Now hear this. Hearable tech takes a leap forward

08-08-2017 |   |  By Mark Patrick

Hearable technology has leapt forward recently. Kick-started by innovative new products like Doppler Lab’s Hear One earbuds and Apple’s Airpods. This exciting new category of device is redefining what a wearable should look and sound like.

Today’s most successful hearables are without doubt the Airpods from Apple. These elegant, slightly funny looking wireless earphones have changed our preconceived expectations in relation to how we listen to music. But, in reality, Airpods are just the start of the hearable story.

There are numerous new hearable devices promising to do more - much more. From enhancing our hearing, to replacing wrist-worn fitness trackers, hearables are here to stay, and their parameters go way beyond just music.

The Airpod Success

While wireless earphones have been on the market since 2015, it has taken the Apple Airpod offering to demonstrate their true potential. They rely on a few simple sensors to give them significant differentiation. Airpods use accelerometers, IR sensors and microphones and automatically connect to an iPhone via a Bluetooth connection.

While listening to music, if Airpods are taken out of the wearers ears, playback is paused courtesy of the IR sensors. When placed back again, music automatically resumes.

Microphones in each Airpod allow them to perform noise cancellation, thereby enabling speech and voice commands to be clearly heard even in noisy environments. Also Apple’s Siri voice assistant can be activated by double tapping the Airpods themselves.

All these capabilities are far from revolutionary, but it is the overall seamless execution of these devices which has made Airpods a hearable success. Whereas Bluetooth connections often prove fiddly and inconsistent, the Bluetooth functionality incorporated into Airpods is robust with few reports of dropped connections. Apple has also managed to pack a solid 5 hours of battery life into these tiny items, with another 24 hours of charging available in the case.

A Glimpse Into The Future

While the Airpods represent what well executed wireless earphones look like today, it is the future of hearable devices which is truly exciting.

‘Superhuman’ Hearing - One of the best demonstrations of the potential of hearable technology are the Here One smart earbuds from Doppler Labs. Besides superior audio quality (surpassing that of Apple’s Airpods), they also have advanced noise cancellation, enriched hearing and audio filtering capabilities.

Here Ones are wireless earphones, but thanks to 6 exterior microphones and advanced signal processing, they are able to go way further than that. Unlike earplugs, these devices can selectively tune out things you don’t want to hear or conversely tune in things you do.

The airplane filter silences jet engine noise, while a subway filter tunes out the sound of a train coming into the station. A workplace filter lets you filter out background conversations of colleagues. The restaurant filter means that you can focus on your friend’s speech even in a crowded restaurant. A live remix filter lets you selectively choose which frequencies to tune in and out. Make no mistake, this is the initial foray into augmented reality audio wearables.

But while the Here One offering shows us the potential of augmented reality in a hearable context, it also demonstrates that this technology is still a nascent one. Packing this much technology into a form factor as small as an earbud is still extremely challenging. These devices have a battery life of just 2 hours. The microphones are sensitive to wind. Bluetooth connections are occasionally dropped. In addition, the user interface aspect could certainly be improved. Though they are far from perfect, the reviews that Here One’s have received are still overwhelmingly positive. These earbuds are showing us what cutting edge hearable technology is making possible.

In-Ear Fitness Trackers - Besides hearing itself, companies are experimenting with packing other features into ear-based devices. Using an accelerometer and a heart rate sensor, some new hearables are looking to supplant the current generation of wrist-worn fitness trackers. While today we are used to seeing fitness trackers on wrists, hearables may in fact be the perfect form for fitness trackers to take. Music, integral to wireless earphones, is also a core part of most people’s workouts. In addition, audio-based feedback allows runners and cyclers to stay up to date on the performance while not skipping a beat. It means that users of these devices don’t have to stop the activity they are undertaking to consult a wrist-based device.

The Jabra Elite Sport is one of the latest hearables to pick up on this trend. It features a waterproof wireless earphone that integrates an accelerometer, heart rate sensor and microphones. Rather than having to wear a fitness tracker and a wireless earphone, the Jabra Elite Sport combines these two devices into one. Real time stats and coaching are provided by audio, allowing runners to get feedback on their performance without breaking stride. Like the Here One, the Jabra can perform basic noise cancelling and filtering, as well as the pass-through of audio from the outside.

With only 3 hours of battery life, the Jabra isn’t an all-day earphone, but it has enough juice for most workouts. While the buttons on the device are deemed to be somewhat tricky to deal with, it is nevertheless a highly successful advanced hearable that is out on the market today and really gives us a strong indication of the shape of things to come.

Not Just Music

A decade ago, we were happy to have earbuds that simply sounded good. Nowadays, we not only have intrinsically easy to use fully wireless earphones available, our earphones are able to give us significant hearing enhancements or even track our fitness. As the supporting electronics has finally been shrunk down enough to make hearables possible, this market is clearly set to grow substantially. Who knows what we’ll be hearing in our ears in the next few years!

By Mark Patrick

Mark joined Mouser Electronics in July 2014 having previously held senior marketing roles at RS Components. Prior to RS, Mark worked at Texas Instruments in applications support and technical sales roles. He holds a first class Honours Degree in Electronic Engineering from Coventry University.

Related articles