As a former double music major, I have a tendency to treat my headphones a bit like Gollum treated The Precious in The Lord of the Rings. AndI'm willing to bet money that, whether it's to pump yourself up before a huge presentation or just block out Stan Whatshisname's gum smacking, yours are pretty dear to your heart, too. But are we all doing audio wrong?
Danny Aronson, CEO and founder of Brooklyn-based startup Even, has been working with sound for decades. Not only is he a classically trained musician and composer, but he's also worked as a commercial sound designer for more than 20 years. He summarizes the audio problem we're faced with:
"We all hear differently, and we hear differently in our left and right ears. Yet, this issue has never been addressed by any of the leaders in the commercial personal audio industry. While companies like Apple, Beats and Bose boast that they have high quality audio products, they do not address the most critical factor in a person's listening experience--how he or she actually hears. [...] Even is turning the industry on its head by focusing on the listener--and not on barely noticeable, incremental 'upgrades' or non-audio related issues such as connectivity (Apple Airpods) and noise cancellation (Bose)."
Well, I could be wrong, but that sure sounds like a gloves-off challenge to me. And fortunately, Even is putting design where its mouth is. To rectify the lack of science-based customization he's identified, Aronson and his team have come up with Even EarPrint H2 wireless headphones, which have individual profiles based on personal assessments of your hearing.
How EarPrint works
- "Sarah", Even EarPrint's audio guide, talks you through a 90-second, self-administered threshold of hearing test with a few music tracks. This is a basic, standard audiometry test similar to what you might get in a doctor's office or remember from school. It's designed to check what volumes and frequencies you can hear in either ear.
- Patented algorithms compensate for specific frequencies in each ear in real time based on the profile (EarPrint) created from your hearing test results.
- You can store multiple EarPrints for yourself or others who use the headphones via an app. This means you can compare your hearing needs to others and/or use different profiles for different situations, such as in the office versus on the noisy subway.
- You can repeat the hearing test any time to see if your hearing is changing. The headphones can continue to adapt to your needs over time.
One product, two goals
Aronson asserts that there's a direct correlation between hearing quality and how much music affects you emotionally. But Aronson isn't just focused on the experience. He wants the headphones to affect health in a positive way, too. Hearing problems are on the rise, especially among teens. If the EarPrint profiles and compensation algorithms work properly, individuals finally might hear well enough to lessen or stop behaviors that contribute to hearing problems, such as turning up the volume on their devices to unsafe levels.
The summit's in sight, but the ascent is still brutal
Aronson predicts that the audio industry will shift its attention to more personalized sound, and he wants to be at the forefront of those changes. He has some significant support, selling more than $1 million and raising roughly $5 million in the past year alone. He's been able to expand distribution to the U.K. and Japan and has also partnered with Napster to embed Even EarPrint within their music streaming service. Even so, Aronson says it's still very much an uphill battle to convince people that not everyone hears the same way. They'll bite once they actually sample the difference, but simple discussion still falls somewhat flat. In this sense, the transition to customization might take much longer than Aronson wants. Good in-person demonstrations and word-of-mouth advertising might be the key to the product's success.
Regardless of what happens with EarPrint, Aronson is confident about the overall future of his business.
"Since we are a technology company, not specifically a headphone or hardware company, we are able to, and are in the process of, securing licensing contracts in several audio verticals in the person audio space. This will continue to allow us to lead the charge in personal audio through hardware products and software solutions."
A review by yours truly
While I didn't try a set of Even's new headphones, I did take the free profile test on their website. (You can use any set of earphones you already have. I used a $20 Bluetooth version. Don't judge, I have kids, and that's why nothing I buy is worth more than three digits anymore.) At the end of the test, Even lets you play a little music, switching back and forth from having the profile settings on and off so you can test the difference (or lack thereof).
From my personal perspective, the technology didn't make my jaw drop in awe--my hearing isn't all that much of a disaster to begin with, especially since I've been hardwired through music training to protect it. But I immediately noticed that, with the settings, the music seemed louder and much more balanced. I lost some of the muffled quality I had without the settings, and I didn't have to look at my computer screen during the test at all to tell what effect years of having upper woodwinds playing into my right ear has had. The results were a little less pronounced when I tested again using some wired earbuds (again, $20, don't judge).
You'll have to decide for yourself whether Even EarPrint is worth the $229 price tag. But for my part, all my music training and soundtrack obsessions aside, I'd have to say that customization and a better user experience are two goals virtually every company operating today is looking to reach. And to me, the concept of other companies following Even's example and turning to science to get there sounds pretty sweet.