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Hands on: Hearshot Domio

The Hearshot Domio pushes music through your helmet, but not to your ears

Whether you’re riding down ramps on a BMX bike or snowboarding down a powdered mountain, action cameras are able to capture all the insanity along the way. They’ve made it easy to capture all these exploits by attaching them to helmets, handlebars, or clothing to do the job — but what about listening to music throughout all that madness?

Wearing earbuds would seem to be an obvious solution, except it may not be the safest option if you need to be able to listen to your surroundings. Hearshot is a Toronto startup that is looking to solve that with an upcoming gizmo called the Domio that sticks to a helmet and treats it like a speaker. Digital Trends strapped on a helmet to hear the music with open ears.

Ear freedom

The Domio is a palm-sized puck-shaped device that will stick to any helmet surface using a 3M adhesive mount, connecting to a smartphone via Bluetooth for audio playback. Hearshot claims to have a patent-pending speaker that pushes the audio through to reverberate inside the helmet itself, leaving ears exposed and able to listen to ambient noise freely.

It is conceptually similar to the Tunebug Shake, which was designed to be strapped onto a helmet and effectively aimed to play back audio through it like a concave shell. The only problem, however, is that Tunebug is no longer available. While the website is still up, there has been no update since it launched in 2010, and Amazon no longer sells the device, either.

Hearshot Domio
Ted Kritsonis/Digital Trends

The version of the Domio we saw was a semi-functional prototype, meaning that it could play music, but couldn’t control volume. Hearshot co-founder, Sebastian Koper, also noted that the final design would be smaller and have a thinner mount.

Controls are pretty simple, with a main button in the middle that turns the device on, puts it in pairing mode and then plays, pauses, skips and repeats tracks with different button presses. The ring around the device is a rotary dial that can control volume. The prototype had an exposed bottom and rudimentary adhesive mount that added a little thickness to the product.

The idea is to position the Domio centrally on the helmet in order to balance out the audio, though it’s not a requirement.

The idea is to position the Domio centrally on the helmet in order to balance out the audio, though it’s not a requirement. Angling it over towards one side is possible, particularly if you want to make room for an action cam, but the audio will naturally sound unbalanced, like wearing one earbud while the other ear is free.

“Every helmet is going to be a little bit different, in terms of the construction, density of materials, hard plastic, ABS shell or hard foam on the inside,” said Koper. “The challenge is in how to deliver good sound across a suite of helmets.”

Koper himself has four, and feels the Domio strikes a good balance between them. It’s being made to be water-resistant, so that rain, water splashes, and other incidental contact with H2O doesn’t fry it. It’s not fully waterproof, and therefore not recommended for any waterborne activities that would result in getting drenched often.

Sounding off

While we certainly weren’t expecting sound on the level of a great pair of headphones, the Domio sounded a little distant and restrained when listening to it through a rigid hard shell helmet. Raising the volume helped a little. A rock track reverberated better than a hip hop one, like Drake’s Hotline Bling, for instance, where bass was noticeably weak.

Related: These 12 smart helmets are totally worth the helmet hair

This didn’t come as a surprise, given the purpose is to have music within both earshot and reach — without fully covering the ears. In that context, and the way in which the audio travels, the Domio wasn’t bad under the circumstances. The question is whether it can get better before it launches this fall.

Hearshot Domio
Ted Kritsonis/Digital Trends

Koper pointed to one possible solution that could reduce the reflection that inevitably happens with sound bouncing off a surface.

“Whenever you have sound energy transmitted between two media, there’s always some kind of loss in sound fidelity and in energy overall during that transmission,” he said. “One way we’re looking at solving this is what’s called a coupling agent.”

Koper pointed to a possible solution that could reduce the reflection that inevitably happens with sound bouncing off a surface.

To better understand the concept of coupling agents, think about the gel used for ultrasounds. That gel concentrates and amplifies radiation from the pads into the human body during the procedure, removing all the reflection that would bounce back from the skin to thereby show a clearer image. It’s something that hasn’t been used in an audio product before, but Hearshot is experimenting with plastic layers filled with the gel to concentrate sound into the helmet with reduced reflection through the mounting adhesive.

“Every time sound leaves one material and enters another, you are always introducing loss and reflection, unless it’s a material like a coupling agent, which is the gel. That’s the only time you’re doing the opposite,” he said.

Hearshot Domio
Ted Kritsonis/Digital Trends

It’s not guaranteed that the final version of the product will have these strips, yet they likely would be included if all goes well with the trials.

Related: Zagg’s new Now Cam doubles as action cam and Bluetooth speaker

Battery life is rated at seven hours, but that’s on a good day in normal weather and default volume. In cold winter weather, that number is likely to drop to 4.5, and the louder the Domio has to go, the less its lights will stay on.

App-based calibration

A free app for iOS and Android will be used as the calibration tool. When in a calibration setting, the user only needs to put the phone inside the helmet. A 15-second feedback cycle ensues, sending a number of frequencies through the helmet that are picked up by the phone’s own microphones. Once completed, the result can be saved as a preset profile for that specific helmet, with options to adjust treble or bass afterward.

A free app for iOS and Android will be used as the calibration tool.

Despite physical controls for audio on the Domio itself, there is no onboard mic, thus negating hands-free calls. That also cuts out Siri and Google Now for voice-activated functions, which might be a more glaring omission now that Apple has opened up Siri to third-party developers, and Google has its own plans for Now.

Climbing a big piece of rock or trying to stay intact on some crazy obstacle course are probably not the best times to have a deep conversation, but being able to verbally control a third-party app that is streaming music would be a nice safety perk. Even so, there are currently no plans to include an onboard mic in the Domio.

“We feel this is something that we are targeting to more of the ‘hardcore’ sports enthusiasts, but we don’t feel like it’s a niche or hardcore product, so we’re positioning it as a better and safer alternative than what’s out there now,” said Koper.

Conclusion

Based on our short test and previous experience with the Tunebug, the Domio is a niche product for a particular consumer subset, and one that doesn’t really have a competitor right now. Listening to music using a lightweight product without covering your ears isn’t common to find, and Hearshot could make things interesting if the coupling agent idea actually works.

However, there is a trade-off here that has to be accepted: the fact that audio quality has to be sacrificed to some degree in order to avoid wearing earbuds or headphones during any extreme sporting activity. It can be useful for providing some tunes in a lightweight form, and we could only ever see ourselves using such a device while doing something crazy with a helmet on.

A pre-order crowdfunding campaign is live as of today, June 21, but the Domio’s launch is not contingent on raising funds through it. Koper said the device will launch to backers as planned in November, regardless. Seed funding from angel investors in the U.S. and Canada has made sure of that, and will also cover another product Hearshot will be announcing soon.

It will come in black and white versions, with pricing starting at $49, moving up to $109 at retail later on.

Highs:

  • Lightweight form factor
  • Physical controls
  • Bluetooth streaming
  • Universal helmet compatibility
  • Weather and water-resistant

Lows

  • Weak bass
  • Adhesive will need to be thinner
  • No onboard mic for calls or voice assistant