They can bring out that subtle pluck of a violin string or they can deliver the monstrous bass of your favorite dubstep. They help us in that never ending quest to find that perfect listening environment. Odds are, if you’re willing to drop your children’s college fund on a set of headphones, then you’re probably just as discerning when you see your favorite music live.
As we know, the mix of a live room can be as diverse as the sound engineer who is mixing it. What if we had a tiny front of house engineer living in our head who could deliver the exact mix of the music that we’re listening to? Is the music up in the balcony lacking some bottom end because the FOH engineer is tuning the mix to the general floor? Are the vocals too low for you? Are the guitars washing out too much in the mix and swallowing the bass guitar? These are all real concerns that I have at pretty much every live show I go to. So when I read about Doppler Labs and their Here Active Listening earbuds, I was extremely excited to try them out.
Ultra low distortion
9.5 – 10 g
Lithium ion rechargeable
40 – 22,000 Hz
Low energy 4.0
Here, Here Active, Listening, Earbuds
Here Active Listening earbuds are wireless buds that allow you to manipulate your live sound environment through two digital buds and an app on your smartphone. Don’t be confused… These buds are not headphones for listening to recorded music from your favorite music player. They have tiny omnidirectional microphones built into the buds that, with the help of a intuitive app on your phone, process your live listening environment and allow you to adjust it to your liking. Think of them as headphones for the real world.
I spoke with Noah Kraft, the CEO and co-founder of Doppler Labs recently, and he explained to me that the idea for Here Active Listening sprang from his experience as a drummer and his knowledge of the importance of stage monitors and personal taste in live music listening environments. What we personally like in a listening environment is highly subjective and fine tuning it in a live setting has not been a reality until recently. He’s taken this personal listening environment idea and ran with it and has expanded it into a pretty audacious product in Here Active Listening. He not only wants you to have the ability to EQ your environment, he wants you to be able to add effects too, or actually cancel out unwanted sounds around you.
The buds come in a very clean and modern looking package with minimal documentation. Minimal documentation is just fine with me because the setup is actually a snap. You download the app to your smartphone and then pair your earbuds by literally placing them in a circle on your screen when you first open it.
The buds themselves are about the size of a dime and come with different sized tips so that you can easily find a comfortable fit. Also included is a nifty little storage case that charges the buds as you store them. (You get two 6-hour earbud charges per every single case charging.) Once in, I was surprised at how snug they fit. While the size of the bud looks a bit bulky, they always felt secure in my ear, and I never had the idea that they’d fall out.
The first screen in the app is where you adjust the dB output and the overall volume of what you hear through the earbuds. You can dial down the real world sound about 20 dB lower, and you can also raise it about 6 dB higher. There is also a Hi-dB mode that allows you to listen to louder environments without overloading the mic inputs.
The second screen to me is the meat and bones of the app, though. This is where you have a 5 band parametric EQ that, with a swipe of a finger, you can adjust levels between 180Hz to 6.8Hz. There are also six other effects that you can toggle on or off (bass boost, flange, echo, reverb, etc.) on this screen, and you can have up to two of them on at once. The third screen is filled with various preset filters tuned for human speech, classical music, or psychedelic effects, as well as a number of noise cancelling filters for subway, office, or airplane environments.
I tested the buds at a number of shows with varying types of music and in different sized venues. The first thing I noticed was what a dramatic change it is from what I’m used to. It really changes your listening environment, and it can be a bit disconcerting at first. I just wasn’t used to having ANY control over what I was listening to at a concert.
I quickly learned one important thing about them, though. The buds aren’t necessarily about adding EQ or color to your sound. To me, they’re more about dialing out UNWANTED frequencies. At a rock show, I was able to remove some of the upper harsh frequencies that can kill a vocal or guitar sound. Dialing down some of the upper frequencies allowed the other instruments to sit better in the mix. I kept taking them out and putting them back in to make sure that what I was listening to in the buds was better than what I heard without them. While the difference isn’t absolutely life changing, I found myself missing them when they weren’t in. When they were out, I kept thinking, “Man, I wish that kick drum was just a little less boomy.” I’d put them back and in and do exactly what I wanted. I’d dial down the bass a bit and level the kick off. The more I had them out, the more I missed this option. I tried them out at a smaller venue with a jazz quartet, and the control seemed to be even greater. The low level middle frequencies of the acoustic instruments made it easier to zone in on each individual instrument. Granted, some of the environmental noise, such as the talkative table crowd, gets accentuated as well, but in a way, this helps to maintain the live environment. I’m not trying to isolate myself from a live show. I’m just trying to improve on what is coming from the stage.
Overall, they seemed to be more effective in lower volume environments. They tended to struggle and distort a bit (even in Hi-dB mode) in some extreme volume environments, but these instances were at VERY loud rock shows. I really pushed the volume at some of these shows, so I’d say the high volume was much more extreme than an average user would experience
In the end, I find the buds to be an exciting start to an untapped technology. I don’t think they’re an absolute game changer quite yet, but they’re on the way. I would like a little more EQ control over a wider range of frequencies. I’d also like the sound to be a bit more inclusive in regards to the environment around you when you have them in. Remember, I’m not trying to isolate myself from the live experience, I’m trying to fine tune what I’m hearing as if I DIDN’T have headphones on. The good news is that Doppler Labs CEO Noah Kraft told me that these were both things that they were working on, that Here Active Listening was just the beginning, and that updates were already in the works. He also told me that the ability to set presets for your favorite venues were in the works, as well.
Imagine you go to a show at Madison Square Garden and are sitting in section 120, row 13, seat 3. You put your buds in, dial up your preset, and you are instantly surrounded by your favorite mix tuned to that particular part of the venue, to whichever band is playing and adjusted to YOUR personal tastes. As far as the filter settings, I personally have no use for the effects such as flange, echo, etc., but the noise cancelling filters are as effective as your favorite noise cancelling headphones.
As of this writing, Here Active listening isn’t for sale. You can sign up for their waitlist, which currently sits at over 90.000, at www.hereplus.me. A hugely successful Kickstarter campaign proves that the excitement for this technology is real. One thing is clear to me, though. Now that I’ve had a taste of real time personal live mixes, I can’t imagine going to another show without thinking that the ability to improve my live listening experience is on the right track.