you’ve been using the headset for a while it becomes a normal part of your session.
Muse 2: Coaching and other features
Beyond the practical technology, Muse also teaches you how to meditate effectively and the techniques required to improve skills in breathing, controlling heart rate, being still and quieting your mind.
The content related to each type of meditation – body movement, breathing, heart and brain activity – needs to be downloaded before you do your first session.
The way Muse’s American coaches lead you through the guided lessons is incredibly supportive, with each class clearly explained and very easy to follow. The language used is very much akin to what you’d hear at a real life meditation. If you’re new to this, it can feel a bit fluffy. But it’s more human than a lot of virtual coaching devices I’ve used in the past. Meditation concepts are clarified and what could easily be a bit daunting for newcomers is a calm and relaxed experience.
These instructions can be a tad long winded at times and you can skip them if you wish, but if you’re a beginner these really help to understand the purpose of each session with tips on technique too.
There’s great attention to detail and I loved the fact the coaches and the in-app feedback post-session were seriously non-judgemental. If you didn’t hit a high percentage of calm, no problem. The app just congratulates you for trying to meditate when your mind is most busy.
Outside of the meditations, other features include a a journaling tool with prompts to update your journal after each session so that you can keep notes that relate to how you felt during your meditation: what worked, what was hard and any thoughts that might have been recurring.
You can set practice reminders, and Muse also sets challenges such as doing four meditations in a week or hitting a percentage of time spent in a calm state during each session. These have all been cleverly designed to help you get the most out of Muse and to motivate you to spend more time being mindful.
The headset can be shared between multiple users, though each person will need their own app. Battery life is solid with up to five hours of continuous usage and the device is micro-USB rechargeable off a standard cable.
Muse 2: The app and the meditations
While Muse makes it easy to understand what you’re supposed to do, being good at it is another thing entirely. And this is where the headset comes into its own.
If you’ve tried and failed at meditation before but weren’t really sure why, Muse is a fantastic tool for demystifying the art. By breaking down the aspects of meditation into breathing, body, heart rate and mind, it really helps you to see how everything is interconnected. It removes that tendency to feel overwhelmed by trying to improve erything at the same time. The way you move between the lessons is well orchestrated too, so you’re learning different techniques at the right time, layering your mindfulness skills as you progress.
The companion app is generally well presented and easy to navigate. The profile screen gives a good overview of your recent activity with the number of sessions in your current streak and your longest streak to date, the total number of minutes you’ve spent meditating, how many Muse points you’ve clocked up – these are allocated based on your performance – along with the total number of birds and recoveries you’ve earned.
There’s also a graph that shows the time and type of practice you’ve done for the past two weeks. You can dig deeper into your history with a single tap that takes you to a list of all your sessions. There’s more detailed data for each session, though the charts here could be a bit easier to read. But they’re simple enough.
When it’s time to meditate, you can set how long you’d like to practise, anything from 1 minute up to 3 hours 59 minutes. The coaching is cleverly loaded into the front end of the session so you can do short meditations. You can choose from different soundscapes including rainforest, beach, desert and city park, and you can also select the guided exercise you wish to do. Each audio guide does need to be downloaded and they tend to be under 3MB per file.
Across all the different sessions Muse uses audio feedback to indicate when you’re hitting the right spot. Here’s how the sessions break down:
Perhaps the trickiest of all, the mind meditation sessions use Muse’s EEG sensors to track your brain activity. That’s right, the headset can tell when you start to worry about work, family and life. When you mind is clear and calm you hear birds singing, when your thoughts get more busy the rain starts and increases in intensity the more distracted you become.
The responsiveness here is impressive. The audio feedback was instant when my mind wandered or a work stress popped into my head. It’s initially a strange feeling to have feedback that’s so connected to what’s happening in your mind and body, but learning to control this is what Muse is all about.
Each time you restore calm from a rainstorm, Muse rewards you with what it calls a Recovery. The idea here is to become better at being able to bring your mind back to a state of calm when those busy thoughts inevitably pop into your head. Being able to see this in the app post session is really useful.
During these sessions you hear your heartbeat played back to you in real-time in the sound of a rhythmic, soothing drum. As your heart rate settles the drum slows, as it rises it speeds up and gets louder. I found this session to be the most familiar and easy to control. Again the responsiveness was spot on.
I also tested the accuracy of the optical sensor against a Polar H10 chest strap, and while the Muse app doesn’t make it easy to read the heart rate data on a granular level, the graph matches pretty closely the average and max HR readings we got from Polar.
In practical terms, it feels like this would be a great thing to do right before an interview, a public speaking event or any occasion where you can feel your heart rate rising due to outside stress.
During a breathing session Muse measures a combination of your heartbeat, body movements and breathing rate to help guide you through a variety of breathing techniques and exercises. You start with lessons focused on a 4/6 long exhale – where you breath in for a count of four and out for a count of six – with attention on the rise and fall of your chest and stomach.
You get the same audio assistance here with a rhythm to help hit the flow of the in and out counts and a harmonising sound when you’re getting it right.
The body sessions are designed to help you discover your ideal posture and sitting position for all your other meditation sessions. The motion sensors capture subtle movements of your head and core, and the real-time audio feedback helps you understand when you’re fidgeting or changing your posture.
Muse was spot on at picking up when I shuffled a leg or even slightly turned.
Again, you get very useful feedback on the app with a chart that shows how long you’ve been being active or relaxed.
One criticism I’d level at Muse is that the repertoire of lessons is currently quite limited. In the breathing section there’s only the 4/6 session and there are only three guided options for heart rate. However, given that InteraXon purchased a content company called Meditation Studio in July 2018, we’re assured much more is coming soon. That’ll be essential to make it rival the popular mindfulness apps in terms of guided meditations.
Muse 2: Did it work?
I’ve tried meditation before and failed miserably. It’s easy to get frustrated when you don’t immediately find ultimate calm or you can’t clear your head. But I’ve never really known why I’m failing. As a result I’ve given up quickly.
If Muse’s aim is to help you meditate more and stick to the task it then I’d say it works. After using the headset for a month, I found myself looking forward to sessions. I have a far clearer understanding of meditation techniques and what affects our ability to clear our thoughts or be restful.
Did it make me better at meditation? It certainly helped me see that I was already better than I’d given myself credit for. Being able to see the amount of time I spent in a calm state, laid out in numbers, is very different to making a subjective assessment. In my past attempts I was clearly being overly critical.
Did it make me feel more calm and bring clarity and focus? Without doubt. I used Muse at various times during the day to see how it felt and doing just five minutes before bed was an excellent way to prepare myself for sleep. I also used it immediately after an intense workout (the quicker you can get your body into a calm state, the better your recovery will be) and I also found this was effective.
- Good battery life
- Extensive tracking
- App prone to crashes
- Some connectivity issues
- Needs more variety of sessions