I have always wanted true wireless earbuds. Over the past years, I have gone from using Bluetooth earphones connected to a central unit (Sony MW600, Jabra BT3030) to the smaller and less intrusive earbuds (Jaybird BlueBuds X, Plantronics BackBeat GO2, and BackBeat Fit), but there was still a wire somewhere in the design connecting the left and right earbuds together and I wanted it gone. I wasn't alone in that sentiment.
It's this desire that Bragi banked on when it launched its Kickstarter campaign about two years ago, in February 2014. The Dash was promised to be a true wireless set of earbuds that had everything I wanted and more — built-in storage for local music playback, waterproofing for use in pools, and activity tracking and heart rate monitoring. It sounded amazing and I pledged for the $179 early backer tier knowing fully well that the October 2014 delivery date was incredibly optimistic and that I might be throwing my money at a project that may fail eventually. I was willing to take the risk though and pay that much money to dream and help the team achieve that dream.
The Dash was delivered to me more than a month ago, about a year and a half late. I was expecting that kind of delay because the challenges of wireless earbuds are far more complicated than we can comprehend. But what matters is that The Dash was eventually produced and delivered. Is it everything the project creators said it would be? More or less. Is my search for the perfect wireless earbuds over? Far from that. I love my Dash, it works very well most times, but I can't use it because… well, you'll have to read the full review.
Wireless Earbuds: Challenges to Overcome
It's easy to say, "well, you have Bluetooth, take off the wire and make everything communicate without it." The truth of the matter is that this wire makes all the difference in audio transmissions. When a Bluetooth headset receives a message from a phone or other audio source, it transmits the message over the wires to both earbuds and thus you can hear your music from both ears at the same time.
When you take out the wire, the problem becomes that both earbuds have to somehow get the message and play it simultaneously. Your phone can't transmit to both of them, so one of the earbuds has to be able to receive the audio and send it to the other one. Without any latency. And with your head and dense bones in the middle. That's a fantastic riddle if there ever was one.
Other companies, like Earin, attempted to solve the same problem by transmitting the signal through another Bluetooth connection, relying on walls and nearby objects to bounce it to the second ear. They work well indoors, but a lot less reliably outdoors, where the signal will find a lot of trouble reflecting on anything. But outdoors is where these wireless earphones should be perfect to use! Lots of activities would benefit from the freedom of a completely wire-free headset, like running, biking, skiing, or engaging in any physical activity, and so Earin and other earbuds that use the same solution aren't ideal candidates.
The Dash's approach is different. It uses Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI) instead of Bluetooth, the same technology that's been employed by hearing aids for over a decade. It's a creative solution and I applaud Bragi's engineers for being smart and enterprising enough to adopt a proven medical technology and adapt it to their use case.
With NFMI, The Dash creates a small bubble around your head where the signal is transmitted, regardless of bones and outside elements. It works indoors and outdoors, it works in the shower and underwater, it works if you cover both ears with your hands, thus squashing the limitations of Bluetooth connectivity.
Packaging, Design, and Build Quality
I've helped crowdfund dozens of projects, but very few gave me the great first impression that Bragi did. You usually expect sloppy packaging, low quality materials, and averagely built and finished products because most times you're paying for the idea and the beta product more than a finalized version. The Dash, however, delivers on its price tag from the moment you hold the box and right until you get to the earbuds.
Very cool packaging!
The packaging unfolds like a hardcover book, where flipping each cardboard page reveals features and instructions about the headset. When you finally get to it, you'll find the two Dash earbuds nested in their charging case. A small box above it houses the additional FitSleeves: The Dash comes fitted with the XS sleeve which is nothing but an eartip, but there are S, M, and L sizes that wrap around the entire unit for better fit in larger ears.
Below the Dash is The Slide (the case's cover), instruction and warranty cards, MicroUSB charging cable, and The Leash which can be used to attach the two earbuds together. Everything from the case to The Dash to the sleeves is nicely designed and very well built. That's an unexpected surprise.
