This year at CES, I almost missed the opportunity to hang out in a swanky hotel suite, ride in a limo, enjoy a steak dinner, meet a true rock star, and audition a very cool audio product all in the same evening. Thankfully, I accepted Sennheiser’s invitation to experience all that, instead of attending one of the tech show’s usual big three press roundup events.
When I arrived at the suite—one of Encore’s Fairway Villas, just down the hall from where Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn used to reside—I was greeted by company reps, who immediately set me up with the product, which, up until that point, I knew nothing about.
Don’t Call Them Earbuds
At first glance, I assumed it was a typical set of truly wireless stereo earbuds. And while they can certainly play music, they do so much more, in a similar way to how the Amazon Echo is more than just a regular speaker. Essentially, Conversation Clear Plus is a highly specialized hearing device that effectively enables you to tune out ambient noise and distinguish dialogue. To accomplish that, they use a combination of fancy microphones and advanced software. But, to be clear, they’re not technically hearing aids.
A Limo, A Steakhouse and A Rock Star
To test the device’s abilities, a luxurious shuttle took us to Carversteak, a popular—and therefore very noisy—restaurant, a common setting where it can be difficult to hear your dinner mates even if you do not have pronounced hearing loss. Speaking of which, many of us apparently either have some degree of hearing loss that is undiagnosed or don’t do anything corrective even if it is diagnosed, perhaps out of a sense of social stigma, as we learned in a brief before our meal.
Just before the meal was served, we were joined by Dee Snider, the legendary Twisted Sister frontman. He serves as the product’s ambassador, not because he himself has excessive hearing loss, as you might expect from a heavy metal band’s lead singer, but rather because he actually uses the product. Despite sitting across the table and a few seats down from Snider, I was able to hear him regale us with his rock ‘n’ roll stories. To be sure, though we were in a semi-private room, there was tons of chatter leaking in from the main dining room and several concurrent conversations happening around me. In other words, without this product, I would not have been able to hear him talking at a normal volume 8 to 10 feet away.
To Hear or Not to Hear
It was a weird feeling, knowing that we could hear (and be heard by) each other in such a clamorous environment. But as I can verify, Conversation Clear Plus intelligently filters speech and noise with almost magical precision. So, in addition to noisy restaurants, this device is perfect for use in any crowded area. I wore them daily on the cacophonous CES showroom floor, to hear various product pitches without having to strain through the abundant auditory distractions.
Now I won’t fly without them, alternating at the touch of a button between transparency and noise cancellation modes. In one extreme case, I was on a tarmac in Hawaii waiting to go up the stairs to board the plane and, though the otherwise deafening whine of the nearby jet engine was mostly muted, I was – for better or worse – able to hear a couple of fellow passengers gossiping in line behind me – and they did not sound muffled.
Everything the App Does
One of the things I really like about Conversation Clear Plus is the granularity of controls both directly on the earbuds themselves (with physical buttons) and within the app (available on Android and iOS).
For starters, you choose the mode you want. If you play music, it automatically initiates Streaming mode, in which you can balance an exact ratio of the tunes you want to hear mixed with (or instead of) the ambient environment. Choose Relax mode when you want to suppress from 0 to 100 percent of external sounds in 10 percent increments. And to better hear folks talk, tap Communication mode—which detects, displays, and compensates for the loudness of your environment. That is, it automatically changes the type and amount of active noise cancellation on its own in real-time. And beyond all that, there is a feature called Clarity Boost that bumps up the dialogue intelligibility factor that much more.
You can also adjust what different button presses on the buds do in each mode, and once they are set up, you do not need your phone or the app to use them. You literally take the buds out of their case, put them in your ears and they will revert to your last settings, which you can then adjust as desired.
Who Are These For?
Based on their features and price tag ($850), Conversation Clear Plus is clearly not for everyone. In terms of your aural acuity, these may be for you if you are able to hear normal-level voices in a quiet environment; both high and low registers; and about equally well in both ears. (Again, these are not a hearing aid substitute.) And in terms of their functionality, I highly recommend them if you find yourself straining to hear your friends and colleagues in noisy environments, such as offices, bars, restaurants, airports, and throughout other public transportation. The buds are amazingly comfortable to wear for long stretches—which is good, since they are rated for 9 hours on a single charge, with two extra charges provided by the case.
Protecting Your Hearing
Although I’ve worn Conversation Clear Plus at loud concerts and they do work fine, I happen to prefer several analog solutions to them for preserving the natural timbre of the music while minimizing possible/probable ear damage. Sennheiser offers SoundProtex, just launched this spring. I am also a fan of Loop’s stylish and effective earplugs. Etymotic has long been highly regarded in the industry. And Minuendo is a little pricy but has a unique (non-electronic) way to adjust the volume right on the buds, which is cool. However you choose to do it, the point is to go out into the world and enjoy audio without hurting your hearing.