Coming Soon to a Music Festival Near You: Earplugs of the Future

Doppler Labs’ Here Active Listening earbuds are the stuff of the future, like the shit you see on Star Trek or some other sci-fi TV show. They're supposed to augment and modify your earholes to produce the kind of sonic experience you can control on your own with a smart telephone device. Think: robot ears. (Yeah, fucking robot ears.)

Like the fancy-pants VIP folks and the five richest kings of Europe, last weekend I got to wear these robot ears for the bulk of Coachella. I have to say, at this point our relationship remains complicated at best.

The complicated coupling began as many do: drunk and pie-eyed somewhere south of the Sahara Tent. Last year, Doppler Labs brought its inaugural product, passive earplugs/acoustic filters called Dubs, and doled them out to media types and sold them to festival-goers. When Dubs and I met last year, we hooked up pretty hard for most of Coachella, parted ways amicably and kept in touch sporadically throughout the year. Dubs has a really great thing going — reducing decibels without sacrificing the clarity of sound — but, like so many fleeting festival romances, it just didn’t stick. We were good friends, Dubs and I, but nothing more.

Then I heard about Dubs’ cousin, Here Active Listening. I was instantly moonstruck. Head over heels. Gaga. Bluetooth earplugs that can put your entire life on reverb? Set your own EQ for pretty much every sonic experience? I even started to fantasize unrealistic scenarios about what Here could do. What if I could just full-on mute annoying people? What if I could make everyone sound like the adults from Peanuts cartoons? What if I could set a Here filter that would make everyone’s voice sound like Chvrches’ front woman Lauren Mayberry’s dulcet Scottish brogue? Giddy, I tell you, giddy.

So, thanks to Dubs and Doppler Labs, Here and I got set up about a week ago, and things were instantly magical. We spent a whole afternoon with life’s sounds set to reverb. We went to a jazz concert and distorted the shit out of it with a filter called “Dirty South.” I don’t want to get too graphic, so I’ll just say that Here and I got really intimate really quickly.  Sure, Here couldn’t yet change the sounds of people's voices, or manipulate space and time. But Here didn't "drain my battery" too quickly. It was good. We were inseparable.

Then Coachella happened.

Everything seemed great at the start. Here came primed for all sorts of preprogrammed Coachella experiences: special equalizer settings for several tents and stages, bass boost, a desert breeze filter and even, oddly enough, a Tiësto Mode.

Finding out Here was just a little too into Tiësto didn’t bother me that much. Our bond was recently forged but strong, right?

However, as the first day wore on, I found that the things Here was set up for were not the shit I wanted to see, even though many acts had a Here button linked to the Coachella app.

What’s worse, when I put them in my ears, it took minutes of fiddling for my Here-buds to get going. With outdoor rock acts such as Foals, Here seemed to be totally off-kilter, fuzzing in and out and producing iffy distortions. The Coachella wind wreaked havoc with those initially hip and sleek plugs. Day 1’s saving grace was noise-rock outfit Health’s spectacular sonic onslaught; Here got into the discordant groove with me and augmented all of those beautifully harsh screeches and scrapes.

Okay, fine. Here and I don’t really have all the same festival tastes, Here has issues with the weather and Here doesn’t get into things enthusiastically. Fine. But when I thought about how hard sound folks work and how Here’s entire premise kind of disrespects them, I got a little annoyed. Do we really all need a personal sonic experience?

Suffice to say, Here and I were not doing so hot by Day 2. Bae was petulant all damn day and I was ornery AF. I’m not sure if it was all the other Bluetooth devices around or just the sheer exhaustion from day one, but I kept having to reset my phone to get any kind of reaction. At times, boo wouldn’t even turn on. During Vince Staples, Here had the audacity to fuzz out with a whole bunch of feedback. Not cool, Here, not cool.

So, at this point I’m not sure what’s going on. We came here together and I really want to make this work. But frankly, I’ve been seeing Dubs around and thinking about them a lot. I don’t have the heart to tell Here that Dubs was a much better sidepiece at this whole festival thing, so I don’t know. Maybe Here feels the same way? Someone told me about another audio device that pumps your ears full of a signal that releases dopamine, but that’s just a grass-is-always-greener flight of fancy.

If nothing else, it’s hard to be sourpussed about the future when it looks so bright and technologically sound. But that tech has to work the way you want it to in the places it’s primed to work, y’know?

Here and I are definitely leaving the Coachella Valley together, and we’ll have a lot to talk about in the car, but who knows how long things will last?

I hope that we’ll get back to L.A., get some space and make things work long-term. I hope.

Note: This article originally appeared at laweekly.com.
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