Unboxing The Dash and all of its accessories
The Dash itself has a very understated but still slightly futuristic design, especially with its glowing breathing lights. The outside is a shiny black plastic with a subtle Bragi logo and a microphone opening. There's a hidden indicator light that breathes intermittently while The Dash is charging (red for low battery, yellow for medium, green for high, and blue for full) and when you take it out of the case to let you know that it just turned on. This logo area is also The Dash's touch-sensitive controller. We'll get to that later.
One Dash earbud
The inside is a matte black plastic that curves to get to the eartip. It houses the connectors that charge The Dash from its case, the proximity sensors that detect that it's been placed inside your ear, and the magnet that holds it in place inside the case. That, by the way, is one of my favorite features of The Dash. I don't have to perfectly align the earbuds to put them inside the case and I don't have to worry about them not being connected or charging properly. I just get the general alignment and hold them close and bam, the case attracts them to the right position. Oh and the magnets are strong enough that even if you're holding the case upside down without the cover and you shake it, the earbuds won't fall out. (Warning: try this at your own risk.)
The Charger: A case with precise cutouts and magnetic links
Speaking of the case, it's made from a very sturdy black metal. Don't quote me on it, but I think the inside of the case is stainless steel (it's super light) and the outside cover is anodized aluminum (it's thick and heavy). There's enough place to put The Dash regardless of the FitSleeve you're using, and a MicroUSB port and LED light on the outside. The case isn't just a charger, it's also a portable battery for the Dash, housing about 5 times battery life to charge your earbuds on-the-go without the need for a power outlet. The cover has a single line opening that should allow you to see the breathing lights of The Dash while inside the case. It's all very impressive and well thought-out.
The Slide lets The Dash's breathing light through (left). It has a MicroUSB port with LED (right).
Fitting and Connecting The Dash
The Dash's package and manual explain how to insert it correctly in your ear. Once I learned how to do it, I figured that the XS sleeve was the largest my ears could handle. Now excuse me while I go off on a tangent here...
How to insert The Dash (left). Setting to turn off the lights when wearing it (right).
See, I have small ears, a relatively large tragus, and I tend to get annoyed by most earbuds and headsets. Anything that stretches my tragus or pushes it out is painful for me to wear for a long time. Over the past years, the only earphones I've used are the Sennheiser CX series along with the Plantronics BackBeat Go 2 (they barely go inside and just stick out) and BackBeat Fit (they don't even try to go inside your ear). I've tried LG's QuadBeat earphones, Samsung's in-box earphones, the Lumia 1020's earphones, and I've had different on-ear headphones, and came out with the same impression each time: none of them are comfortable enough for me to wear for a long time. I can only handle the tiniest of tiny in-ear earbuds.
And that's essentially my main problem with The Dash. While the unit is designed to fit over 90% (I don't have the exact number now) of ear shapes and sizes, I happen to fall on the very limit of that. The Dash sits inside my ear, seals the ear canal, and rarely falls out, but it pushes my tragus out, strains my anti-tragus, and stretches the cartilage on my anti-helix. It's painful to wear for more than a few minutes because of this added pressure inside my ear and I feel utterly relieved each time I take it out. That's not an enjoyable experience or feeling and definitely not something you want when you're just trying to listen to music while running or swimming.
You can't see it clearly here, but The Dash strains all of my ear, especially the tragus.
I gave The Dash to my friend to try and she told me she didn't have any of those issues. It felt like a foreign object inside her ear, understandably, but she didn't feel the strain or pain that I was. I wish, I just wish that I was like her and didn't have that problem because otherwise, The Dash would have been great.
Tangent over, and back to using The Dash with your device. There are two different Bluetooth connections on The Dash: Bluetooth Classic for audio (right earbud) and BLE for activity tracking (left earbud).
You tap and hold on the right Dash to make it discoverable and connect it to any phone or computer or Bluetooth transmitting audio device, including smartwatches. You tap and hold on the left Dash to connect it to the Android/iOS app for activity tracking, or to make it visible to apps or smartwatches for heart rate monitoring only. You can connect both Dash earbuds to the same phone or to different devices, and the right Dash will remember up to 8 devices before having to start forgetting one it's paired with. The left Dash, however, is never paired except to Bragi's app. If you're using it with another application like Runtastic or with a smartwatch, you'll have to manually connect it each time.
Connecting the left Dash to the Android app.
