Doppler Labs CEO Noah Kraft Speaks on DUBS Acoustic Filter Earbuds and Hearing Safety in EDM
As dance music moves more significantly into the live event environment, as well as having tracks that are being produced at a greater rate than ever
Image via Complex Original
As dance music moves more significantly into the live event environment, as well as having tracks that are being produced at a greater rate than ever before, both producers and fans alike should consider seriously consider greater measures insofar as ear protection. Loud environments create ear fatigue, and the appearance of tinnitus (a permanent dull ringing sensation in the eardrum)—or at worst, deafness—certainly exists. In an interview with French audio blog Elacin, rising Dutch electro duo Firebeatz stated in an interview that great ear protection in this era required "[g]ood filtering on all frequencies, but through high-quality filters so that people can still really experience the music. They have to be comfortable and offer the possibility to adjust the filters yourself.” Ear protection for DJs isn't cheap. Custom-fitted ear protection is valued in the thousands of dollars sometimes, and while many nightclubs offer foam earplugs, the level of audio quality that comes from a distorted sound being not-so filtered through foam is frankly terrible. Enter Doppler Labs' DUBS Acoustic Filters into the conversation.
DUBS Acoustic Filters are described as "the first advanced tech ear plugs using Dynamic Attenuation to deliver optimal hearing protection while preserving sound fidelity." The product was developed by Doppler Labs, a wearable technology company with a primary focus on wearable tech. DUBS offer a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of 12dB and use a filtering system that involves an intricate mechanical configuration to lower sound levels while retaining balance and clarity. Released for sale at a retail price point of $25 per pair, it allows everyone—from DJ to partier alike—to have access to ear protection that has the qualities necessary to keep ears safe, yet still allow for spectacular aural experiences. In speaking to Noah Kraft, Co-Founder and CEO of Doppler Labs, it's apparent that the mix of technology, care and presentation have combined to create a top-tier product that, though just two months on the market, has the ear-markings of a product primed for creating a legacy of excellence.
Regarding your background in audio, how did this lead to the DUBS product being created?
The audio background must actually be credited to my co-founder Dan Wiggins. He is the principal transducer engineer at Sonos. We realized that people weren't wearing earplugs, and as someone who covers the EDM scene, we saw that people were needing to wear earplugs because discussions regarding hearing health had become more prevalent, but there really wasn't a good option on the market. We set out to make something that people would want to wear. We consider it an immersive technology in that the average earplug is about blocking out sound, but DUBS is about immersing you in the experience. We use a filter system to allow you to really hear the music. It was also important for us to create something also, that from a design perspective - that people really liked.
The audio innovation came from Dan [WIggins] having decades of experience in really complex audio from creating speakers and even to [working with the] military, he's basically an acoustics wizard. When we teamed up we said look, we can develop something that's "a better mousetrap" in that it looks better, but we can innovate in a way that will have a significant acoustical difference for the ear when you are hearing sound.
Insofar as the testing phase for the product, what were the major breakthrough moments in product development?
We went through tens of iterations with the product to make sure that we...well, the first two goals to achieve at first were to make sure that we created a product that offered enough [ear] protection while still maintaining clarity. That took us a lot of tries because at first we could put too much protection on, the clarity would go away. Vice versa, if we made it too clear, we would leave the ear too open, and there wouldn't be enough protection. One of the big things we had to do was find the perfect nexus between really feeling like we were protecting the ear while still feeling like the filter was doing its job in allowing audio clarity. The other innovation involved the fact that each one of these [earbuds] has 17 parts in it. You can imagine that in packing 17 parts into something this small isn't the easiest thing in the world, so that was a big design innovation for us.
By the time we were putting the final product in people's ears, it had gone through rigorous testing. We wanted to create something immersive that really enhanced the audio experience. The initial response was really positive and we weren't going to release something until we got that really positive response.
I wanted to focus on the "immersive" sound technology and how an earbud with a filter came to be. I feel that this is next level. How did this occur?
The group of us behind this are really audiophiles on the deepest level. On the most existential level, when you go to hear music, you go to hear music. [Preserving that experience] is as incredibly important as anything we're doing. The last thing we ever want to do is say "turn down the volume" or bring you out of the experience. We said, "what is a product that will really allow music lovers to dive into this?" The product came out of the question of "can we provide protection while still allowing for audio fidelity, the clarity, the moment, on an existential level. As far as earplugs, you're typically stuffing foam or tissue into your ears and it created a bubble around you. With the filter system we decided we can create the level of protection necessary while still allowing you to hear music the way you want to hear it. That's really where our innovation lies.
