Bragi hit our radar back in early 2014 with a Kickstarter campaign for the Dash, the first consumer-oriented “true wireless” earphone – that is, one where the earpieces are not connected via cable to each other or to the audio source. And that was only the beginning of the long and futuristic feature set of the Dash, which also included waterproofing, touch controls, fitness tracking via integrated sensors, and a “transparent” mode meant to improve situational awareness by feeding some outside noise back to the earphones.
The Bragi Kickstarter campaign was hugely successful, raising nearly $3.4 million – a record amount at the time. Not too surprising as the Dash promised exactly what many people likely envisioned the first time they heard the term “wireless earphones” years prior. It just so happened that two separate earpieces, each handling one stereo channel, is a difficult task to accomplish with Bluetooth technology. Add to that the other complexities of a “true wireless” earphone – the need for two of everything, connectivity between the earpieces, unified controls, and so on – and it becomes clear just what an undertaking the Dash was.
Like many Kickstarter campaigns, Bragi’s was slightly optimistic about the ship date of the Dash, but after a year or so of delays, Kickstarter backers finally got their hands on the earphones this year. And with that, I was able to spend two weeks with a friend’s unit in order to check out the sound from the perspective of someone very familiar with in-ear earphones. I didn’t test every single feature of the Dash or its companion app – that simply wasn’t the goal. Instead, my aim was to determine whether the Dash is any good as an earphone for a habitual headphone user like myself.
I find the Dash rather handsome overall – it’s a complex device with a clean, purposeful look. It also has quite a lot going on internally, and packaging all of the electronics in a way that fits most people comfortably was always going to be key to its success.
Bragi has done extremely well here – the ergonomics of the Dash are excellent, especially considering how feature-rich it is compared to the average set of earphones. The articulated nozzles and smooth, curved surfaces work well in the ear and the built-in IR heartrate sensors are not intrusive. The earpieces are actually smaller compared to some wired earphones, and I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the Dash stays in place without any kind of earfin or earhook. For my ears at least, the Dash fits at least as well as any other large universal-fit earphone.
The eartips are a different story, however – the Dash provides some unusual eartip choices, most of them being extremely soft, shallow-insertion tips in a shape I haven’t seen before. Three of the four included pairs also incorporate a full silicone sleeve for the earpieces. They are easy to use and secure, but also a little tough to get a truly airtight seal with (as IEM enthusiasts know all too well, a comfortable fit and a good seal don’t always go hand in hand).
The nozzles of the Dash are not proprietary and will take aftermarket eartips, ideally from something with a 3-4mm nozzle. Longer tips don’t work too well, however, due to the unique shape of the Dash and how deep into the ear its nozzles extend. I got the best results with a generic single-flange eartip.
One other minor issue – the touch panel is a little gimmicky for my taste compared to buttons, which is doubly true after it gets wet, becoming unresponsive and inaccurate – unfortunate as the Dash is supposed to be sweatproof and water-resistant.
One of the features of the Dash I was most interested in trying out is its “transparency mode”, which uses external mics to pick up ambient sound around the wearer and then mixes it in with the audio in the headphones. This is similar in concept to the ambient feature found on some stage monitors, such as the ACS Evolve Live!. Like the Live!, the Dash allows the wearer to control the relative volume of the outside noise being mixed in with the audio.
This feature could potentially be a huge safety advance for sports use (jogging) as well as other activities that benefit from the user being able to hear surrounding sounds. The current implementation of the Dash doesn’t seem to be have directional sound pickup so it can be hard to tell where the sounds are coming from, detracting from the potential safety benefit. Despite this, it is already useful and should be enabled when jogging outside, for instance – just needs to be used with caution at this stage. Once improved I could see it becoming a major selling point for both sport and everyday use.
The sound quality itself is mediocre at best for a $300 earphone, but good for a $100 earphone with $200 worth of additional tech features. It’s a fairly standard entry-level single-BA (balanced armature) sound reminiscent of something like a Westone 10. Clarity is pretty good and the overall sound is smooth and relatively detailed but falls short in dynamics and end-to-end extension, as is typical of entry-level single-armature earphone. It also doesn’t have the bass slam or depth to establish a “wow” factor for the general consumer, and tends to sound a little better at higher volumes thanks to the mediocre dynamics. Basically, although it is decent for general listening, there’s room for improvement no matter the target customer.
