Sony Xperia Ear open-style earbuds let you listen to music, the world around you

sony xperia ear open style rsz img 20170227 083458
These days, the toughest thing about AI-powered assistants is choosing a device to use. Amazon’s Alexa powers not only Amazon’s Echo artificial intelligence, but the AI in smartphones, smart home products, and smartwatches. Microsoft’s Cortana is integrated tightly with Windows 10 machines. And Google recently announced that its voice-activated, artificially intelligent Assistant will make its way to Android devices running newer versions of Android.

But Sony thinks there’s room for one more assistant-touting wearable.

At the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona this week, the company took the wraps off a new version of the Xperia Ear “open-style concept,” which are earbuds that sport Sony’s Agent digital assistant. Unlike the off-the-shelf headphones you’re used to seeing packed in with a new phone, they’re completely “hands-free” and “eyes-free” thanks to “open ear” technology that transmits sound “directly to the ear canal.” You can hear not only audio, but the noises around you.

The prototype Xperia Ear achieves the bizarre effect with a spatial acoustic conductor: a driver unit that generates sound and a C-shaped duct that transfers that sound to a ring-shaped bit of plastic that fits inside your inner ear. Effectively, it’s a form of conduction, vibrating your skulls’ bones and amplifying whatever audio the Xperia Ear earbuds are playing.

sony xperia ear open style open3 1488182106 3nfu column width inline

We tried a pair, which we weren’t allowed to photograph, at Sony’s Mobile World Congress booth. And the effect, safe to say, is disconcerting: When you listen to music, it seems as though everyone around you can hear it, because you can hear them. When a Sony representative wore them, however, we weren’t able to hear any sound leaking from the earbuds’ plastic cone.

The quality seemed good, though it was difficult to tell over the roar of MWC’s crowds. They’re obviously not ideal for a jam session, a fact Sony is well aware of.

Company reps told us that the open-concept Xperia Ear earbuds aren’t meant to replace a standard pair of headphones. Rather, they’re intended as a convenient, safe, and quick way of interacting with digital assistants on the street, in the office, or any environment where being able to hear ambient noise is important. The company sees them as an especially great fit for physical activities like running that require you keep an eye — and ear — on your surroundings. You’ll be able to cross the road safely, for example, or pretend you’re listening to a co-worker while streaming Aerosmith.

sony xperia ear open style new concept

The Xperia Assistant component of the Xperia Ear wasn’t functional in the units we tried, but Samsung said it will be able to do things like let you know when you’ve got appointments or meetings, give you turn-by-turn directions to nearby places, and let you record reminders. If and when the open-style Xperia Ear comes to market, it’ll support the Google Assistant, too, for users who prefer the search giant’s assistant to Sony’s.

Unfortunately, that’s all Sony was willing to disclose. Company reps refused to talk about the Xperia Ear concept’s battery size and sensors, and in fact said the earbuds were at the “working prototype” phase — they stressed that the finished product would look different (and weigh a little more).

Whether they make it to market isn’t a sure thing. The Xperia Ear open-style’s availability and price will depend on its reception, Sony said. So if the idea of open-style earbuds strikes your fancy, you’d best show your interest on social media.

As for owners of Sony’s older Xperia ear earbuds, new features are coming down the pipeline. Sony announced Anytime Talk, which will let you start a group conversation by pushing a button or gesturing with your head, will launch in beta “in the coming months.” And the company said it’s working with the developers of messaging app Line on “a new integrated voice experience.”

Article originally published 02-27-2017. Updated on 02-28-2017 by Kyle Wiggers: Added hands-on impressions of the Xperia Touch.

Home Theater

The original Mac design team reimagines Apple’s AirPods. Would you wear them?

Most people would agree that if you were intent on redesigning Apple's mega-popular AirPods, you wouldn't make them look more controversial. And yet that's what the team at Frog Design has done — with a purpose.
Mobile

What is 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

It has been years in the making, but 5G is finally becoming a reality. While 5G coverage is still extremely limited, expect to see it expand in 2019. Not sure what 5G even is? Here's everything you need to know.
Deals

Treat your ears to Sennheiser’s Momentum 2.0 with Amazon’s 49% discount

Amazon gives your ears a treat as it brings down the hefty $500 price tag of the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 with a 49% discount. It may be considered a luxury but a pair can be within reach for $254.
Home Theater

HDMI ARC and eARC: What they are and why you should care

HDMI ARC is one of the coolest TV features at your disposal. But if you're like most folks, you have no idea how it works, if you even know what it is at all. Here's our primer on HDMI ARC, as well as the next-generation technology, eARC.
Mobile

The best iPhone car mounts to keep your smartphone in sight and stable

The best iPhone car mounts are designed to securely hold your device in place and keep it in view while on the road. Here are some of the mounts you should look into if you're in the market for a quality piece of equipment.
Deals

Amazon drops prices on refurbished Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel, and iPhone

Break your smartphone or, worse yet, lose it? Tired of paying for a device you don't own? Amazon's got some great deals on unlocked and refurbished phones including the Pixel 3 XL, iPhone XS, and Samsung Galaxy S10 this week.
Mobile

Is the Apple Card any better than a regular credit card? We asked an expert

The new Apple Card is integrated with your iPhone and comes with a titanium backup card for places that don’t accept Apple Pay, but how does it stack up against the competition? We asked some experts to find out.
Mobile

Apple Card is finally available. Here’s everything you need to know about it

Apple is getting into the credit card business. Apple Card is a credit card you can sign up for directly on your iPhone, and it doesn't have fees. There's a lower interest rate and you can even get Daily Cash from all purchases.
Mobile

Save space and data with Google Go, now for regular Android devices

Google Go is the top app for space- and data-saving searches on the entry-level Android Go, and now Google is making those handy capabilities available on mainstream Android devices.
Mobile

Apple Card Review: Come for the titanium card, stay for the app

The Apple Card has a lot of buzz, even if it’s iPhone-only card management will leave you stranded should you lose your phone. Apple’s more concerned with getting reluctant Americans to use mobile payments.
Deals

Looking to upgrade? These are the best iPhone deals for August 2019

Apple devices can get expensive, but if you just can't live without iOS, don't despair: We've curated an up-to-date list of all of the absolute best iPhone deals available for August 2019.
Mobile

Safeguard your stylish ebook reader with the best Kindle Oasis cases

There aren't a lot of truly great options if you're looking to buy a case for your new Amazon Kindle Oasis ebook reader, but we're here to guide you to the ones worth looking at. These are our top picks for style, utility, and protection.
Deals

Get yourself an Amazon-renewed iPhone 8 Plus at a $135 discount

If you’re not keen about spending around $1,000 or more for the newest iPhone X series, then this Amazon-renewed iPhone 8 Plus is your best bet. Amazon is offering the 64GB unlocked version for only $465 instead of $600.
Computing

The best portable monitors for 2019

Portable monitors are smaller displays that can fit inside backpacks or cases. They're great picks for gaming sessions, extra screens on your desk, and more. Find the best portable monitors with our helpful list!