After months of testing Bragi’s wireless ear pods, reviewer Tiernan Ray gave up when a small pin in the charging case broke off, and the company told him he was at fault and would have to simply buy a new unit. Poor product design limits bold dreams Bragi has for the Dash’s role in a wild future of “mixed reality” and “ambient computing.”
Although this review is of the first generation Dash, we expect many of the “idiosyncrasies” to also appear in the generic Pro and Starkey versions. However, despite these “version 1.0” (i.e. paying beta tester) issues, we remain optimistic for this class of “hearables,” as we pointed out in May when Bragi introduced real-time foreign language translation to the platform in Bragi OS3 when connected to an iPhone running the iTranslate iOS app.
Darko Dragicevic, Bragi’s executive Vice President for partners and solutions, spoke during a panel session about Bragi’s vision for a future for what are called “hearables,” things that are “smart,” connected devices that go in your ear.
The Dash doesn’t just play music. By tilting your head a certain way, you can control gestures, such as whole menus of commands. And the sensors in the Dash can get information about your heart rate and your fitness stats during a workout based on what they detect in your ear. Some argue such measurements are even more reliable than what smartwatches glean from your wrist.
Some fascinating technology
One of the most interesting aspects of the Dash has nothing to do with Bragi. The ear buds incorporate a technology from chip maker NXP Semiconductors (NXPI) called “near-field magnetic induction.”
Once the sound travels from your phone to the ear pod on the right side, it needs to get from there to the other pod on the other side of your head. One approach is wireless between the two buds, which is what Apple’s AirPods do.
NXP’s induction instead uses magnetic coils in each ear pod that couple like two transformers to send the signal through the bone of your skull. The technology has been developed by NXP for years in the hearing aid market. NXP tells me there’s now a dozen or more headset makers developing wireless ear pods using its technology. During the CES trade show in January, I saw Bragi and several other brands proudly displayed at NXP’s booth.
Editor’s Note: This is actually 10.6 mHz used for ear-to-ear communications, as the 28 meter wavelength is long enough to easily penetrate the lossy dielectric inside the skull. Because of the low relative losses, higher data rates, including support for high-fidelity audio transmission, are possible at the low power level required for headworn devices. Hearing aids & CI’s which solely use 2.4 gHz (λ=⅛ meter) for ear-to-ear transmission, such as the Starkey Halo2, ReSound LiNX², and Cochlear Nucleus 7, can only support the lower data rates for inter-device coördination of compression, volume & program shift, and directional mic beamforming.
NXP is in the process of being bought by Qualcomm (QCOM).
A vision of ‘ambient computing’
The future Dragocevic outlined at MWC was both fascinating and somewhat creepy. He spoke of employees on a shop floor being piped information from their employer via the Dash.
This is a form of “mixed reality,” wherein one is aware of both the physical world around one and the voices of instructional robots, say, giving instruction for a task.
The point, as Dragocevic later told me in a conversation by phone, is that “visual interfaces are good for preparing and sometimes reviewing an activity, but visual elements are disturbing while performing a task.”
That is true, he says, of any jobs that have a high mobility to them, such as production, equipment maintenance, logistics, or inspections, to take just a few examples.
Bragi has a partnership with IBM (IBM) to advance those sorts of business use cases. Dragocevic tells me the company is “in discussions with various industry partners for proof of concept projects.”
A very mixed bag
Despite that upbeat outlook for the Pro model, the reality of the Dash, I found after several months of testing, is indeed mixed, and not in a good sense.
All the scenarios Dragocevic outlined remain merely intriguing concepts because the thing is so problematic in practice to use.
I didn’t like the feel of the Dash from the start. They stuffed up my ears like tight corks, exerting uncomfortable pressure. The AirPods, by contrast, sit loosely and light on the ear, so much so that you can almost forget they are there.
Perhaps Bragi realized this, because one version of the new Dash Pro can be fitted to your unique ear shape via a partnership with a company called Starkey Hearing Technologies, a leader in hearing aids. For the $500 price of the Dash Pro “Tailored by Starkey,” you get a consultation at a local Starkey clinic, where they take the measure of your ears, and then ship you your custom buds. (Starkey is also an investor in Bragi.) That $500 is higher than the $329 price for the Dash Pro without customization.
At first I thought of trying this, but the experience with the original Dash was so dissatisfying, I decided to pass on dropping several hundred more dollars.
Editor’s Note: We fully expect Starkey’s ITE shell lab to satisfy the author’s complaint, provided the dealer shoots a proper impression using a good silicone material with the proper viscosity for the ear texture, which, sadly, is not a given these days.
Some new tricks for head phones
The sound in the Dash is decent, comparable to that from the AirPods. The main difference is the control of the things. Whereas the AirPods only do one thing, turning on the Siri assistant when you tap them, one can tap either of the two Dash pods to perform a variety of functions. Double-tap the right one, for example, and you can skip to the next song in your playlist. Swipe forward across the surface, and you can raise the volume, and swipe backward to turn it down. Each time you execute a gesture, the little mechanical voice in your ear — female, of course — confirms that choice.
A novel feature called “transparency” will amplify sounds in your environment, so that you can still hear what’s going on around you while playing music, a nifty trick from the hearing aid world.
At least, in theory. In practice, I encountered repeated frustration. After months of use, I still hadn’t gotten the “feel” for these little taps and swipes, requiring lots of effort to work the controls. A new feature, delivered with a software update, lets you control the Dash by tapping the bone of your jaw just in front of the your right ear instead of tapping the pod itself.
That’s a neat gimmick but for me it remained just a gimmick. I found it no easier to get the feel of this than tapping the ear pod itself. Moreover, with this feature turned on, it suddenly seemed I was constantly activating my iPhone’s Siri assistant accidentally as I walked down the street. Turning off the feature stopped that problem.
The transparency mode is something of a muddle. When turned on, it makes everything sound like an amplified, echoing mess. It is in some ways harder to deal with all the ambient sounds around one with it on.
Editor’s Note: We fully expect the Starkey version to have conventional channel adjustments as we find in hearing aids & CI’s to address this problem; and we welcome them to address the issues brought up in the review.
Read the balance of the extensive review here.