When you consider all the problems you run into with earbuds, some of the big ones relate directly to convenience—or inconvenience. Either they’re not on you right when you need them, or you thought you put them into your bag when you didn’t, or the cable is so impossibly knotted that you can’t untangle it in time for a phone call. What can you do to address all these issues in one fell swoop? How about a pair of earbuds you wear around your neck all day.
That’s the thinking behind Ropes, a forthcoming pair of high-end earbuds from newly minted audio startup Roam. They’re essentially earphones reimagined as a wearable, connecting wirelessly to your phone or computer via a Bluetooth pendent that dangles down to your stomach.
Roam was founded by Steven Lamar, no stranger to pushing the boundaries of personal audio. As head of SLS Audio several years back, he worked with Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre in the formative stages of the Beats headphones. Though the duo ultimately teamed with Monster to manufacture the first few runs of the cans, some consider Lamar the true father of Beats, a role Lamar’s currently trying to prove out in the courts.
On one level, Lamar sees Ropes as a chance to show people an acoustic world beyond cheap plastic earbuds. “We’ve been programmed to accept the audio quality in these earbuds we get with our phones,” he says, though with a preorder price of $299, they’re competing more with the Shures of the world than Apple’s chintzy EarPods.
Still, Lamar hopes that a personalized approach to high-fidelity audio will set Ropes apart. One of the product’s unique aspects is that users will be able to tune the buds’ sound themselves with an accompanying app.
“Whether it be on a phone call, or listening to music, or watching a movie, we all hear things differently,” Lamar says. “We hear things differently out of each ear. And we’re going to give you a tool that communicates directly with the drivers in the earphones to adjust the sound dynamics however you want.”
But even more unique is the way Ropes’ attempting to solve what Lamar calls the “ergonomic” problems of earbuds. Mainly, he wants to do away with digging around in pockets and having to fastidiously spool earbuds back into fussy carrying cases. “The concept is you wear it. All day. My earbuds are always on my person,” Lamar says. The industrial design was handled by the renowned consultancy Frog. Essentially, Ropes are a pair of stark, Bang and Olufsen-style buds set in the middle of a thick cable. When you’re not using them, they simply hang from your neck.
The idea of wearing earbuds all day may seem a bit silly on its face. But consider that some people are still willing to endure the stigma of Bluetooth headsets simply because they’re so useful for handling phone calls. At the very least, a set of wearable earbuds could be a less douchey way to cover that use case. Plus, as we’ve seen with Beats and bracelets like the Jawbone Up, the lines between consumer electronics and fashion accessories are starting to blur. We’re increasingly open to the idea of wearing our gadgets conspicuously—if, that is, they’re pretty enough for the job.
The accompanying app lets you adjust the sound profile directly via the drivers.
The accompanying app lets you adjust the sound profile directly via the drivers. Roam
There’s also the simple fact that our lives are saturated with digital audio, and for many, having a pair of headphones or earbuds at arm’s reach is already the norm. It’s not just phone calls. There’s music, videos, driving directions. Wearing a pair of headphones at work isn’t a signal that you’re slacking off. Today, heaps of jobs legitimately require listening to stuff coming from a computer. Ropes, at least in concept, seem well-suited to accommodate that reality. As Lamar points out, his earbuds aren’t a wearable you put on to be cool. They’re something you wear because it’s practical to do so.
The world may not quite be ready for ubiquitous buds today. After all, part of Ropes’ always-on convenience disappears when you realize you have to recharge them via micro USB after every six hours of use to keep the wireless juice pumping.
But if you look forward a few years, the idea of on-the-body earbuds will probably seem perfectly normal. The movie Her gave us a taste of what that might look like. In a future where we operated computers simply by talking to them, Joaquin Phoenix’s wireless ear plug was the crucial piece of hardware. As natural language interfaces in our own world become more sophisticated, always-on-you earpieces are the obvious hardware complement.
We’re still a ways off from being spurned by our artificially intelligent assistants. But in that context, Ropes’ approach is an intriguing one. With a little imagination, they’re not just a more convenient pair of earbuds for listening to Spotify, but an evolutionary step toward something else, anticipating a time when audio isn’t just entertainment but an interface too.
View article on Wired
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