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April 18, 2016

Bragi Dash review: The true wireless earphone

by John_A

You know, when “wireless” earphones began to flood the headphone market, I was somewhat confused. They still had wires. Shouldn’t they be called semi-wireless? That fact kind of killed my interest in them all together. I wanted the real deal. Straight up earpieces, no cables.

Fortunately, a company came along that recognized that problem as well. Bragi envisioned a true wireless earphone design, called the Dash, but needed help to make it a reality. Therefore, like many startups, it utilized Kickstarter (the most popular crowd-funding site). After a couple years, the Dash finally made its way into the hands of fans. But was it all it was cracked up to be? Let’s find out.

Design

Bragi_Dash_3

The Dash are unlike any headphones you’ve seen before. The earpieces are rather bulky, actually, but this is because they’re the entire wireless headphone. Everything (the Bluetooth component, battery, audio driver, etc.) is stuffed in the little spaces.

The build is plastic, but it’s split almost evenly between a glossy and matte finish. The contrast is appealing to me, and the unit feels solidly put together. The glossy part does show fingerprint smudges, but I do like the shine that it gives off.

Bragi_Dash_8

Each earpiece has these unique-looking contact points on their underside. This is how the Dash charges. The packaging comes with a cradle that has a microUSB port on the side. Plop the earpieces in their respective slots (finding the correct orientation can be tricky at first) and you’ll feel the magnets lock them in place.

Bragi_Dash_1
Bragi_Dash_5

Bragi includes a short microUSB-to-USB cable and no AC adapter, so you’ll either have to charge from your PC or just use your smartphone charger. The cradle also serves as a carrying case, so there’s a really nice cover that slides over it to keep the earpieces safe.

Bragi_Dash_9

Bragi cut out a slit so that you can still see the status LED on the earpieces. And speaking of which, the Dash indicates its battery status: green for plenty of battery, orange for medium battery, red for low battery, and blue for fully charged. I really like how Bragi implemented the light. It glows and pulses, appearing somewhat futuristic, which totally complements the earphone itself. This is the headphone of the future. If the Dash aren’t in the charger, just give ’em a shake and the light will glow for a couple seconds.

Bragi_Dash_6

Like most earphones, the packaging includes a variety of silicone ear tips. But unlike most earphones, three of those pairs are a sleeve/tip combo and one is the just ear tip.

Bragi_Dash_4

I was kind of confused when I laid them out. Although the sleeves are labeled small, medium, and large, they all look the same size to me. But the ear tip does go deep within the ear canal, so maybe there’s a very slight difference in size between them. If you don’t care for the protection, you can use the pair of just ear tips (I don’t know why we don’t have three sizes of these as well).

I have a slight rant with the silicone material/finish that Bragi used. It clings on to lent like no tomorrow. It’s almost impossible to keep them nice. And this doesn’t exclude the ear tip from collecting ear wax. Eww.

Usability

When you first get the Dash, it can be a little intimidating to get started. There’s no buttons on it like on typical wireless earphones. Bragi tries to make it simple with easy-to-follow directions (provided on the box or how-to’s on its website). Basically, the top surface of each earpiece is touch-enabled. For instance, to pair, you just hold your finger down on the right earpiece for five seconds and the Dash will become discoverable.

However, in my experience, it wasn’t as hassle-free as in theory. Something I found out the hard way is that the touch pad isn’t on the entire top surface. It’s only a small area towards the bottom. I naturally began touching the middle of the surface and got frustrated because nothing was happening.

dash_front-1600

I eventually got it to be discoverable after a few tries (it nicely dings and a voice tells you that it’s ready to pair), then pairing through the phone’s Bluetooth settings is easy. Something I found out as I took the earpieces on and off is that it’s almost impossible to not give it a touch input while you’re adjusting the Dash in your ears. I would’ve much preferred if Bragi put the touch pad on the center of the surface. Usability of the touch controls also a mixed bag for me. Sometimes you have to swipe just right for it to work.

One time I went to adjust the right earpiece in my ear and the music paused. I tried doing a lot of things for it to resume playing and nothing worked (I had to just hit play from the phone). Then I went to see if I could make it pause again and I couldn’t. It’s supposed to be just one tap on the right earpiece to play/pause, but the tap response on my unit was just a mess. You have to hit it at just the right spot, and the taps don’t register 100% of the time.

Another issue I ran into is when a call interrupted my music, and I dismissed it, the music wouldn’t resume. It was still playing on my phone, but I heard nothing out of the Dash. I had to mess with it to finally get the music to come back. Bragi has more ironing out to do. These random issues make me feel like this is an unfinished device.

