I’m not an avid Kickstarter, but when a project popped up hocking a pair of Bluetooth earbud headphones I was sorely tempted. I’d first dreamed of such a wonder during my sophomore year of high school and although I ended up finding a low-tech solution to that particular problem (wired earbuds and a hoodie with a hole in it), the idea never left me alone for long. So in early February 2014, I decided to risk $200 on a no-name company and their pipe dream. And then, two years and 53 updates later, a tiny little package showed up in our mailroom.
Bragi clearly adopted Apple’s minimalist approach to packaging, and there isn’t much in the box. Aside from the earbuds themselves, there’s a charging case (aptly named The Charger), a micro USB cable, a leash to connect the earbuds (if I so choose) and and some differently sized sleeves. The only paperwork included are a set of Bragi stickers and a warranty card.
After ogling the package for a few minutes it’s hard not to jam them directly into my ears, but first I need to update the firmware. The process itself is pretty painless: plug the Dash’s carrying case into my PC, download a file, and copy it over. However it turns out that you can’t power the device while it’s updating; unplugging The Charger from the PC is what kicks off the update process. I am waiting for the next update to see if I can connect The Charger to USB wall charger after unplugging it from my PC*, but at least for this update I was looking at a 2 hour charging cycle and then a 2 hour update. Fun.
* – I was able to confirm that this does work, so no more 4-hour update cycles.
Everything’s charged, the firmware has been updated, and it’s finally time to put The Dash to their first test…how do they feel? Aside from the basic “making sure they don’t fall out of my ears”, a good fit is apparently crucial for both sound quality and some of the health features.
I was initially very impressed by the earbud’s fit. They maintained a snug hold even while showering or running on the treadmill, and I couldn’t dislodge them even when I tried. I tested all of the FitSleeves (their name, not mine) and when they all seemed to feel the same I randomly settled on the mediums. Changing them is not something you’d be doing on a regular basis, which is a good thing because aligning them within the sleeves is a pain. I almost always ended up jamming the earpiece into the sleeve willy-nilly and then using a push-rolling motion to rotate the sleeve into place.
However, after a full week of wearing them for 3-8 hours a day, I definitely began to feel their presence. One of the ways The Dash maintains its fit is by going further into the ear canal than most other buds I’ve used, and my ears got a little tender before I realized the mediums were too big for me. I also noticed that the unusual sensation triggered some extra earwax production, which aside from being gross needed to be cleaned out before The Dash pushed it deeper in. Both of these problems were easily managed, but I’m not sure if I’d ever be able to use these as my “every day” headphones. They’re not really positioned to be and I’m not surprised, but it is a disappointment nonetheless.
Pairing the Dash for audio is ridiculously easy – hold down on the right earbud until you hear the voice say “I’m discoverable” and then select it from the Bluetooth list on your phone. Once it’s paired, simply removing the earbuds from The Charger will automatically connect them. However, this is only for audio; if you want to transfer or monitor your activity statistics, you need to pair the left earbud to the Bragi app separately. It’s the same easy process, but a little annoying that you need to do it twice.
Maintaining that connectivity has been a bit of a contentious topic between Bragi and some of the early reviewers, and many of the first evaluations bemoan the problems in maintaining a connection to a remote device. I didn’t experience many of these, but almost every time I did have some stutter or a dropped connection it was clearly tied to the distance between my phone or computer and the right earpiece. I’m 6’3″, and being outside (with nothing to bounce the signal off of), the range from my right hip pocket through my jacket and to my right ear proved too much for the device. I was also unable to pair The Dash to my desktop, whose Bluetooth antenna is beneath my desk and on the left.
I don’t have much to compare them to (I stopped buying fancy earbuds when I put my money on these) but I would call the quality on these on par with upper-middle tier earbuds. There was some early criticism about a low volume ceiling on Reddit, but I was able to clearly hear an audiobook while walking down a busy New York City street, complete with construction. I did however find that complaints about weak bass were accurate, and while Bragi commented that this was more of a fit than acoustic problem I wasn’t really able to get a fit that completely solved the problem for me.
In addition to regular music, The Dash has a feature they call “audio transparency” which essentially pipes ambient noise into the headphones. On paper it’s kind of a funny sounding and unnecessary feature, but now I totally get it; the passive noise blocking is good enough that you need something like this to maintain some semblance of situational awareness. In some ways, it’s pretty cool – at one point I was listening to music while playing video games in bed with my fiancee and still able to hear her show when I wanted to. However, there’s no way to adjust the ranges of frequencies the feature targets, and in many cases the sounds I’d actually want to hear are overshadowed by other random noises.
