The cochlea-crushing cacophony of the modern world is one we're all eager to tune out. That's why companies are now selling magical earbuds that use sound engineering to selectively tune out the outside world. But why spend $200 for a pair of earbuds when you can download an app and get the same thing for free? Well, kinda—the app, Hear, is a lot weirder.
Now on the iOS App Store, Hear is the latest project from Rjdj, long-time makers of supersonic iPhone audio apps. What adaptive headphones aim to do with hardware, Hear does with software: tune and tweak ambient noise so that you can either hear it, or ignore it, through your headphones.
Hear pumps audio in through your smartphone or headphones' built in mic—then does all sorts of real-time audio processing on the signal before passing it down to your ear drums. So if you're in a loud office and want to tune out ambient talking, you can load up Hear in conjunction with Spotify, and it will cancel out that background noise. But you can also do the opposite: there's a super hearing mode which amplifies anyone talking to you, so if you're jamming out to Metallica with the volume turned up to 11, you still won't miss anyone whispering behind your back.
There are other experimental modes, too. A relaxation mode, which makes background noise feel less immediate; a happy mode, which makes the people around you sound like cartoon characters; even a sleep mode, which causes the noise in your bedroom at night to subside to a gentle susurrus, like waves lapping inside a seashell pressed to your ear.
All of these modes are interesting to experiment with, but since Hear doesn't have its own hardware (with specially designed embedded microphones to offset the noise) available to it, the experience doesn't feel too fine tuned yet. The app will work with any pair of headphones, but they all have their own trade-offs. If you use Apple's default EarPods, Hear tends to pick-up the sound of the headphone mic accidentally brushing against your clothes. Other headphones, while cleaner sounding, don't pick up ambient talking as well, because they are using a smartphone mic placed further away from your ear.
Either way, all of the soundscapes in the Hear app have a sort of electro-psychotropic quality to them, as if you are hearing them through an '80s synthesizer on a feedback loop after taking several mushrooms (which is not the first time that comparison has been made, according to the app's marketing). So using Hear is almost its own acoustic experience. It's not actually directly comparative something like the Here Active Listening System, which aims to move your headphones out of the way of the sound around you.
Instead, Hear is gloriously unapologetic about its technical limitations: it's more of an audio trip than an out-of-the-way audio experience.
Download Hear by Rjdj here.