I’ve  photographed over 500 concerts and documented more than 100 weddings over the past two decades, opening up my ear canals to an endless barrage of deafening sound.  So it came as a huge surprise to find out that a company had designed a new technology that lets me control the quality and quantity of sound entering my ears and modify it to taste. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to purchase the new Here Active Listening buds by Doppler Labs when they went on sale earlier this year.

My set of smart ear buds arrive in a minimalist white box with a carry case that doubles as a charger, and an assortment of silicone in-ear adapters. After charging the buds for an hour, I downloaded the app and paired them by resting the buds on the face of the phone.

Total control

Once inserted into my ears, I was able to choose between three different tabs that control what I hear.

Volume: The volume setting allows me to raise or lower the decibel level to fine tune how much sound goes in and out of my ears. a Hi-dB Mode lets me make adjustments in louder environments, such as concert halls or city streets.

Live EQ: If you’ve ever played guitar or owned a high-end stereo system in the ’90s, you definitely remember the equalizer. EQ allows you to raise and lower the high, low and mid-sound levels beyond the EQ presets in the next tab. Stuck at an EMD show with too much bass? Simply open the EQ and raise the low end to taste.

Filters: Finally, the most controversial setting in the app — the filters. Doppler Labs designed a handful of preset filters, such as 60s Sizzle, 8-Track, Aphex and Carnegie Hall that adjust the gain, reverb, echo and flange that is supposed to make you feel like you are in an arena when you are actually in your bedroom. It’s a lot like the movie or audio modes that you see on home theater receivers that replicate surround sound or music halls. This tab also features a Tune Out section with presets for noise reduction depending on location, such as loud office, airplane or car.


Real-world applications

Wedding: I decided to test Here Active Listening at a recent wedding with a live band. My photography feeds off the emotion of the room, so I don’t like wearing earplugs that drown out the energy of the band. That said, I also don’t like being center-stage at a concert for four hours with the volume set to 11. Doppler Labs makes it clear that Here Active is not a replacement for earplugs, but it does a decent job lowering the volume setting to a less painful level. I was easily able to move around the room without covering my ears when I got too close to the speakers. I could shoot the band from the stage without fear of ear damage. To do this, I opened up the app and just dialed the volume down to -22 dB. The clarity of the band stayed, but the overall volume decreased exponentially.

I tried out the EQ presets and was not impressed. Either the band turned into an echo chamber or into a distorted mess. I’m from the audio snob school of thought that the only good sound is pure sound as it was intended to be heard by the artist. Anything done to color that sound is almost a slap in the face to the artist. Kind of like how I would feel if you took one of my photos and ran it through Instagram filters. So, for me, my presets for music are kept “flat” and I play with the decibel levels to tune in or out as I see fit.

On the way home, I turned on my stereo, put on my Here Active buds and set the pre-set to Tune Out “Car” and it truly felt like the world around me disappeared and I could focus on the music and the road ahead of me. Ambient noise doesn’t completely disappear, but it definitely falls to the background where I can easily ignore it.

Concert: Last week, I put Here Active Listening to the test at the American Speedway show at Roxy & Dukes. American Speedway is known for high-octane, balls-to-the-wall rock and roll that hits you in the face like a brick wall. Here Active was up for the challenge. I dialed back the decibel level to about -13 to knock down the volume a tiny bit and then started playing with the filters. Given the rock and roll nature of the music and the tiny size of the club, I found that “Flat” colored the sound the least and, ironically, “Human Speech” lowered the low end just enough to give the sound of the rest of the band more room to breathe.

The buds stayed in my ears as long as no one bumped into me, and that’s where the troubling part of this device comes in: They cost $200 and there’s no way to secure them around your neck. Look, I realize that earplug strings are about as cool as a pocket protector, but these are an investment and you can’t replace just one bud. If one gets knocked out after you get hit in the head by a random crowd surfer or stage diver, you are screwed.

Don’t even bother going near the mosh pit wearing these. The crowd was fairly gentle at the American Speedway show, but while I was shooting a drunken fan decided to pinball off the crowd and I had the option to either drop my $6,000 camera and put away my buds in my pockets or pray they don’t pop out of my ears. That’s scary. It will be interesting to see how many Here Active buds are lost in a sea of fans at Coachella.


Final thoughts

Here Active Listening is most definitely a “want” not a “need” — it’s a high-priced smart hearing device for music fans who want to truly experience sound. If your are an audiophile and appreciate music, these are definitely worth your time and money. If your idea of listening to music is playing Nickelback in the background while you do chores, then you might want to pass on this.

One last thing, Here Active Listening is not a wireless headphone or a hearing aid. You can’t listen to music through them like you would with your Bose system, and while you can use the buds to enhance sound, you can’t alleviate  or cure hearing loss with them. Here Active Listening is innovative smart-hearing technology that will change the way audiophiles and concert fans hear the world. Just don’t lose them in the pit or drop them in the toilet.

For more information visit: Here Active Listening