MWC 2018: Sony’s smart earbuds don’t look like your average wireless buds
The Sony Xperia Ear Duo is a hearable we’ve been talking about for a long time. In fact, our features editor Sophie first got a look at the concept almost two years ago. Until it became the Duo, we knew it as the Xperia Ear Open Style.
Now we have a name, a working version along with a $280 price tag and a May release date. The design is pretty much the same as when we last spied eyes on it earlier this year, and this time we got to spend a bit more time getting to know the features that turn these peculiar looking earbuds into smart ones.
These are buds that want to help you tune you into your music and the world around you at the same time. Plus, they delivers features like gesture controls, Sony’s own unique take on smart assistants along with easy access to Google Assistant and Siri.
Sony Xperia Ear Duo: That’s one unique looking hearable
Judging by the Sony Xperia Ear we reviewed a few years back, Sony quite likes the idea of breaking from the wireless earbud design norm with its hearables. You certainly won’t mix up the Duo with the Bragi Dash Pro or the Samsung Gear IconX, that’s for sure. What you get is quite an awkward looking device that feels like it shouldn’t fit nicely inside in and around your ear, but it’s actually surprisingly comfortable and light to wear. That’s when you work out exactly how you have to wear it though, something I initially needed some assistance with.
The hollowed out silicone earbud, which is attached to an industrial-looking piece of aluminium, is completed by a long touch-sensitive panel. Each side of the Duo are assigned different controls. On the left, you can do things like play/pause music while over on the right you can swipe up and down the surface to adjust the volume. That’s not your only way to take control either. There’s also gesture support, letting you move your head left or right to answer/reject calls or skip through music tracks, which actually worked well.
When they’re not in use the Duo sit inside a case that doubles as a charger, which will provide three to four full charges. They’ll get you about three to fours hours of use, at least in its current form, giving you a total of 12 hours.
Sony Xperia Ear Duo: The smarts
So let’s get to the special stuff. What actually makes the Sony Xperia Ear Duo smart? Well, the first thing is that unlike noise-cancelling headphones, these are not about blocking out the outside world. It’s about hearing both the ambient sound and your own private sound at the same time in a way that doesn’t feel a bit of a mess. The Duo can also automatically adjust volume to compensate for moving into busier environments but not sacrifice the ability to still hear everything around you.
The tech that’s making that happen lies with two spatial acoustic conductors and drivers that transmit sound to your ear canal, connected to a module that sits just below and behind your ear. While this sounds like the augmented audio that startups Doppler Labs and Nuheara demonstrated with their smart earbuds, the user doesn’t have control on how the sounds are filtered. It’s all down to the technology on board to make it happen automatically.
Sony Xperia Ear Duo: Listening time
Trying the Duo on the busy MWC show floor while someone talked me through the features seemed like the ideal environment to see what Sony’s ‘Dual Listening’ was all about. I hit play on the music app on a Sony smartphone nearby and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky started to play. At the same time I continue my conversation at normal volume with the person talking me through what was happening.
The music I could hear comes through a little on the thin side, but I was surprised by the clarity. It felt quite similar to when I’ve used bone conducting headphones, only there’s something a lot more sophisticated at work to make it happen and the sound quality definitely sounds more balanced than your average pair of bone conduction headphones, where it can sometime feel more skewered towards the ambient sound as opposed to your own music.
Yes, the Sony Xperia Ear Duo does a look a bit on the whacky side but there’s some interesting smarts on show here. There’s clearly an appetite for the idea of augmenting audio, though Sony’s approach is not quite as powerful as some of the other buds out there that offer it. But on first listen, Sony’s lighter take on it does seem to work pretty well.
They are sure to appeal to anyone who doesn’t like the idea of being entirely out of touch with the world when they are listening to their music. Office workers definitely spring to mind here and I also think runners who venture out into busy environments on a regular basis might like them too.
There’s some interesting extras here like the gesture controls, Siri and Google Assistant support and the Daily Assist feature that I didn’t get to try out. This serves up information by reading out messages depending on time, location or planned activities. There was previously talk of some form of real-time translation mode, but it looks like that hasn’t made the cut for now.
At $280 though, it’s breaching into Bragi Dash, Nuheara IQBuds territory. Arguably, there are other smart earbuds that can do more for the money, and in the case of Nuheara, do offer ‘proper’ augmented audio that’s up there with what Doppler Labs served up. I’m definitely curious to spend more time with the Xperia Ear Duo, but I can’t help thinking that maybe this hearable needs to do a bit more to justify that price.