There’s no scene more dystopian than a dozen people tanning on a picturesque beach, just feet from the perfect sounds of the sea—all relaxing with glasses on, their eyes closed, and earbuds in. Why would anyone travel a thousand miles just to tune out a perfect moment?
Now, Bose has acknowledged that not all moments should be silenced beneath the timbre of Billboard 40 hits. Because its new Quietcontrol 30 (QC30) headphones don’t just cancel the sounds of the world out. They can mix that sound back in.
Using six microphones, the QC30 enables what the company calls "controllable noise cancellation." Instead of just muting your environment like noise canceling tech normally does, it lets you lets you turn noise cancellation levels up and down—like a volume knob for traffic and crying babies.
"From needing awareness on a busy sidewalk, to complete isolation for work, to taking a call from home in a crowded cafe — the QC30 lets owners choose what they hear," the press release explains. It’s just the sort of "oh, that’s sorta neat" feature that hardware manufacturers thrive on to entice us to buy new products.
But to see QC30 as just another routine gadget update would be missing its quieter revolution at play.
Bose is confidently sluggish in updating its small product line, and such an update seems to confirm that headphones are entering the post-Beats era. For the last 10 years, the market has been defined by oversized pair of cups that demonstrate to everyone around you that you have them muted out. But walking to lunch isn't the same as LeBron James walking into Game 3. (If it was, Beats wouldn't have released earbuds!)
It’s why companies like Here are imagining earbuds that augment and remix the sounds around you, rather than blocking them out completely. Lately, it seems like every major hardware manufacturer has been dreaming up the same set of minimal wireless earbuds to sell us, too.
This more balanced approach to remixing the soundscape makes a lot of sense, even beyond the social statement. We depend on our ears to traverse the world: they make us aware. Police officers routinely warn commuters against wearing earbuds because they make us easier prey, while some legislation blocks bike riders from wearing headphones because they might tune out vehicles on the road. QC30’s updates seem aimed at both these issues.
But QC30 is also future-casting. With their release, Bose is readying itself for the headphone revolution right around the corner. Companies like Sony are positioning smart headphones as the tool to which we’ll communicate with the Alexa, Siri, and Cortana AI assistants, akin to the movie Her.
A slew of design challenges still stand in the way of that future, and who knows if consumers will buy in. But a pair of headphones that are capable of hearing the world around us and balancing it based on context? That seems like step one in building an AI that lives inside our ears.