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The Xperia Ear Duo from Japanese electronics giant Sony is one of those products that the company throws out from time to time, where you know it is onto something but the product isn't quite there yet.
The Duo is a Bluetooth headset that rather than plugging up your ear to block the sound of the outside world, has a hole to intentionally let the world in. Clearly, the problem Sony is trying to address is the times when you want to listen to something but also need to be aware of your surroundings. It's a delicate tightrope that at times the Duo balances on, and at other times falls off spectacularly.
For the Duo, everything is a balancing act. How powerful can the sound production be against the battery life? How much battery can be put into it before the unit is too heavy and hefty? How many additional features can we put into this thing versus actual usefulness?
People who have experience with Sony products should recognise that last question, and the answer once again is way too many, but we will get to that.
The design of the Duo is unlike your typical headset. It looks more like a hearing aid worn backwards, with the sound being produced by the unit that sits behind the ear and the audio piped into the ear canal via an under-ear rigid tube dubbed the "spatial acoustic conductor" by Sony. A fantastic statement of fashion this device is not, but I'm not convinced it looks any sillier than Apple's AirPods, though it is definitely harder to use.
After weeks of use, I am still yet to get the knack of needing to move my ear lobe out of the way to get these things into ear properly. You'd think removal would be a cinch, but quite often the rubber ring comes away from the pipe and needs to be reattached, and it needs to go back on just to fit in your ear next time.
As for the ability to mix environmental sounds with those produced by the Duo, Sony has added adaptive volume that is designed to automatically boost the volume when in loud areas, but there are a couple of problems with this. The first is that it only seems to work when connected to a mobile phone that has the Duo's app installed, and not other devices such as a laptop.
Read also: The 11 best wearables for business (TechRepublic)
The second problem relates to a more general criticism, and it is the maximum volume of the Duo. Take the example of walking down the street: More often than not, you'll find yourself with one finger pushing the tube deeper into your ear to hear audio as too much of the outside world is allowed in, and the Duo does not have the firepower to match the decibels.
This is one of those balancing acts where giving the Duo more oomph would reduce its four-hour battery life extremely quickly, but as it stands, if you need to listen to something closely, you'll need to head to a quiet room, which really isn't the point of audio devices. The end result is that it relegates the Duo to being a device best for background or repetitive soundtracks like video game music.
Sony could really benefit from a generational step into battery technology, but then so too could most of the technology at this point.
On the more positive side of the equation for the Duo, its four microphones do a good job of picking up the user's voice, and the charging case helps alleviate the restrictions of four-hour battery life. Sony says the case can provide three full charges, which can potentially give 16 hours without needing to look for a power cord.
Landing in the category of "nice try but needs work" is the use of the touchpad on the Duo. Theoretically, the Duo can support single, double, and triple taps, as well as an extended press and sliding up and down the touchpad to adjust the volume, but the reality is that anything more than the single and extended taps is unreliable.
And now we get to the most Sony part of the Duo, the stuff that makes you wonder if it was tested or merely exists to make a features list longer.
Top of the list is its support for head gestures -- flicking your head left moves back a track, flicking right goes to the next track, nodding will accept a call, and shaking your head back and forth will reject a call. If the touchpad is unreliable, the head gesture recognition is another order of magnitude worse. Such is its unreliability that attempting to skip tracks with your head will appear to others that you have an extremely intense twitch.
The nodding and shaking for phone calls is fine, but personally, I prefer to see who is calling before I decide to accept a call or not, and that means I've taken my phone out of my pocket and the decision can be made on the phone.
One of the Duo's selling points, according to Sony, is its assistant feature -- which is a voice that will speak about upcoming appointments, read emails, or vocalise news headlines -- but given that Siri and the Google Assistant already exist, it's questionable why Sony decided it needed to add this in, especially when it is not as advanced as its competitors.
For English speakers, only UK and US voices are available, and the assistant will read news in the chosen voice geography, so too bad if you are in Australia, Canada, or anywhere else on the planet and don't want mainstream US or UK headlines.
SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)
Sony even took the step to have an extended press on one of the ear pieces call the native assistant, which is a sign that the Sony assistant needs assistance in its job.
Finally, there is the Anywhere Talk feature that allows Xperia Ear and Ear Duo to talk amongst themselves in a literal group chat. It's going to be hard to convince a friendship circle to get on board for a chat when the Duo costs AU$400, and a further AU$50 for the fast charger that gives an hour's charge in seven minutes.
Elsewhere on the market, you can pick up headphones like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 for AU$300 or less in Australia, and they have 24-hour battery life, an external microphone that allows you to hear what is around you, and proper noise cancelling.
Even though it is trounced by the competition and has a range of shortcomings, Sony should be applauded for at least trying something different. If magic battery technology arrives shortly, or the ability to have higher volume is added to the device, it could be more useful, but AU$400 is a lot to spend on a device most useful when you know you are going to be interrupted.
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