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Bringing it to Beats: can these 'social' headphones compete?

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Music is a social experience. Headphones -- by their very nature -- are not. Except the team behind the Wearhaus Arc you see above never got that memo. If you think these look familiar, that's because I wrote Wearhaus an open letter back in May. I received the press release about the Arc headphones (and its bold idea to unite friends and strangers through proximity music sharing) and thought it sounded like a good idea. In a blue-sky world at least. Ultimately, I was worried it would be limited by one thing -- the buying public's desire (need?) for individuality. But what do I know. Wearhaus broke another convention and hosted (successfully) its own crowdfunding campaign. Those orders will ship early next year (pencilled in for January). Wearhaus then dropped a prototype in my lap to really convince me they weren't messing about, just as the Arc launches on Kickstarter proper. Could these social headphones really be more than just wireless headsets with a party trick? The evidence for that is certainly mounting.

Gallery: Wearhaus Arc social headphones | 14 Photos

If you missed the Arc first time around, head to my original piece here, or read the technical explanation below from the Kickstarter page:

To accomplish this, we designed a mesh networking protocol on top of standard Bluetooth audio profiles, allowing Arc to relay music wirelessly between multiple units and listen in sync. Now you can easily introduce your friends to the artists you love most, or discover new music through people around you.

As I already discussed, the music sharing part is somewhat idealistic. As with all ideologies, it requires mass adoption for it to work -- which is why I suggested licensing the technology in my first article. Richie Zeng and Nelson Zhang (they duo behind Wearhaus and Arc) have other plans though. They want to see their headphones on as many ears as they can. In a world where that current honor goes to Beats (which are neither the best sounding, the most affordable or have cutting edge technology) then it's at least theoretically possible. If the product is right, and with a little luck.

The prototype model Zeng left with me doesn't have the social features (not least, because you'd need two pairs for that), and lacks some of the final model's details (most notably, music and volume controls), but they are from the final tooling -- that which their home-brew crowdfunding paid for. The general design isn't all that revolutionary, but there are some touches -- like the multi-color LED rim, and the bulbous memory foam earcups -- that definitely make them stand out.

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I took the Arc on a recent work trip with me and, without exception, the rainbow LED inspired comment from everyone I showed them too. Some liked it, some were a little less sure, but without doubt it's a talking piece. If you're not a fan, don't worry you can turn it off, or configure it to a hue of your choosing via the app. Personally, I dig it. Flamboyance is the new black (when it comes to headphones), so why not have a rainbow LED I say. As for those chunky earpads? They're very comfortable, even after extended wearing. Mentally, I thought the lack of a well/cup where the driver sits would feel weird, it doesn't. Overall I like how they look and feel, though I am undecided about the non-collapsable design. They feel more sturdy, and will ship with a case, but having them just float about in my hand luggage while on the move wasn't ideal.

As for the sound? Zeng told me they researched the sound profile/EQ curve that proved most popular with buyers and based the Arc on that. This means that there is a moderate boost around the bottom end, but it doesn't feel at all extreme (not even remotely like Beats or SMS Audio). High-fidelity fans still won't approve, but Wearhaus is going firmly after the mass market here. The Arc supports aptX, so the wireless audio is as good as you could ask for with Bluetooth, and there's a 3.5mm jack for those times you'd rather plug in (or when the battery dies). On a recent flight I used the Arc to watch a film that had lots of action sounds (300: Rise of an Empire, it's average, but the perfect test) and it was the most cinematic sounding in-flight movie experience I've ever had (probably not too hard though).

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Now that I have spent some time with the prototypes, have I changed my mind about Wearhaus' chances? Yes. Mostly. I still think Zeng and Zhang have a mountainous challenge ahead of them. But, they've shown they can make a solid product, that they have an eye for design (even if you don't personally share it), and *gasp* original ideas. That's not a bad combination at all. The real test, however, is the next few weeks. The Kickstarter has got off to a good start, and the target is modest (the tooling and hard parts are mostly done). Wearhaus now wants to be able to produce in the sort of numbers its social element requires to, you know, kinda make sense. Zeng also tells me he's keen to foster a community behind Arc, and the social aspect. It might sound like marketing talk in any other context, but having seen what's been achieved so far, I believe him. If you do too, you can reserve a pair for $160 (or $180 if you're slow).

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