Usability is potentially the key factor in wearables (especially those without screens or buttons) and while Bragi doesn’t have much I’d consider revolutionary, it is very polished and functional. Each earbud has a little touch sensor towards the bottom which measures taps and directional swipes, and the whole thing feels like the next logical iteration of the in-line button on your current headphones. The audio feedback is clear and does a great job of keeping you from getting a lost, a major achievement in a device without the option for any visual feedback.
The one piece of truly revolutionary interface, motion-based controls referred to as “macros” by Bragi, didn’t quite make it to launch. Two “proof of concept” macros did make it in the latest firmware launch – nodding or shaking your head to answer or decline a call – but the ability to define your own is still somewhere in the future.
I’ve taken my Dash to the gym a few times now and despite being positioned as an “active accessory”, the health tracking is rudimentary at best. You tell the Dash which activity you’re starting, (only running, swimming, or biking for now) and then a double-tap will tell you your current heartrate, duration, and (if running) steps. Reports on the web say that the heart rate does flow into Apple’s “Health” app, but I wasn’t able to get this working and I have no idea about the other data being collected. Bragi has acknowledged that they had to delay a lot in order to focus on getting the product out, but that excuse does wear thin considering how hard they’re pushing the “active” angle on their website.
I didn’t really expect wearing the Dash to be fundamentally different from other pairs of headphones, but in a few ways they are rather unique.
The biggest difference I found was wearing them while talking to people. Initially my instinct was to remove them, but then you’re left holding two tiny earpieces (and whatever earwax they come out with) in the palm of your hand while you pull out The Charger. The other option is to leave them in and to rely on the “transparency” feature. I was originally concerned people would find this rude, but honestly most people didn’t seem to notice I had headphones in at all. The bigger problem I discovered is that not everyone’s vocal range fell into the right range for transparency to pick up, and in many cases parts of the conversation would be dropped in favor of someone tapping on a desk or keyboard.
On the positive side, not having wires is a feeling I can’t quite describe in words. It’s obviously one of the major selling points of The Dash, but experiencing it for yourself is almost too subtle to notice at first. You’ll just be running along and suddenly wonder where is this music coming from? It’s the future, and it’s here, and it’s pretty damn sweet.
I was a little hesitant to test the waterproofing, but I eventually decided to shower with them. It works, it’s cool, but I’m not sure it’s worth the hassle for me. While the earbuds themselves are fine getting wet, Bragi made a special point to mention that The Charger is not and that the buds need to be completely dry before putting them away. At $299 I’m not exactly eager to take risks with my new toy and so I ended up taking each out of it’s FitSleeve and hand drying them, an annoying process I’d rather do without. That being said, the XS sleeve doesn’t wrap around the entire earpiece as the others do, and without the need to remove and dry the sleeves independently I could see swimming in them without an issue.
The Dash is clearly a first generation product, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. Bragi had to make many compromises in order to bring it into the world, and in some cases (Bluetooth being the biggest) there may have simply been no correct answer. It’s also immensely frustrating that even after two years there is so much functionality over the horizon.
All of that being said, it’s an extremely impressive first attempt for a tiny organization starting entirely from scratch, and everything about the product shows the love that went into the design process. The Dash is a few software updates away from being a computer in your ears, and the first time you put them on (in?) it’s obvious that this is the combined future of the wearable and headphones markets.
Now we come to the million-dollar-question: would I recommend them? I, for one, love them. They are the antithesis of my every-day Bose QC-15’s, and I don’t care enough about the pieces still in development enough to miss them. However, you may have different priorities:
- Would these be your only pair of headphones? If so, I’d say no. There are more comfortable and better generalist headphones out there for less money.
- How sensitive are your ears? If you said ‘very’, then steer clear. As I said before, they do go pretty far into your ear canals, and if that’s an issue for you these are not worth your time.
- Do your earbuds get in the way of your activities? If you find the wires from your earbuds getting tangled in your gear, then I’d say hell yes. Going completely wireless just feels so damn good.
- Are you an audiophile? If you’re picky about the quality of your sound, then you should pass for now. These are $299 for reasons other than perfect audio fidelity, and you’re just going to be disappointed.
- Do you hate carrying things when you work out? If you prefer to sweat unencumbered, these are a no-brainer. The Dash’s 4Gb onboard storage means you can still listen to music and track your health stats without having your phone, and again, no wires.
- Are you patient with technology? If you want it all and you want it now, then I might look elsewhere. Bragi’s got a laundry list of promised features they need to deliver on, and it could be a while before they cross them all off.
- Do you love cutting edge cool toys? Why are you even asking…we both know you already got a pair.