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Wearhaus Arc: Is the world ready for 'social headphones'?

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Almost exactly a year ago, I received an email about "the world's first social headphones." The main feature of the Wearhaus Arc was their ability to wirelessly connect with other Arcs nearby, letting users broadcast (or listen in to) each other's tunes. Owners of the Arc would be able to create impromptu silent discos, or hyper-local radio stations with just one media player. At a romantic level, I liked the idea. I imagined all the conversations they could start, or connections they might spark, so I wrote about them, suggesting the technology might be better as a "feature" that other brands could license. Despite my reservations, Wearhaus went on to run not one, but two successful rounds of crowdfunding for its bespoke headphones. That product is finally here, and about to go on sale. I've at last had a chance to try it. Has it changed my mind?

First, a bit of history. Arc is the brainchild of two ex-Berkeley engineering "dropouts": Richie Zeng and Nelson Zhang. The duo had never developed a commercial product before, let alone designed a pair of headphones. But, unperturbed by such details, they went ahead anyway, under the brand name "Wearhaus." In another bold move, the duo didn't take to Kickstarter or Indiegogo to fund their project; they did it themselves via their own website. Despite the lack of experience, and the unconventional (and untrusted?) crowdfunding platform, the duo reached their $75,000 goal, and development of Arc began.

Fast-forward to today, and on my desk are two final production units: one black, one white. The finished product looks much better than the prototype. The materials and build quality seem improved. The fit is more comfortable, and gesture-based playback controls have been added. More importantly, the never-before-demoed social features are here (hence the two pairs, to test them).

That's the first thing I do. I connect the black pair to my phone via Bluetooth; the white set I just switch on. I play music through the first pair, and then double-tap on the earcup of the second. A short moment later, and the music plays through both, in near-perfect sync, and at apparently the same quality. Zeng tells me it works by daisy-chaining the Bluetooth connection, with up to six sets theoretically being able to connect, and with no degradation in audio from the host set.

A future software update will increase the number of possible connections to 63. The delay between headsets is about 100ms, but could go as low as 10 or 20. To be fair, exact synchronization isn't essential, unlike with video applications. I have to admit, it's kinda fun, and it's not hard to imagine how, with enough users, it could be a great music-discovery tool, or at the very least, an enabler for random social encounters.

The whole process is also refreshingly simple. The "broadcaster" sets up their "station" via the Wearhaus Arc app, and the listener just needs to double-tap the right side of their headphones. If you were in a room full of broadcasters, you can use the app to browse them all, and settle on whatever strikes your fancy. It's whether you're likely to find yourself near even one other set that's the question.

As a standalone product, Arc's audio quality is typical of other $200 headphones. There's a slight EQ bump on the lower end, but it's barely noticeable. Higher frequencies are perhaps a teensy bit less clear than they could be, but are certainly livelier than much of the competition at this cost. There's also a good amount of dynamic range (drums and vocals punch through as they should) for an on-ear headphone. For the price point, the Arc is a pleasing set to listen through, even if you don't care about the social features.

If I have any gripes, it's with the rigid design. The Arc doesn't fold, and while the earcups adjust, the whole set is fairly rigid. This isn't uncommon, but the Arc definitely feels a little stiffer than most when putting them on or off, compared to something lighter, like AIAIAI's TMA-2. There's no indication the plastic would crack, but it feels possible, if given enough abuse. I also have a love/hate relationship with the multicolor LED trim detail. In the app, you can set the LED to any color you like (or a combo of three), and it looks pretty fancy. The flip side of that, and this might be just me, is that I ended up turning it off a lot of the time, especially at night, as I felt a little self-conscious.

Now that I've seen the Arc in all its social glory, what's changed? In some ways, not a lot. I still find something whimsical about the idea of a "social" headphone. It's an idea I really want to catch on. I also still think it'd be much better as a platform, a technology other manufacturers could implement into their products so that buyers could choose the headphones they want. The concept is cool, but for it to achieve any level of public adoption, being stuck with one brand probably isn't enough. Fortunately, the Wearhaus Arc headphones are good enough that if you like how they look, it's a decent product for the price anyway. Wearhaus has shipped the Arc to all the early backers, which means about 3,000 pairs exist in the wild, but the team tells me it's in talks with retailers right now to help boost that number.

If you're interested in spreading the social vibe, you can pre-order a pair through the Wearhaus website.

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