Headphones want to evolve and become more than just mini speakers.
No, your everyday earbuds aren’t going anywhere. But for the past couple of years, a small subset of companies have quietly tried to transform wireless headphones from simple audio products to full-fledged in-ear computers.
German startup Bragi has been a key part of this; its Dash earbuds blew up on Kickstarter in 2014, and helped shape what a so-called “hearable” could be. The gadgets had touch controls, fitness tracking tools, the ability to let in outside noise, and heaps of sensors. They also played music!
The problem is they weren’t very good. Bragi improved the Dash with software updates over time, but their battery life was eternally short, and they just couldn’t stay connected over Bluetooth. The fact that they cost $US300 didn’t help.
Months have passed, though, and the ideas Bragi was getting at make a
little more sense today. Apple’s AirPods have made the concept of truly wireless earbuds somewhat normal, while startups like Doppler Labs have helped popularise the notion of earbuds that augment real-world sound.
Now, Bragi is launching its follow-up: the Dash Pro. It goes for $US329, and it’s available online today. Bragi says a retail launch at Best Buy and other stores will happen “over the coming weeks.”
The Dash Pro largely follows in the original Dash’s footsteps: It looks almost identical; it’s totally wireless; it still fits snugly (after a little manoeuvring); it does fitness tracking; it has a host of touch, swipe, and motion controls to learn; and there’s 4 GB of built-in storage, so you can play audio files straight from the device.
The existing Dash will be discontinued to make way for the Dash Pro, but many of the upgrades here are coming from a big software update that will also apply to the older model. Bragi is promising better battery life, improved sound, a cleaner “audio transparency” mode (i.e., the mode that allows you to let in more real-world sound without taking the earbuds off), and a “one-touch” Bluetooth pairing process. All of that sounds great, but I won’t be able to say how true it actually is before testing the Dash Pro further.
The thing Bragi is pushing the hardest is a partnership with iTranslate, a foreign language translation app. Some background: Doppler Labs and other “hearable” companies have long been teasing the possibility of having your smart earbuds translate foreign languages in real time. The dream is that you can hear someone talk to you in English (or whatever) in real-time even as they’re speaking in Mandarin in reality.
Bragi’s OS update will technically make that happen, but it’s a bit of a hacky workaround. You need a $US5 monthly subscription to iTranslate Pro and to have that app loaded on your phone. When your foreign-tongued friend begins speaking, the phone app translates his words in real time and pipes an English version straight into your earbuds.
On the off chance that you come across another Bragi Dash Pro user, you can just talk to each other with the app connected, nodding each time you speak. It’s nice that Bragi has something for this scenario — and Bragi says the app supports about 40 languages — but you could use iTranslate on your phone and be nearly as efficient, without the head nods.
Along those lines is something Bragi calls the “Virtual 4D Menu.” This taps into the motion controls Business Insider reported on last year; as you move your head to the sides, the Dash or Dash Pro will tell you menu commands, as if you were looking at a virtual screen. Move it slightly to the right, and you can select, say, Google Assistant (or Siri on iOS); move it far to the left, and you can choose to pause a song that’s playing. If this works, great, but simply using your voice to activate certain commands would render all of this moot.
Slightly more useful is the update’s purported ability to automatically recognise whether you’re running, swimming, or biking, then log your exercise data in Bragi’s companion app accordingly. Likewise, Bragi says it’s rolling out a “superhearing” mode that lets you raise or lower the volume of the outside world.
The most significant updates are still likely to be the simplest. Bragi says the Dash Pro gets five hours of battery life on a charge, or 30 hours through its battery case; that’s not amazing in a vacuum, but it would be pretty impressive for a truly wireless earphone — if it delivers that performance in real life. The whole thing is waterproof, too, and Bragi claims its bumped up the voice tech so you won’t have to repeat your commands too often.
Bragi is also promising that the Dash Pro’s Bluetooth connection will be as reliable as its lower-end Headphone earbuds. I found those to work very well, but they also have far less tech to deal with. Again, time will tell. Given that my brief demo was in a noisy restaurant, the same sentiment applies to the Dash Pro’s sound quality.
If you’re super into all of this, Bragi is also partnering with hearing aid maker Starkey on a model that can be customised to the shape of your ears. It will cost $US500, and you’ll have to visit an audiologist to get yourself fitted, but if you’re willing to splurge on a fit that only you can wear, there you go.
Earphones like the Dash Pro live and die by their smarter features. If you just want truly wireless earbuds, the Headphone is very competent (potentially awkward fit aside), and the AirPods work like a dream with other Apple devices. They’re both much less expensive, too.
Bragi certainly has big ideas for devices like this — CEO Nikolaj Hviid said that the company has toyed with the idea of using earbuds like this to power AR-style glasses. And the Dash Pro may have its charms; having your headphones double as your fitness tracker makes sense, and being able to do phone things without having to stare at a screen is a compelling pitch.
The underlying tech has to work first, though. Here’s hoping that Bragi’s promises hold true this time around. If that happens, then we can talk about how healthy the notion of keeping computers in your ears all day is for society.
We’ll have a more definitive verdict on the Dash Pro in the coming weeks, after we give it a full hands-on review.