However, I had a couple of issues with connecting the left Dash specifically. The first was that I couldn't get it to register as a heart rate monitor with my Garmin Vivoactiv smartwatch. The watch simply never saw The Dash as a sensor.
My Garmin Vivoactiv never found The Dash.
The second is that when I tried connecting the left Dash to Runtastic on my phone, I had to choose the Runtastic HR Combo Monitor option. If I tapped the Other Monitors option, I was taken to my phone's Bluetooth selection screen where the left Dash connection doesn't work (that's where the right one shows up for audio). I had to bypass that screen so I went with the first option and it worked.
Connecting the left Dash to the Runtastic app as a "Runtastic HR Combo Monitor."
The killer feature though is that there's nothing stopping you from using The Dash as just a Bluetooth headset, or as just a heart rate monitor for your watch, or as a local MP3 player and/or activity tracker completely disconnected from any other device. You can even use the right Dash alone as a mono audio headset. That's the kind of versatility that you can expect with it. However, keep in mind that if it's connected to a Bluetooth audio device, you won't be able to access the local music and built-in playlists. You'll have to unpair it or turn off Bluetooth on that device to be able to access the storage.
I know what I'm saying here sounds complicated, and it kind of is and isn't. These two connection methods and the fact that there is local and Bluetooth music mean that there are several options for using The Dash and that you'll have to take a few seconds each time you want to try a new setup to figure out how to get things right.
Thankfully the Bragi app has the full manual available to consult whenever needed.
Touch Interface and Audio Feedback
Because of the lack of buttons and the limited level of visual feedback that the breathing light can provide, The Dash works with a touch interface spread across the middle of each earbud and coupled with audio feedback for each action you perform. This I found to be both intriguing and frustrating.
The packaging/manual as well as the app explain how every gesture equates to a different action on each of the earbuds. Swipe for volume, tap for pause, tap and hold for menus, etc. You'll have to remember these but they make sense so they're not that hard to recall if you forgot them.
Left and right Dash gestures.
When tapping, specifically, there's a certain difference in the audible sound when you hit the correct area of The Dash than when you hit the outer edges or don't tap with enough strength. That helps a lot in getting used to the tap target and force. However, it took me several days to figure out how to double and triple tap because I couldn't get the frequency right. I was either too fast or I was missing the correct area on one of the taps, but I eventually calibrated them to be just right.
When it works, it's awesome and a little futuristic. But the problem with this interface is that you really have to be precise with your gestures. And that isn't ideal when you're walking, running, have a few hairs covering the side of your face, or God forbids swimming. I can get Play/Pause and volume down to register most of the time, but everything else is a hit and miss. I have had to stop my walks and runs just to be able to skip a song and that's not something you want in your everyday music headset.
The other problem is that the touch interface somehow creates lots of false gestures while swimming. Before the last software update, The Dash was literally unusable in the pool because Transparency would randomly activate. That's the feature that opens up the mic and lets you hear ambient sound while running. It didn't let me hear the water, it just made a high pitched striking sound that was just unbearable. Each time that happened, I had to stop my swim and fumble with the touch panel on the left Dash to turn Transparency off. Thankfully, with the latest update, Transparency has been completely disabled in swimming mode, which means that no matter how much it mistakenly registers its gesture, it won't turn it on.
That made swimming with The Dash a lot more tolerable, though not completely enjoyable yet. The other gestures still get triggered - by the water or by my shoulder brushing against the earbud as I swim, I don't know - so music will pause and skip randomly. That sucks. I wish all the gestures were completely disabled while swimming until you take The Dash out of your ear or until you end the activity.
But you have to remember that this is a first generation product in a new category. It isn't an excuse, but an explanation. Part of me applauds the work the team has done but they still have a lot of quirks to iron out. Each firmware update, and there have been frequent ones, introduces improved touch recognition and squashes some bugs. It's getting better, which is a good thing, but I doubt it'll ever be completely frustration-free.
Checking for software updates is done inside the app, but installing them requires a PC.
