Wrap yourself in a cone of sound with this directional speaker

You might not need headphones anymore.
Nicole Lee
N. Lee|06.01.16

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Wrap yourself in a cone of sound with this directional speaker

If you work in a crowded office, you're probably considerate enough to wear a pair of headphones so you don't disturb your co-workers with your raucous tunes. But headphones can be uncomfortable, plus they're cumbersome to put on and off if all you want to do is catch a few seconds of a YouTube clip. The Soundlazer VR, however, offers a different solution. Debuting today on Kickstarter, it's a unique kind of speaker tech that aims to resolve that issue by surrounding you in a private cloud of sound.

Inside the Soundlazer VR is a slew of tiny speakers that combine to create what founder Richard Haberkern says is a new directional audio system. It uses something called planar wave technology, which essentially broadcasts sound through parallel wave patterns that bounce off a curved reflector. "It's like taking a bunch of flashlights side-by-side and pointing them at your ears," he says. Haberkern is a serial inventor who's done several successful projects on Kickstarter before, like the GPS Cookie and the Lumapad.

Sound reflectors aren't anything new of course, but Haberkern's take is a little different. He says he developed specific planar-wave drivers that work with a linear reflector instead of the more common parabolic models. This, he says, results in an "ultra-high-bandwidth" directional audio beam. Plus, unlike most parabolic reflectors, the Soundlazer's slim design looks a little more appealing when hanging over your desk.

Haberkern gave us a brief demonstration of the Soundlazer VR in our San Francisco office. He suspended it over a desk with a wire hanging system that is adjustable thanks to a spring-loaded cable locking mechanism. He says the recommended height is around 3 feet to 4 feet above the desk, but you can adjust it to your preference. You'll still need to connect it to a power outlet (via a standard 120/240VAC universal power adapter), but Haberkern says the power is delivered via the hanging steel cables, so you won't see any messy wires. It transmits your computer's audio through Bluetooth. There's also a two-channel stereo amplifier built in.

I sat underneath the Soundlazer VR and watched a few YouTube music videos on the connected laptop. I heard the sound pretty loud and clear, as if it were transmitted through regular speakers. The audio level is consistent from the top of the unit all the way down, so you could theoretically use it with an adjustable-height sit-stand desk without issue. Then I got up from the desk and walked a few feet away. The audio gradually became softer and more muffled, and at around 8 feet away, I couldn't make out much of the song's lyrics. That crisp audio I heard just a few minutes earlier was suddenly just background noise.

At this point, you might be wondering why Haberkern added "VR" to the product name. He says it's because the Soundlazer surrounds you in a "virtual reality of sound," not because it has anything to do with VR. You could theoretically use it while wearing a VR headset, which would presumably be more comfortable than having to wear headphones along with the headset, but that's sort of a stretch. It's unfortunate, because the use of "VR" here is pretty misleading.

That said, Haberkern also added VR to the name to differentiate it from a product he invented a few years ago that bore the same moniker. The original Soundlazer, however, used tiny ultrasonic transducers to project audio, which resulted in a much lower fidelity than he wanted. Still, he took lessons learned from that project and applied it to the "VR" edition he's pitching right now.

Ideally, Haberkern wants Soundlazer VR to be used in an office environment much like ours, with desks next to each other. Even so, I wonder if that's entirely practical. Even at 8 feet away from the computer, I could still hear audio coming from it. Haberkern says we'd eventually adjust to the audio levels so that we'd hear only what was coming out of our own SoundLazer VR units, but I'd have to use it on a regular basis to be sure. Also, the fact that you'd have to actually hang it from the ceiling sounds like way too much work for normal people. Haberkern is selling a desktop version of the Soundlazer VR that just sits on the table, no wire installation required.

The Junior version of the Soundlazer VR starts at around $169 on Kickstarter, while the so-called full-size model starts at $209. If the campaign is successful, Haberkern hopes to ship the product by October this year.

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