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I slept with a meditation headband. Here's why you should, too

Review: The new Muse S (2nd Gen) headband gamifies meditation to help you better manage your stress and your sleep.
Written by Christina Darby, Associate Editor on
Pros
  • Extensive suite of guided and unguided meditations
  • Brain sensing and app combine to make meditation a habit
  • Detailed sleep tracking data
Cons
  • Lengthy connection setup every time
  • Premium subscription is required to leverage all the technology
  • False positive brain sensing

We all know meditation has an array of benefits: physical, mental, and all the good stuff in between. But meditation is a practice, not just a "quick fix." Being the antithesis of today's instant-gratification culture, it's certainly hard to still your mind and body, especially when results are not immediate. 

InteraXon's Muse (2nd Gen) headband has the fix; it integrates a mix of employed electroencephalography (EEG) technology for built-in brain sensors that provide after-meditation feedback. Combined with the app's goal-based meditation exercises, the accessory has the potential to turn the abstract practice of meditating into a more concrete exercise. I've been testing the wearable for the past week and while the Muse has no doubt kept me accountable, I still wonder if the sensors are legit or simply an expensive placebo.

Specifications

Material 

Nylon 

Head sizes 

46-63 cm diameter 

Sensor type 

Wearable EEG, PPG, Gyroscope, Accelerometer, Pulse Oximetry, and Smart-Fade technologies  

Battery life 

10 hours

Charging 

Micro USB port; LED indicator 

Compatible Devices 

Smartphones with iOS 12.2 or higher and Android 8 or higher 

Connectivity 

Bluetooth 4.2

Color

Midnight Blue

Price 

$399


Design and fit

The Muse S is soft and lightweight, which is impressive given that there's a brain sensor pod at the center. After I adjusted the straps and clasped the magnetic buckles together around my neck -- like a necklace, I slid the band up to my forehead. To my surprise, the sensor pod didn't dig into my forehead. And even though the headband has a resemblance to a headlamp, I found the materials relatively flexible when I needed to make adjustments.

Muse S 2 meditation headband

The Muse S headband's subtle looks make it a fitting meditation device. 

Christina Darby/ZDNET

Before I get into the meditation practices, it's worth noting that the Muse S also has sleep-tracking technology, making the headband just as applicable for all-night wear. While I'm no stranger to wearing tech to bed, I did wake up from the pressure building up on my forehead and the back of my ears after a few hours into my sleep. If you sleep with an eye sleep mask, sleeping with the Muse headband is a similar sensation but with a thicker fabric that sinks deeper behind the ear. Loosening the headband eases the build-up, but it also renders the sensors useless.

Review: Do sleeping earbuds actually work? I tested the latest pair on the market

Positioning woes

The headband has six sensor points responsible for tracking your heart rate, breathing, and brain activity. Once the headband is in place and you're ready to start your meditation, you simply pair your smartphone with the app and choose your desired meditation. What's not so simple is making sure that the headband is fitted in the right place for the sensors to function properly.

Muse brain sensor signal check

Before every meditation session, you have to pass a Signal Quality Check to ensure that all six sensors are connected. This process often takes a while and is a game of trial and error. 

Screenshot by Christina Darby/ZDNET

Unfortunately, every meditation session started with a "Signal Quality Check" that took as long as five minutes to calibrate the sensors. The unfortunate part is that not every check is guaranteed success, especially with the ones behind your ears. If you use meditation as a natural remedy when you're in a flustered state, I don't expect the constant readjustment here to make things any better.

I will say that once all the sensors are in place and pass the signal check, you're all set. As long as you don't touch the headband once you start your practice, then the sensors will stay in place and track accurately. 

More: Best meditation apps

Muse app: Basic vs Premium

Once you get the green light to start using the headband, there are over 500 different unguided, guided, and experiential meditation routines to choose from. You can choose a meditation based on your mood or a specific area (breath, mind, heart, etc.) you'd like to focus on. 

Despite its extensive suite, the app's interface is simple and easy to navigate, while saving your previous meditations to your library so there's less perusing after you've found your favorites.