Range, Sound Quality, and Battery Life
One issue The Dash faces that regular Bluetooth headsets don't is reception, and that's basically a product of its design. Being lodged inside your ear means that a direct line of sight to your phone or watch or whatever device you're using to generate the sound is a lot more difficult to achieve. On and over-ear Bluetooth headsets are far outside of your head, the Plantronics Backbeat GO and Jaybird Bluebuds series stick out a little from your ears, but The Dash sits right inside where bones and flesh can interfere with the signal's reception.
I can easily listen to music at over 15m of distance between my phone and The Dash if the right side of my head (the right Dash is the one that receives audio) is facing the phone. But if I turn a little bit away, the signal starts getting weak. Some users are having issues with connectivity with their phones in their pants pockets, others are reporting them when connected to a smartwatch worn on their left wrist. I didn't face that many problems on my unit. Reception has been fairly solid when I'm just walking or running and I'm loosely keeping a direct line of sight between the right Dash and my phone.
Connecting the right Dash to my Huawei Watch for music streaming.
As for sound quality, I wouldn't call it outstanding nor would I diss it. Audiophiles aren't the target market for The Dash, and if you're one then you shouldn't be looking here. This is a Bluetooth headset, packed in a little in-ear unit, with tons of gadgetery and sensors, and that is aimed at the active types who want decent sound and freedom of movement while exercising. It isn't a studio headset, it isn't a sit-down-and-chill kind of headset, and it shouldn't be judged as such.
That being said, I didn't notice any distortion with The Dash and, from the point of view of a user who just enjoys music, I found the audio quality great. I mostly listen to popular alternative, pop, country, and jazz music and I didn't find any difference or annoyance with those genres on The Dash. I'm sure some users will get nitpicky about highs and mids and lows, but the average listener won't be able to say anything beside the fact that it sounds great to their regular human ears.
Bragi says that with a 100mAh battery, The Dash will last about 4 hours on music streaming alone, or 3 hours when streaming music with activity tracking. I couldn't tell you if this claim is accurate because there's no way on earth I can wear it for such a long time (see above part with my ear and tragus strain problem). The charging case is supposed to charge The Dash 5 times. What I can confirm is that The Dash and the case last me more than a couple of weeks with sporadic use. If I was a little more consistent, I suspect I'd have to fully charge the case each week.
The Sum of All the Parts
Over the past month or so that I've had The Dash, I've tested dozens of different scenarios, from playing local music (it shows up as a regular USB drive when connected to a computer and has 4 preset Playlist folders you can dump music into) to Bluetooth streaming from my phone or my watch, to activity tracking while connected or not to my phone or Runtastic, to taking phone calls on it, to swimming with it, to using it with/without The Leash, and so on.
The main takeaway is that everything mostly works. I love the freedom that The Dash provides. It's a lot less intrusive than any other Bluetooth headset I've used and a lot easier to manage thanks to the included case that doubles for charging. No more wires hitting the back of your neck as you run, or getting tangled in your clothes or with the equipment at the gym. It's all very relieving and a little unusual. Oh and I also dig the build quality and design of these buds - I can't stress enough how beautiful and well made they are.
There's also a certain satisfaction you feel each time you take The Dash out of its case or put it back in. The magnetic pull and the click sound you hear work as a great feedback mechanism. Even if removed from the case, The Dash won't actually turn on unless the proximity sensor detects that you've inserted it in your ear. And when you take The Dash out of your ear, it turns back into standby mode (which you can instantly notice by the audio pausing). That adds a bit to the magic of the headset.
Those are the proximity sensor and magnets on both Dash earbuds.
NFMI is a great solution to the inter-earbud signal transmission problem. Audio doesn't lag between the right and left Dash, and I had zero connection issues between the two, despite my thick head being in the middle. The most mind-blowing audio experience is when you swim with The Dash. The music becomes a lot more vivid, maybe thanks to the water sealing in a lot of the outside noise, and I didn't have any problems with audio going from one ear to the other, even when doing laps and flipping underwater. I can attest to The Dash's water-resistant rating, at least on my unit.
The touch panel works, except when it doesn't because of my hair getting in the way or because I have to stop moving and be precise with my gesture. Controlling playback, choosing local playlists, answering phone calls or initiating new ones with Google Now works just as well (you tap and hold on the right Dash to trigger Google Now). But again, if any gesture requires a bit of precision, I have to be still or have perfect coordination between my head and hand to hit the right area on The Dash.
