Before the ear-computer market took off, before AirPods and Here Ones and EarIn and Skybuds and IQBuds and Kanoa and a thousand other names you’ve never heard of, there was Bragi. The German company blew up on Kickstarter in 2014 after introducing a pair of headphones called Dash, which it claimed could play music, measure your health in complicated ways, let you control your gadgets with a nod, and hear the real world and digital audio simultaneously.
Dash didn’t do everything Bragi promised, and made it clear that this cool new world of in-ear computers remained a ways off. “We’re so early in this entire industry,” says CEO Nikolaj Hviid. “Sometimes I feel we’re a bit too early.”
This week, the company introduced its first ear-puter since the Kickstarter days. The $329 Dash Pro, Hviid says, represents everything the company has learned during its three-plus years trying to reinvent the headphone world—and now, the company is a bit closer to doing all of the wildly ambitious things it promised with that Kickstarter.
The Dash Pro more easily pairs with your phone, Hviid says, and lasts five hours on a charge—nearly double the last model, and far more than you’ll see with Doppler Labs’ similar Here One buds. The case can charge the buds five times before needing an outlet. A new audio codec attempts to improve the audio-passthrough feature, which lets you hear your music and the world simultaneously. Hviid says his team improved everything about the audio—the sound, the noise cancellation, and the voice-input.
Bragi offers two models of Dash Pro, equal in every way save for how they fit in your ear. Bragi worked with Starkey, a company that makes products for the hearing-impaired, to create a custom-molded version. For $499, you can visit a Starkey-approved audiologist and get fitted for a Dash Pro, creating a set of buds tailored specifically for your ears. As any music snob will tell you, custom molds offer huge benefits: They create a tighter, more isolated seal, so you hear more music and less background noise, and they improve audio quality, especially in the low end. It will make the Dash Pro experience better for everyone, especially those with hearing problems.
The earbuds run on a new version of Bragi’s operating system, which will come to the original Dash as well. It enables the simpler pairing process, helps the buds auto-detect a workout, and refines the on-bud touch controls, which until now were about as easy to learn as Morse Code. The new OS also introduces two of the more futuristic features Bragi’s been talking about for years: real-time translation, through a partnership with the iTranslate app, and a gesture interface that lets you control your music just by moving your head. Will you look crazy? Yes, you will. But it’s still handy when your hands are full.
As the ear-computer market grows, everyone’s focusing on a handful of features: These devices should play music, take calls, interact with your virtual assistant, and all the standard headphone stuff. They should co-mingle real and synthetic sound (so you can safely wear them all the time) and interact with anything you hear to translate speech, remove unpleasant sounds, and the like. That’s what Doppler’s working on with the Here Ones, and it’s surely what the next AirPods will start to look like. It all seems a little more doable every day.
Even now, as he launches a product that’s finally more mature and polished, Hviid can’t resist getting ahead of himself again. He speaks eagerly of Bragi’s plans for AI, using the data gathered by its devices to gain a better sense of what you’re doing and how your ear-puters can serve you. The Dash Pro buds now form a mesh network, connecting to each other and nearby devices to share processing and storage power. They can do quite a bit of data-processing on the buds themselves, too: Your Dash could, in theory, tell Alexa that you’re running, so speak up, please.
“I believe very much in natural use cases,” Hviid says. He wants to keep people from tapping and swiping, and let them instead control their tech with voice and gestures. “We still need to understand how we can apply sensors to pick that up, so you can converse and interact naturally with a computer,” he says. The company’s working on a product called Patch, expected later this year, which will consist of small, wearable sensors you can put almost anywhere. They’ll connect to the same mesh network as your earbuds, offering more data—Hviid says you can put one on your foot to accurately track your run, or in your doorway to trigger your smart home.
That doesn’t sound like something you’d expect from a headphone company. But Hviid says Bragi is not a headphone company. Last year, Bragi scrambled to make a set of headphones with more mass appeal called The Headphone. It was a fine product, but got away from what Hviid truly wants to do: build computers. The fact those computers go in your ear, or are even wireless, is secondary.
“The objective was to make computers in your ear that can sense who you are, what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it,” he says. “We make ear computers, we don’t make truly wireless headphones.”