Screaming infants, be gone: these earbuds control the world's sounds

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Nate Ralph/CNET

It's late on a Friday night, and the pounding in your skull is magnified by the banshee wail of express subway trains, whisking past your station. Or you've just boarded a cross-country flight, and are greeted by a troupe of infants, getting ready for an extended wailing session. Wouldn't it be great if you could whip out your smartphone and press a button to cut right through the noise? With Doppler Lab's Here Active Listening earbuds, you can.

Actually, you probably can't. Here Active Listening is the name for an "in-ear audio system" the lets you fine tune your aural environment. In layman's terms, you'll pair these wireless earbuds to your phone via Bluetooth. But they're more like microphones than headphones: choose a preset on the included app (available on iOS and Android), and all of the sounds around you are suddenly at your mercy.

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Nate Ralph/CNET

Noisy trains getting you down? Hit the Subway preset, and the earbuds will adjust the audio frequencies you're hearing to tune out that incessant screeching. Want to lend the crowded show floor at CES in Las Vegas a bit of gravitas? Tap Carnegie Hall, and soak in the booming echoes and reverberations of a million companies hawking their wares in cavernous dome. Actually, maybe don't do that -- I'm still recuperating. You can also crank the volume of the world around you down or up, and there's an equalizer if you've got a particular preference for how everything around you should sound.

This probably doesn't sound like something you need, and Doppler Labs' CEO and co-founder Noah Kraft told me as much: "We are well aware this isn't for the mass consumer." And that's why you can't have them. Doppler Labs made a limited run of 10,000 units, doled out to their most fervent fans for $199 (AU$280, £135). They'll offer feedback, showcasing the interesting ways they're pulling these devices into their lives -- unsurprisingly enough, there are a lot of musicians involved.

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Nate Ralph/CNET

This feedback will ultimately evolve into a consumer-oriented product arriving sometime at the end of the year, when it'll be focused on automation. Walk onto an airplane, for instance, and it'll automatically adjust the audio frequencies around you to tune out the low, persistent hum of engines. Is there a baby on board? Let the app know, and it'll silence them too.

It's strange, I know. But the earbuds are small, and light, and don't feel at all obtrusive. The current model lasts 5 hours on a charge, and their carrying case doubles as a portable charger that'll serve up an extra 10 hours of juice.

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Nate Ralph/CNET

Ultimately it's a bit like the first time I tried virtual reality, or Microsoft's Hololens -- it's really hard to understand how awesome it is to modulate the world around you, in real time with no latency, until you've stuck these buds in your ears and given them a listen. I'm not alone: there's also a waitlist (currently 20,000 strong) of folks itching to take a crack at this bizarre little gadget, but we'll just have to see what emerges at the end of the year.

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