The breathing lights are super cool. They're probably my favorite feature of The Dash and I love how they synchronize between both earbuds when you insert them into the charging case.
The Dash's breathing light spreads across the earbuds and retracts every few minutes.
Swimming with it was a lesson in torture when Transparency was getting activated randomly. Now that it's off, it's more tolerable except that the frequent random pauses and skips that I talked about earlier remain and they're annoying. I also had a problem once with an earbud getting loose and starting to fall in the water. I wasn't wearing The Dash with the Leash then and I immediately grabbed it before it sunk too low. That's also not something I want to worry about when swimming. And finally, when you go a little lower than the pool's surface (say about 0.7m deep when pushing off the wall during flips), the music's volume goes low and deep until you reach the surface again. I guess it has to do with the water's pressure playing tricks with the NFMI transmission. You can get used to this effect, but the first two problems don't make it a good choice for serious swimmers who don't want anything distracting them from their laps.
The Leash keeps the two Dash earbuds together. It's tight but it fits with them inside the case.
Activity tracking with The Dash is very barebones. After taking a couple of days to figure out how to double tap to switch between running, cycling, and swimming (why that isn't possible inside the app boggles my mind), I realized that they were all pretty useless for now. Yes, you get duration, steps, and heart rate when running, but nothing is saved once the session is done. Bragi says this is for privacy reasons, but I suspect it's more about the logistics of setting up accounts and saving and synchronizing data. Whatever it is, the end result is that you'll simply get an audio summary when you finish an activity and that's it. That's made even more pointless by the fact that swimming and cycling don't count steps (logically), just the heart rate and duration.
Beside waterproofing, the best feature of The Dash when you're active is Transparency. A swipe on the left earbud toggles it on and off, letting you hear your surroundings clearly or block them out as much as possible. The Dash is also supposed to handle macros for certain movements while being worn, but they're limited to phone call reception now and I couldn't test them because I never got a call while wearing the headset.
Overall, my whole experience with The Dash was a mixed bag of positives and negatives. I can get accustomed to the connection limitations and make sure there's more or less a direct line-of-sight between it and my phone or watch. I can learn to be more precise with the touch interface. I can handle reconnecting the left Dash to Runtastic before each run to track my heart rate. I can use it only for recreational swimming and not when doing laps to avoid frustrations. I can get used to a lot of the limitations, but the one thing I can't compromise on is comfort.
And The Dash, unfortunately, is painful for me to wear even with the XS eartip. I've tested it with a few different friends and none of them reported a problem, but I had to have those silly tiny ears that can't handle The Dash's strain and that try to push it out every few minutes. I can't possibly have to worry about my headset sliding out of my ear every few minutes when running or swimming, and I can't enjoy any activity if all I feel is pressure inside my ears instead of music pumping me up.
Different FitSleeve sizes: XS, S, M, L (left). Left Dash with S sleeve, right one with XS (right).
The weird thing is that the greatest things about The Dash, the ones that work well and don't cause any issues, are the least marketable features: local music storage is better than streaming because you don't have to worry about Bluetooth reception, the music aspect is several folds more useful than the activity tracking capability, and the waterproofing is very solid.
The Dash's headlining features though are its weaknesses: Bluetooth requires special positioning to not drop out, activity tracking is so limited for now, and the touch interface is as frustrating as it is cool when running or swimming. By trying to do too much, Bragi ended up adding more problems than solving them.
The Dash, however, sold me on the idea of true wireless earbuds. And you just know that the market will soon be flooded with them. Samsung is working on a very similar pair called the Gear IconX, and dozens of other manufacturers have already produced theirs or launched crowdfunding campaigns for them (Earin, Kanoa, NextEar, Phazon, etc...). The Dash, as it stands now, is probably the most interesting of all the available products in this category, and maybe the best executed.
I can't use this Dash though, so I'll be keeping an eye on a second version that could be smaller or more ergonomic (and maybe less pricey with no activity tracking). But I wouldn't mind recommending it if you have the dough and know what you're getting into: a first generation product with some limitations, some frustrations, and a dash of magic.