Good-but-not-great sound quality aside, the major problem of the Dash is the constant background hiss, which is present whether or not the active ambient feature is turned on. The noise bothers me much more than any shortcomings in the sound tuning, though others may be more tolerant of it. As far as I’m considered, it is because of the hiss that the Dash is currently suitable only for casual listening.
Besides the sound, there are a few usability quirks that keep the Dash out of contention for “best wireless earphone”. The range, for one, seems to be on the short side for modern Bluetooth earphones, but serviceable if the phone/tablet is kept on your person. In open areas where the Bluetooth signal is not “amplified” by being reflected off walls, there are occasional cutouts, but in a home or office environment the Dash is drama-free.
The microphone is mediocre at best compared to some of the other Bluetooth earphones I’ve used, and the battery life is probably the weakest aspect of the Dash, period. Despite always being stored in the included case, which has a built-in battery and can recharge the Dash several times, I still found myself annoyed by low battery alerts multiple times daily with moderately heavy use.
Speaking of the case, it’s impressively solid with a metal outer cover and a slit that provides visual access to the LEDs on the earpieces. However, it is hefty and the charging connectors can’t accommodate the Dash with non-stock eartips. I would have preferred a less substantial but more portable charging case. Not having to take the eartips off the earphones to charge them would’ve been nice as well.
In spite of all of the issues and shortcomings, the promise of a pair of headphones that you can wear nonstop from morning until night is strong with the Dash. I think the concept can and will undergo improvement until we end up with a true all-purpose audio wearable. In addition to the sound quality becoming more competitive with wired sets, here’s the direction I’d personally like to see true wireless earphones headed.
Ideally, an ambient feature should negate isolation in a controlled and customizable way. With the Dash, there is a very obvious difference between regular passive noise isolation and the active ambient “transparency mode”. It seems like the same basic hardware could be utilized to add active noise cancelling for even greater flexibility. With on-demand active ambient and active noise cancelling, the Dash could be something you never have to (or want to) take out of your ears.
Going further with this flight of fancy, selective filtering of certain frequencies or dB levels could provide even more functionality and safety – let’s say filtering out some of the usual background noise of a city street, but not the sound of a loud car horn or police siren, or combining ANC and a customized active ambient mode to carry on a conversation on an airplane.
There is one more way to look at the Dash – as a step towards the convergence of earphones with high-end hearing aids, some of which already have Bluetooth connectivity and all of which offer external sound amplification. While the Dash doesn’t offer quite the same feature set, “active ambient” wireless earphones could potentially offer an affordable entry-level solution for this subset of users.
It would also be cool if future true wireless sets had the ability to route both stereo channels to either earpiece, for situations where only having one earpiece in is safer (or more legal, as for example while driving). The Dash isn’t suitable for single- ear wear due to its use of near-field magnetic induction (NFMI) technology to connect the left earbud to the right one, which means that the maximum distance the earpieces can be separated by is about the width of a human head. It is possible to use only the right earpiece for a time, but the connection is unstable.
Lastly, always-on voice input (working with Siri, Google Now, or Cortana) would get the Dash one step closer to the “AI in your head” experience popularized by sci-fi flicks and should be possible with current technology (as with google glass and certain smartphones, for instance).
My fortnight with the Dash was a rollercoaster of emotion, oscillating between being impressed with the functionality Bragi achieved and unsure whether or not the user experience is sufficiently polished for the earphones to succeed with the general public. Enthusiasts and early adopters – including the Kickstarter crowd that has been waiting on the Dash for 2+ years – definitely tend to be more forgiving of quirks and minor usability hiccups. The Dash software is already up to v1.5 and more updates are forthcoming, promising to fix current flaws and add new functionality, but for the moment audio performance is just one of many aspects of the Dash with room for improvement.
The Dash itself is a very slick gadget that definitely has its uses – I wouldn’t recommend it as a primary earphone or as an audio quality-focused product for audiophiles and critical listeners, but it is a great conversation starter and it did make a believer out of me. Perhaps the “true wireless” set I really want is an unattainable ideal, but I’ll be first in line to give the next iteration of the concept a try.