Elton John's concert sounded better with these special headphones. Here's why

Peex is trying to make concerts sound better for attendees with a wireless wearable device that enhances the sound experience.

The Peex sound enhancer has been making the rounds at Elton John concerts.
David Carnoy/CNET

Elton John. Madison Square Garden. Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour. I'm standing off to the side of the stage when I feel my phone vibrate, alerting me that a text has come in.

"Suggestion... lead guitar is acoustic and gets lost on Rocket Man -- I personally like to crank it."

The message is from a rep for the maker of the Peex, the disc-shaped wireless receiver I'm wearing around my neck. A set of wired earphones run from the device to my ears -- yes, I'm actually wearing a pair of headphones at a concert, which is a little strange. 

I open the Peex Live app on my iPhone (it's available for Android, too) and put my finger on the lead guitarist Davey Johnstone's icon and slide it up to around 80 percent of its peak level. As I move the slider, the sound of his instrument gradually begins to reveal itself until it's distinctly heard, changing the whole dynamic of the iconic song.  


The Peex Live app allows you to adjust the levels of various members of the band.

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After a minute, I pull the earphones out of my ears. The guitar has faded. I put the earphones back in. There it is again.

Is this the future for concertgoers? Audience members with earphones in their ears, tuning the concert's sound to their liking with an app?

Peex, a UK start-up, hopes so. While its product isn't commercially available yet, it's partnered up with "tech-forward" singer Elton John to have select people demo the Peex system at select shows on his farewell tour, which runs through 2021. John isn't an investor in the company, a Peex rep told me, but the company's founders worked on his tours in the past and are personally connected. The product has been in development for years and out on the road with John for several months.

A Peex system is less impactful if you have seats this good.

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Here's how it works. Backstage Peex has a console that interacts with the main soundboard at the venue. There are a set of wireless transmitters set up on rigs around the stage (I was told four were mounted at the Garden) that detect, Peex says, "the user's exact location in the theater to stream seamlessly synced enhanced audio in the headphones based on where the sound has traveled in each corner of the room."

Using the sliders in the app, you can create your own "enhanced" five-channel sound mix of the live concert while "remaining truly immersed in the energy of the performance."

Elton John at MSG tonight.

Posted by David Carnoy on Tuesday, March 5, 2019

For the first few songs at the concert I was sitting in the 15th row dead center. In this location, I wasn't all that impressed with the Peex experience. I fiddled around with the sliders, but I didn't think my experience was enhanced much.

I then made my way around the arena to less desirable seating locations, including the nosebleed seats at the top of the arena (I'd call them the cheap seats but they weren't so cheap). Here the Peex setup made a big difference, filling in the sound where it was recessed or just missing. It was like listening to two different concerts.

The Peex system really helps when you're all the way up here.

David Carnoy/CNET

What's interesting is that there's nothing fancy about the Peex earbuds. They're somewhat similar to Apple's EarPods in that they're simple, hard plastic buds that have an open design that lets in a lot of ambient sound. The only difference is they have rubber covers so they stay in your ears more securely.

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You can swap the buds out with your own and I brought a pair of comfortable Bose Ultra noise-isolating earphones that usually sound really good. I was expecting I'd be able to tap into a pure, direct feed from the main soundboard but instead the music sounded muffled and terrible. The reality is the Peex system is only providing "filler" audio and you need to use open buds to let the concert's sound in. (The band Umphrey's McGee does offer its concertgoers a wireless headphone experience that taps into a "pristine" soundboard mix for an extra $30).   

In the future, Peex intends to rent out its headsets at concert venues, where thousands of people could tap into its system at the same time, according to Peex reps. They also said that the system works outdoors, although more transmitters are needed to cover an area where there are no walls to reflect signals. No word yet on rental pricing, but the company is eager to get concertgoers to adopt the technology, so it will be quite affordable, reps said.

The Peex console backstage.

David Carnoy/CNET

Aside from the Peex Live app, there's also Peex's Relive app, where you can find recordings of artists' concerts (well, only Elton John's so far) and play them back using the five-channel Peex Mixer. There's a truncated sample of "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" that you can play around with for free, but full concerts cost $20, which seems a little expensive.

Peex faces some challenges because it has to negotiate with each artist and venue to implement its system, but the technology is interesting. In the US, anyway, people pay big bucks to see live concerts and often encounter pretty mediocre sound, particularly if you're sitting in all but the best seats at a larger arena.

The Peex system does make you feel like you're sitting a little closer to the sweet spot in a venue. So while you may not be able to see Elton John all that well, you will hear him better.