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Doppler Labs’ bionic hearing earbuds let you tweak live sound with a smartphone app

At first, the idea of a hearing aid for people who can already hear just fine seems ridiculous — but if you entertain it for a second, it starts to make a bit more sense. Imagine what it would be like if, with the help of technology, you could make your already good hearing better. What if you could filter out certain noises and amplify other ones to customize what you can hear? Well, if NY-based startup Doppler Labs has its way, you might soon be able to.

Doppler’s product, which it showed off this year at CES, is called Here. It’s essentially a set of earbuds that gives you the ability to selectively filter and amplify sounds from the world around you in real time, thereby allowing you to fine-tune your hearing for certain environments. If properly adjusted, this little gizmo (which its creators refer to as the world’s first “hearable tech” device) could help you do things like hear your dining partner better in a crowded restaurant, understand your friends at loud concerts without them screaming in your ear, or even eavesdrop on people from the other side of a room.

We had our doubts about the technology’s effectiveness, but when we got a chance to actually try them out, we were absolutely blown away. Once we had them in our ears, Doppler’s demo guy immediately fired up the “crowd filter” on the accompanying app, and our jaws dropped as the din of a thousand background voices suddenly disappeared. Here we were, smack in the middle of Pepcom, surrounded by a zillion noisy journalists — but all we could hear was the voice of the guy running the demo. It was astonishing, and that’s just one of the many tricks these buds have up their proverbial sleeve. Demo guy then proceeded to adjust the volume of his voice, add reverb, and even tweak the treble and bass levels — all in real time, without any kind of lag.

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Here’s how it works. On the outward-facing part of the earbuds, there’s a set of microphones. These pick up audio from the surrounding world, which is then sent through a digital signal processor (DSP), and subsequently played into your ears with no perceivable latency (i.e. under 30 microseconds). With the help of a smartphone app, you can adjust how the DSP behaves, and make the headphones produce sound waves that add, remove, or augment the original audio signal. It’s basically like having a volume knob and EQ settings for every single sound that enters your ears.

The range of potential uses for this tech is huge. Want to tune out the annoying pop music playing in the grocery store, but still hear the cashier when you get up to the register? Wish there was a mute button on that crying baby on your red-eye flight? Feel like your car stereo doesn’t have enough bass? With the right signal processing algorithms, Here could totally make it happen.

The earbuds aren’t quite available for purchase just yet, but Doppler is currently shipping to Kickstarter backers, and it expect to have the earbuds available to everyone else before the end of January. When that happens, you’ll be able to get your paws on them for about $200 bucks.