Wireless earbuds, like AirPods and Bragi Dash, are all the rage these days, but they all have one common problem: You can’t hear ambient sound around you.
But with Sony’s Xperia Ear Open-style concept wireless earbuds, you can hear all the wonderful (and terrible) sounds around you while looking like someone straight out of a sci-fi movie.
First announced at Mobile World Congress earlier this year, Sony brought them back out to IFA in Berlin and let me try them out. The company says it’s making good progress toward a consumer release.
The pair that I tried was a working prototype, so the design looked a little different to the one they’re aiming for.
Even so, I got a taste of the wireless audio future that Sony’s working toward. Despite having its guts stored inside a finger-shaped housing that tucks underneath your earlobes, the Xperia Ear Open-style concept earbuds actually fit pretty great.
The ear tips themselves have an interesting design. Instead of in-ear buds that plug straight into your ears, providing a seal in your ear canals, the Xperia Ear Open-style concept buds have a rubber ring-shaped tip.
Like Sony’s “Concept Prototype N” headphones, which also have an open-style ear tip, music is projected directly into your ears from the acoustic conductor inside its case.
Listening to music while still being able to hear noises around you is a really weird sensation and it feels like a mind trick. But it’s really not too different from bone conduction.
Volume is automatically adjusted to your surroundings so that you can still clearly have conversations with others or hear traffic without needing to turn the earbuds off.
The sound quality was so-so and comparable to popular truly wireless earbuds. While they could’ve sounded better — Sony’s still working on them so things could improve on the commercial release — it’s just silly to expect audiophile-quality sound from a pair of small Bluetooth earbuds. Like, come on…
But since they’re still prototypes, I can’t say for certain if they suffer from any serious sound leakage like with bone conduction headphones. My coworker Lili Sams, who was standing about two feet away, couldn’t hear the music I was listening to. But a foot and closer and she could.
Obviously Sony’s got a target spec it wants to meet, but again, anything could change by the time the earbuds ship. Battery life is expected to be up to four hours on a single charge. The charging case holds an additional three charges and a 12-minute quick charge will juice up the earbuds for up to two hours of listening time.
There’s a touchpad on the right earbud for controlling music, and Sony’s even made it compatible with voice commands for Siri and Google Assistant in addition to its own Sony Assistant.
Sony says the Xperia Ear Open-style concept will be available in black and gold (to better blend into your hair, of course), but it stopped short at announcing price or release details. I’m not sure if ambient wireless earbuds will ever take off, but I’ll be honest, it worries me that so many people blindly walk into the streets, distracted by their headphones, and might not hear oncoming traffic.