Thursday, May 19, 2022

Dyson’s bizarre new headphones have a built-in air purifier

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Dyson gets into headphones in the most Dyson way: the Zone, a pair of noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones with built-in air-purifying technology, thanks to a bizarre-looking magnetic face visor. It’s both the strangest and most ambitious product the company has ever made.

Today’s announcement is just a first reveal of the Zone headphones ahead of a fall release date, and Dyson isn’t announcing specific details like price or specs (including how much the headphones weigh or how long the battery will last) at this time. .

The aim of the Zone is to make life more comfortable in urban spaces by trying to reduce both air and noise pollution.

The air-purifying half of the Zone isn’t reinventing the wheel for Dyson. Instead, it shrinks the company’s existing air filtration technology into a unique form factor. The Zone draws air through each earpiece using a pair of small compressors. The air is then filtered and passed through the (somewhat bizarre-looking) “visor” so that the user can breathe in – without most of the particles and pollutants.

Despite how it looks, the visor doesn’t make contact with your face like a mask would. Instead, it sits in front of your face, creating an opening where a bubble of clean air can collect and be inhaled. (The company showed a separate attachment that can be clipped on in cases where you might need a good full-contact face mask, too.)

The Dyson Zone on the company’s testing platform, Frank.
Image: Dyson

The visor snaps into place through a series of magnets, allowing it to be removed if you only want to use the headphones as headphones. It also has hinges that can fold it down so you can talk to people normally without having to remove the entire device. The Zone’s filter system also offers multiple settings for different effort levels. For example, when you run up stairs or try to catch a bus, you breathe more heavily (and need more air) than when you take a leisurely walk. There’s even an automated setting that uses accelerometers to adjust airflow automatically.

Dyson says the Zone can filter out up to 99 percent of particulate pollution, although the filters are not reusable and should be replaced after about a year. (The company says the exact amount of time depends on how much air pollution you encounter and how actively you use the headphones.)

The headphone section is a bit more traditional, despite being a new product category for Dyson. The company says the goal with the Zone was to create “faithful” reproductions of a musician’s original songs. Noise cancellation is provided by a mix of passive cancellation of the overall design and active noise cancellation through an array of microphones.

There are three different noise reduction modes on the Zone. Isolation mode has active ANC when face visor is up. Lowering the visor automatically switches to talk mode, which disables ANC so you can hear the person you are talking to. There is also a transparency mode, which filters out important sounds such as horns and sirens. Charging is via USB-C and the headphones connect to a Dyson Link app, which can provide more detailed information about the air quality around you.

I was able to try out a prototype of the Zone a few weeks ago and it certainly seems to do what the company claims. I could feel the air currents being pumped in front of my face – even though I was inside it was hard to tell how much cleaner it was.

ANC also worked well (but again, a quiet hotel room isn’t the best test scenario), and audio quality for music was good without particularly dramatic bass (which was arguably the company’s goal).

On the other hand, the Zone headphones are also: all large and remarkably heavy. Dyson has done an admirable job of cramming all this technology into a pair of headphones, but they’re still relatively bigger and bulkier than, say, Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones. Plus, the hum of the compressors was still a bit audible when the motors were running at higher speeds and I wasn’t listening to music to drown it out, even despite the noise cancellation.

The Zone is certainly one of the most unique products from Dyson (or probably any other company) we’ll see this year. There are still a lot of crucial details we don’t know, including price and battery life. And while mask-wearing has normalized considerably in the past two years, we’ll have to see if customers will be willing to embrace this extraordinarily strange-looking product.

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