The Dash – The Latest Entry in the Dawn of the Smart Headphone

The latest product to make a splash on Kickstarter as of last week is The Dash, an in-ear wireless headphone. The Dash looks to be a strong entry into the growing class of devices known as smart headphones. In order to make the device qualify as “smart”, the creators of The Dash have included a variety of sensors that can be used to track the wearers health and to communicate and control connected devices wirelessly.

Although we have some questions about some of its component and design choices, the device shows a tremendous amount of promise. Here’s their promo video and info direct from their Kickstarter campaign:

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Click for Zoomed View
Click for Zoomed View of Internal Components

Overall we are incredibly impressed with their choices of components and the featured functionality of The Dash. Here are what we think are some of the pros:

  • CSR’s AptX circuitry – for delivering quality audio over Bluetooth
  • The use of 3-axis and accelerometer sensors in both the left and right ear buds for greater accuracy of motion tracking
  • Onboard media/music storage (4GB) and playback for greater audio quality than available over Bluetooth and use even when not connected to another device or smart phone
  • The ability to use the built-in ambient mic to listen to the immediate environment – a great safety feature for when the ears are plugged by use of the device
  • The ability to turn features on and off via an app – Currently the practical battery charge is about 3 hours when all of the internal circuitry is on and working. Turning of functions that aren’t currently being used will allow the battery life to be extended
  • A companion storage case that will be able to recharge the ear buds within an hour several times before it too needs to be recharged

Here are some of our potential cons. Since the device may evolve yet before its official introduction to the world, and since we have not personally tried The Dash, these questions may not add up to a hill o’ beans. Here they are any way:

  • The use of an ear bone microphone for speech – In our experience, we are yet to find an ear bone microphone that really works well, especially for communicating speech. Microphones and speakers that rely on bone conduction are usually significantly lacking in treble response. This is where the clarity of any sound occurs and how we can differentiate one consonant sound from another. Without those high frequencies clearly articulated “P” can sound like “B”, “T” can sound like “D”, and so on. This can cause a lot of confusion for the person on the other end of the line. Perhaps the folks at Bragi have found the ultimate microphone for this, but there is a reason why Google recently abandoned the bone conduction audio on their much anticipate Google Glass. Used in tandem with a traditional microphone that picks up sound from airwaves, a bone conduction microphone can be a great asset (like the way it is used on the Jawbone headsets). In this case we are skeptical, especially since conduction microphones work best when they are held securely against bone. As far as we can tell, The Dash will mostly be surrounded by the softer flesh and cartilage of the folds of the inner ear. Perhaps they can still make it work in conjunction with their ambient mic? Or at least make it an option?
  • A claim of “waterproof” – Sure, they only claim water resistance to 1m (about 3 feet), but they also claim that it should be okay for daily swimming, albeit with reduced functionality. They also feature pictures of surfing a wave. I’m not sure who only swims to a depth of 1 meter. Diving into a pool, pushing off the wall at the turn of a lap, or getting hit by a wave will probably easily exceed the water pressure of 1 bar/ 1 meter that they claim. It will be interesting to see what real world use of actual customers demonstrates. But just to be clear, we are still thrilled with the direction that Bragi is taking with The Dash. This level of water resistance should mean that getting caught in the rain or keeping the music going or taking a quick call when hitting the post workout shower should be a non-issue.
  • Passive Noise Reduction – This is a rather cryptic way of saying that The Dash works as an ear plug. They lay claim to the fact that this will help isolate the wearer from noise from their environment. True! Bragi does make some effort to differentiate what they are doing from active noise cancellation circuitry, but we just wanted to clarify the terms for those who may be less familiar. Good active noise reduction circuitry will actually do a better job of reducing noise across a broader range of frequencies than an ear plug. Bragi states that they have kept out the more expensive active noise reduction because it would reduce the battery life. This makes sense, especially considering that the size of this device is quite small and leaves little room for the extra circuitry or increased battery size that might be required. We’d also like to point out that although The Dash provides an ambient microphone to help the user stay aware of their surroundings when necessary, this is not as accurate for positioning those sounds within the environment. All of the folds and curves of the human ear are not just there to make them look as pretty as a sea shell, they serve the purpose of helping us locate sounds. Even if a person is deaf in one ear, as long as the other ear is reasonable healthy, human hearing is incredibly accurate in determining location. This is super beneficial for survival and one of the main reasons I never ride my bike while wearing headphones. I rely on my hearing far too much to help me know exactly where that SUV is in relationship to my rear wheel! Even with the ambient mics active, plugging both ears with The Dash will greatly reduce the wearer’s hearing location abilities.
  • Reflectance Pulse Oximetry – Say what?! That’s the fancy term for the technology behind how The Dash measures heart rate and oxygen saturation (the amount of oxygen carried by the blood). Reflectance pulse oximetry uses two tiny LEDs to emit low intensity red and infrared light into the capillaries of the ear. The optical reflection of the emitted light reveals the relative amount of red and white blood cells and can be interpreted as both heart rate and oxygen saturation. So far in, other devices,  this approach has proven to be a less than perfect way to measure this information. Perhaps having it located on the inside of the ear and using whatever associated circuitry Bragi has developed will greatly improve accuracy. We hope so. This is one of the key features of The Dash and helps combine multiple wearable devices into one. We love the idea!
  • Comfort and secure mounting – Bragi claims that the 3 sizes that they offer for the ear molds will comfortably fit 94% of the population. Maybe so, but many other headset manufacturers offer the similar and make the same claim. We’ve found that ALL devices that are stuffed into the ear canal increase our desire to remove them the longer we wear them. And although we believe that The Dash mounts securely in the ear (see image below) we wonder what will happen if we do shake them loose, say when swimming or surfing. It would be nice if they added some optional, secondary means of attachment. Maybe an ear hook or some form of leash? Just a thought…

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So there you have it, our quick take on The Dash. We’re very excited for them and they are absolutely crushing it on Kickstarter. Check them out when you get a chance and maybe get in line for your own pair by making a pledge toward their campaign. We here at QTOOTH will definitely be keeping an ear out for any news as they get closer to release or when they become available next November!