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This $800 speaker promises private listening without headphones

At CES, we’re used to seeing lots of speakers and lots of headphones. But a smart speaker that claims to offer a virtual-headphone experience is a new twist. The Noveto N1, which combines Amazon Alexa’s smarts with facial recognition to let you hear private stereo sound without using headphones, starts shipping before the end of March for $800.

Noveto N1 'invisible headphones' speaker.
Noveto

The N1 looks like a miniature soundbar for your desk, and it’s likely that most folks will take one look at it and assume it’s meant for playing audio out loud. But your first clue that the N1 isn’t what it appears to be is the small set of cameras mounted between the speaker grilles.

Those cameras are used to enable Noveto’s smart audio beaming technology, which lets you listen to music, take calls, or do anything else that requires audio, all while those in close proximity only hear ambient noise, according to the company.

Noveto N1 'invisible headphones' speaker.
Noveto

“N1 creates a truly magical sound experience,” Noveto CEO Christophe Ramstein said in a press release. “It’s like nothing we’ve seen before and has the potential to change how we work and live. Imagine the efficiency and comfort of private conversations with no devices on the body – we’re returning to a form of delightful, intuitive communication that currently doesn’t exist in our everyday lives with our devices.”

Here’s how it works. The N1 can transmit ultrasound silently through the air. Those ultrasound beams are aimed at a location just outside your ears, where they converge into audible pockets of sound. If you can imagine tiny speakers floating beside your ears, that only you can hear, you’ve got the idea.

Noveto N1 'invisible headphones' speaker.
Noveto

But because we tend to move our heads a fair bit even while seated, those ultrasound beams need to be frequently adjusted to ensure the private listening effect is maintained, so the cameras keep an eye(s) on your head position. Noveto also uses the camera system to understand when you’re looking at the N1 to enable its other key feature; the ability to “communicate effortlessly and naturally,” creating the ability to talk to Alexa without continuously saying “Hey Alexa.”

Noveto claims the system is so effective, it can deliver full 3D spatial audio to the person who’s listening, while everyone else in close proximity only hears a faint whisper of sound. You can use the N1 through Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB-C, and the included 3.5mm jack.

If the N1 works as well as Noveto claims, it could be a huge help to the many folks who are working from home and find themselves on video calls throughout the day. Not needing to constantly slip a set of headphones or earbuds on and off might be worth the N1’s tall asking price of $800. If we get one in for testing, we’ll let you know!

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Simon Cohen
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like spatial…
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