However, be warned that without Muse's $3.99 monthly premium subscription, you'll only be able to access 39 options with the basic account. While the free version is fairly expansive, especially if you are just starting with meditation, the premium plan is a great option for those who like more structure in their routines and/or want to layer the audio feedback from the app with that of another. For example, you may prefer the white noise playlist from Spotify and want to have that running in the background. 

Meditating with the headband

While wearing an Apple Watch doesn't permanently make you better at working out, the idea of closing your rings is enough to push you to finish that last sprint or lift. The same phenomenon is true while meditating with a brain-sensing headband. 

Knowing that the Muse S was monitoring my vitals during a meditation session encouraged me to stay still, take deep breaths, and actually try to relax. After a few sessions, my stillness became a habit. 

Muse data from meditation

The Muse app's interface is fairly navigable. While the graphs are detailed, there can be false meditation positives. 

Screenshot by Christina Darby/ZDNET

Still, looking at my data at the beginning of my use (right image), I was surprised at how much my mind wandered and how low my relaxation levels were when I first started to do meditations. But with more practice, my numbers reflected my efforts to remain still, both physically and mentally.

Unlike other wearable apps, you can also access the app without the headband being connected to your phone. So, you can look at the well-organized graphs to see your physiological trends at any time. 

The only real issue that I had with the app experience was that even when I took off my headband, there were moments when the headband would continue to track and log data. Obviously, the false positive data is impractical and interferes with the overall metrics of my health, but at least I know more about how stressed my bedsheet is now. 

In terms of the media content within the app, there are both guided and unguided meditations. I mostly opted for the former, finding it easier to stay present with someone narrating. I appreciated that every instructor's voice had a sincere, serene tone rather than sounding theatrical or robotic.

If you're more comfortable with unguided meditation, there are plenty of unguided meditations that play relaxing soundscapes instead, like those you'd find on a white noise machine. I tried the Crystal Cavern track and found the flow of water peaceful to the ears and mind. 

More: This wearable actively helps you relax and sleep better

Muse S 2nd Gen Headband with Blue Background

The Muse S (2nd Gen) is malleable and soft, with light-colored sensors around the ears and a sensing knob in the middle. 

Christina Darby/ZDNET

Sleeping with the headband

Like its predecessor and much of the wearable market, the Muse S incorporates sleep-tracking data. These insights include the start and endpoints, as well as the duration of your sleep states (light, deep, and REM). Naturally, users can take these points and modify their sleep habits accordingly. 

My favorite sleep feature, however, is the digital sleeping pill. The "digital pill" refers to how the headband coordinates your meditation audio -- whether that's music, a narration, or soundscape -- to the different phases of your sleep. For example, the audio will lull you to sleep at the start of your slumber by gradually lowering in volume. And by the middle of the night, if and when you suddenly wake up, the headband sensors will detect the response and play audio again to ease you back into sleep. 

Also: Best air mattresses to help your sleep

As someone who sometimes relies on actual sleeping pills, I was both reasonably skeptical and intrigued by the feature. To my surprise, my doubt was quickly exonerated. With the digital sleeping pill in use, I fell right to sleep -- and a deep one at that, according to the tracking feature. 

The Muse S (Gen 2)

There are two accented sensor bars on both sides of the headband. 

Christina Darby/ZDNET

Even if I took off the headband in the middle of the night, I felt much more relaxed in my new bedtime ritual. If you're someone who often lets worries of the day climb into bed with you, I'd highly advise using the digital sleeping pill. It's not meant to replace your prescriptions, but I can vouch that it's an effective and natural relaxant. 

Battery life

As far as battery life goes, while I have been able to get a full night's sleep with the headband off a single charge, the charging itself takes almost all day. So, I do have to prep the Muse S hours before I'm about to sleep. Besides that, the use of MicroUSB instead of the more modernized USB-C is disappointing. It's 2022! 

Bottom Line

The Muse S (2nd Gen) turns a traditionally abstract practice into a performance-driven culture. While getting the sensors to read on command can be a bit tricky, using the headband itself feels natural enough to not disturb your meditation or sleep. As for the app, you'll want to opt for the premium subscription for the most robust and optimal experience, though I'd advise feeling out the initial batch of 39 meditation routines first before you commit. 

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