So, there's been an initial roll out of DUBS in live testing in nightclubs and festivals. I wanted to ask about what was learned from those experiences with consumers getting to touch, feel and experience the product?
DUBS really "sing" in a super loud environment. One of the first places we tested them is that we brought a few hundred pairs to the Electric Daisy Carnival. We handed out pairs to "super-influences" - a bunch of DJs - and it was amazing. What we got was actually the response we wanted which was that in this environment that is so awesomely loud, we can put these in...and, actually, I want to be really clear - our main innovations are design and acoustics. So, while the acoustics are important, we could've created something that was acoustically superior, but looked awful and nobody would've wanted to use it. We saw that people were excited to wear them. They were pointing at each other, "hey look at what's in my ear, how cool" and you could see that [the wearers] were immersed in the experience.
We've found that as long as its a loud sonic environment - whether it's a closed room or big festival environment, that the product seems to work really, really well. It doesn't work as well in a lo-fi experience. We had someone try it at an orchestra, and in those types of scenarios that's not what these are meant for. [DUBS] are meant for incredibly loud musical environments where the product's technology can really work at a high dB level.
Regarding the product's physical design, where did that come from? It's unique in the sense that a user can pretty much screw the bud into the ear without fail and without loss of ear protection, either.
Great question. It's two things. The front facing, as in what faces the public when the product is in your ear - that iconic teardrop or pear shape with the grill - it was really important for us to communicate this filtering process from the first second you see the DUBS. The flat, blocking surface communicates that it's blocking. Our grill not only is functional in that it lets the audio in, but it also communicates to the consumer and user that the product is allowing audio in and doing something with it. A lot of times we think about how we're going to do work with this speaker/microphone mesh grill from a signaling level and a functional level, too. The iconic shape had to be purposeful.
Most times, wearing earplugs makes you look like a Frankenstein monster with orange foam poking out of your ears. We asked ourselves, "what can we do to resolve that?" What we were able to do with this design is that the teardrop allows us to have the product lie completely flush with the user's ear. What the design allows is for you to be able to have a conversation, or at least allow someone to look at you from across the room and not see orange foam in your ears. As far as the earbud design, we did a ton of research and the good thing is that the government and military have done a ton of research on ear molds and we were able to use that research to design an earbud that fit as many ears as possible. We wanted it to be comfortable because the user is in a loud environment for several hours. We also wanted to communicate the filtering process so that people knew there was a pass-through and that they could experience music. We wanted it to be iconic, but subtle so that you knew it was DUBS when you saw DUBS in someone's ears. [The product] also had to not protrude so that it didn't disrupt the experience at all.
You're already in stores like Best Buy, but as far as a deeper and wider roll out of the product, what are you thinking? What is the marketing and advertising of the product looking like for the future?
It's important for us to identify point-of-need environments. We're talking to every club in the world, every festival in the world, every venue system in the world, because we want to be where the music is. That's very important to us. We launched six weeks ago, and we're having conversations across the board to get into those environments. We also want to be beyond music. Any place where it's very loud, we should be there, too.
As far as retail, we're making sure we have reach. We have great partners in Europe who are already starting to distribute us in Europe. We've also partnered with Best Buy, and we're very flattered by that. They tried the product and said "wow, this is really a consumer electronic product and we can really pitch it as that." We believe that as well, so we're [at Best Buy] in check out, and a part of the consumer electronics offering which is huge for us because it is a passive product. We're going big with retail [with Best Buy] and making sure we have reach.
At the same time we're doing grass roots initiatives to get into the ears of the people who need it most. We have this program called the "Road Warriors" program where we actually offer discounts to bedroom DJs, up and coming musicians, A&Rs, photographers and people in the industry who need this the most. The people we want to wear this are the consumers, but also the people who are in the loudness every night. Whether you're a guy who spins at his corner club every day, you're a top DJ or you're an A&R who goes to six shows a night, I want to make sure those people have this product, so they can benefit. They're the people who have to be around the music the most and should be protecting their ears because nobody wants to go deaf.
We're multi-tier approaching it. We're at a very high level with Best Buy, but we're also making sure we're hitting the people on the ground who need it most and we're spreading that initiative very quickly.