Doppler Lab's new totally wireless earbuds don't quite live up to the hype, but these feature-laden headphones are one of the best AirPods alternatives we've tested to date.
Smart Earphones . That's what Doppler Labs calls its new Here One totally wireless headphones. The question is: Are they really smart or just too smart for their own good?
The earphones will be available online in March for $300. (That translates to about £242 or AU$391, but the Here One website only shows shipping addresses for the US, Canada, UK and most of Europe.)
Read more: Here One headphones put my ears in the uncanny valley
They're not the first totally wireless (separate left and right buds) earphones to lay claim to the "smart" mantle. Bragi's The Dash, which got off to a somewhat rocky start, has been on the market for several months and shares some of the same features as the Here One: Touch controls, a noise-isolating in-ear design, multiple microphones, a pass-through mode that lets you hear the outside world, so-so battery life, and a companion app that lets you control the headphones "smart" features. Oh, and like the Bragi, the Here One comes with a charging case that has a built-in battery that delivers over three full charges.
Out of the gate, the Here One is the more polished product and a step ahead of the Bragi in terms of sound quality, delivering a reliable wireless connection with only the occasional Bluetooth hiccup. Using one of the included different-sized ear tips, you should be able to get a fairly comfortable, secure fit that will keep these guys in your ears even during a gym workout (yes, they're sweat-resistant and some accessory fins are coming for runners, but they aren't available at launch).
So long as you get a tight seal, the Here One clearly sounds fuller than Apple 's AirPods (the other big truly wireless headphone on the market). The Here One delivers meatier bass and decent clarity for a Bluetooth headphone (a good wired in-ear headphone that will cost less than half the price will easily best it, however). The AirPods are significantly more comfortable to wear but they have an open design and let in a lot of ambient noise. But they cost just over half as much as the Here One, too.
Aside from the good sound quality the Here One's differentiating factor is its noise filters. The earphones are equipped with six microphones and you can choose to tune out the outside world with a noise-canceling filter or tune it in with a pass-through filter.
If you're saying, "What's the big deal with noise-canceling headphones? Aren't Bose and other companies already doing that?" The answer is yes. But the Bose QuietControl 30 noise-canceling in-ear headphones cost the same as the Here One, but come in a bulkier neckband design. And while the noise-canceling feature is very well implemented on the Here One as well, it's the customizable filters where the headphone sets itself apart.
Some of the preset filters work well. For instance, walking around New York City using the city filter really cuts down on the noise, making this a much better totally wireless headphone to use in noisier environments than the AirPods. But picking which filter to use can be a challenge. Differences are subtle, and the Here One doesn't automatically make suggestions based on the environment or switch modes.
Doppler is also touting the restaurant filter, which allows you to tune out the din of background restaurant noise and amplify the voices of the people you're talking to at your table. It works but I personally wouldn't want to wear these headphones while eating. You never forget they're in your ears because they're noise-isolating -- the tips are jammed in your ears -- and you can hear yourself chewing. A noisy bar? That might be more of a real-world scenario for use.
That's a general problem with Here One: Do you feel like wearing in-ear noise-filtering headphones all the time? Probably not -- or at least until they get slightly more comfortable and the sound coming into your ear doesn't sound so processed (at times it felt a little like listening to a good speakerphone). But like other emerging "hearables," the Here One is banking on a future where you might constantly want earphones in.
These earphones are also designed to work as as a headset and they mostly work well -- at least in quieter environments. You can access Siri or Google Now voice assistants with a couple quick taps on one of the buds. However, accessing Siri or Google Voice doesn't always work on the first try. And you'll most likely encounter other small glitches. But the one feature that I appreciated was the "bypass" feature. By simply tapping the bud (or toggling bypass on via the app) you can open the headphones up to the outside world, hear everything around you, and talk to people. Tap again and you go back to whatever noise filter you were using.
As far as making calls in noisier environments go, the issue I had was that callers said they heard a fair amount of background noise when I was making calls from the street. You'd think a smart earphone like this could filter that noise out better. When I asked Here One PR reps about the issue, I got this response:
"There isn't a specific filter for taking phone calls on the street, and the background noise you're describing is a known issue that we have a direct path to improving through early updates. To be more specific, Here One has 3 mics in each of the Here Buds (2 outer/1 inner). Right now, phone calls are only leveraging the 2 outer mics, so in loud environments, the background noise will be more noticeable to the recipient on a call. It's already in our roadmap to activate the inner mic, which will allow us to capture your voice crystal clearly. This won't be available for launch, but will be included in one of our early updates."
I'm not sure why Doppler wouldn't want to really nail the headphone's headset features right out of the gate, but potential improvements in this area -- as well as some additional updates -- might entice me to the raise the score on my review.
As it stands, despite some quirks and drawbacks, including some ear-piercing audio feedback noises when you cup the earphones in your hand and place them near each other, mediocre battery life of two hours and somewhat slow charging via the included battery case, the Here One is one of the best totally wireless earphones we've tested to date.
It's an ambitious product that will presumably improve over time with software upgrades. In the meantime it will capture some people's hearts and leave others longing for something more straightforward and simple to use.