When you put on a pair of headphones, you do more than bringing music into your head. You decide how you want to experience the world: Do you want to tune it out completely, exchanging city sounds for Beethoven’s Fifth? Are you spicing up a grocery run with an S-Town binge? Maybe you just need an extra push to get through your run?
Several new models take this idea even further, with wireless earbuds that feel more like ear-computers: Bose recently introduced its Hearphones, you see AirPods everywhere, and Doppler Labs Here Ones let you blend your music with sound from the outside world. Doppler CEO Noah Kraft says they’re popular with commuters and people with hearing problems because of the ability to filter in or tune out surrounding noise. Now the company makes that even easier with new features that autotune the world around you.
I’ve spent a week with a pair of Here Ones upgraded with new firmware, an update everyone will get soon. The splashiest new feature, Smart Suggest, helps you tune your ears to your surroundings based on your location. If you’re wearing your buds while waiting for the F train, for example, your phone might buzz with a recommendation to turn on the subway filter that automatically mutes the screeching frequencies of the trains. When you get to work, or walk into a loud bar, the Here One app will prompt you with the appropriate modes. In the long run, Doppler wants to do this work for you automatically, but right now, it makes controlling your surroundings a little easier.
The update also makes phone calls sound clearer, buds charge faster, and the battery last longer, especially if you’re not streaming music. Weirdly enough, thanks to the way Bluetooth works, streaming music sucks more power than augmented hearing.
And that’s all great, but the most exciting part is the fact Doppler Labs could make those improvements without changing the Here One hardware. The earbuds already have good mics, good speakers, and plenty of processing power; the rest is software. The same seems to be true for the AirPods, the Bragi Dash, and other similar devices—which means you won’t have to buy ear-puters like these every six months. Instead, they’ll be more like an Amazon Echo, devices that silently get better after you buy them.
Ultimately, these new devices will change how you think about headphones. Back in 2004, when the iPod Mini launched, Michael Bull, a professor at the University of Sussex, told WIRED the beauty of portable audio was that you never had to experience the same thing the same way. You could change the soundtrack, which changed everything. “It gives them control of the journey, the timing of the journey and the space they are moving through,” he said. “It’s a generalization, but the main use (of the iPod) is control. People like to be in control.”
Now, the headphone industry is reaching another inflection point. In the iPod days, the best thing about headphones was the thousands of songs on the other end of the cable. Today, a new and more powerful breed of headphones is simultaneously cutting that cord and putting the entire internet on the other end.
I’ve been testing earbud prototypes for the better part of two years, and the possibilities have always sounded more like a fantasy novel than a Best Buy listing: real-time translation, constant contact with a virtual assistant, phone calls where you don’t have to scream into the handset. The necessary features are still imperfect, but the biggest companies in tech are feverishly improving them. Google Translate and Alexa and the like are quickly getting better, and it’s all surely coming to a pair of headphones near you. Because remember: Headphones aren’t about music, they’re about control. And pretty soon, they might control everything.