I know I started on a negative note, but functionality is not all bad. Once you do learn all that you can do with different touches, it is impressive. I like how Bragi gave each earpiece a separate set of controls.

br_151005_zendesk-graphics_overview touch

The fit is also impressive. Just looking at the design, I thought the Dash would easily be able to fall out of your ears. Not so. The earpieces are lightweight and somehow have a snug fit. Maybe it’s the shape that allows your ear to cradle it. I don’t know, but it works. I can move my head around all I want, they don’t go anywhere. This means that they’re excellent for exercising. I would say that it’s the best wireless earphone for exercising. Having no cable whatsoever is something special.

Something unfortunate (but not totally unexpected) is that the battery life of the Dash is sub-par. The 100mAh capacity gets you around 3 hours of playback (at max volume, I got exactly 2 hours). In comparison, the JayBird X2 (a popular wireless earphone) get about 8 hours. BUT, Bragi redeemed themselves with the included cradle. It’s not just a charger but a battery pack. It has enough capacity to get the Dash through five full charges. This was a very smart idea. Still, the fact of the matter is that you’ll run out of juice quite often (if you use them a lot), so that needs to be something you’re okay with. Charging them up from an empty battery takes an hour.

Features

So assuming that you can work through the iffy controls, the Dash does pack an impressive array of functionality. This area is also where Bragi’s ambition shows, and keeps my heart open to them despite my usability complaints.

First, as I’ve touched on before, the Dash is built with sport-use in mind. It sits surprisingly securely in our ears, but can also withstand the elements. The Dash isn’t just sweatproof but waterproof (up to a meter). Therefore, you can use it while swimming.

What’s more, the Dash is built with fitness tracking abilities. You’ll get live feedback about your steps, the duration of your activity, and even heart rate (there’s a heart rate sensor built in). Because of the versatility, the Dash can tune its fitness tracking for the activity that you’re doing. For instance, if you’re running, then it knows to monitor your steps. But if you’re cycling or swimming, you’ll get heart rate and duration information.

How is this information relayed, you say? Bragi developed an app.

Home screen of the Bragi app.Home screen of the Bragi app.

It’s pretty simple; the status of the Dash is shown up top (tap on them for a quick peek at their controls) and the features are along the bottom. Activity displays the fitness information.

bragi_app_activity

Macros is pretty neat. It’s essentially motion gestures for a quicker way to execute functions. Unfortunately, it’s not very expansive at the moment. All you can do is nod your head to accept a call or shake your head to reject it. Bragi says more will be added in future software updates.

bragi_app_macros

The Sound settings lets you adjust the volume or turn on/off Audio Transparency. You can do both of these things on the Dash (with the touch controls), but these are shortcuts if you’re already in the app. Audio Transparency is pretty cool. It amplifies the external sound around you. This is nice if you’re outdoors and there’s something going on that you need to hear, or if someone starts talking to you.

bragi_app_settings

But wait, there’s more! Bragi even managed to cramp 4GB of internal storage into the Dash. Yeah, you can dump mp3’s into the earpieces and play music directly from them. Simply dock them into the cradle and connect to a computer. You’ll see a folder reserved for the music. It’s organized by four playlist folders that you switch between on the Dash.

Sound

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much in regard to sound quality from the Dash. There’s so much technology packed into the tiny spaces and I figured that wouldn’t leave much room for competent acoustics. Bragi was fortunately smart about it and used Balanced Armature (BA) drivers. These drivers are tiny and used in many high-end earphones today, because it allows audio manufacturers to stuff several of them in a small space (for instance, the Shure SE846 has four BA drivers per earpiece).

I liked the sound quality for the most part. There’s more bass than I would have thought. I expected a thin sound, and that certainly wasn’t the case. It’s not a boomy Beats-like bass, thankfully. It’s impactful without being over-done. But don’t expect depth like wired in-ears at the same price.

The whole reproduction is satisfyingly balanced actually. The treble is crisp and plenty of detail comes through. The mid-range is also prominent (not recessed). Vocals and instruments sound natural and encompassing. Suffice to say, Bragi surprised me. The Dash should sonically satisfy most users.

It’s not a perfect picture, though. Unfortunately, the Dash picks up noticeable background hiss. I’m guessing that Bragi struggled with this; there must be a great deal of electrical interference to tame. Hopefully it gets addressed in the next version. Things like this happen with first gen devices.

Final Thoughts

Bragi_Dash_10

The Dash is a mixed bag, and I recommend that consumers give it a fair amount of thought before dropping $300. The price is high for a headphone that isn’t close to perfect, but you have to consider how ambitious this project was. Before the Dash, a true wireless earphone (no wires) was unheard of. It’s the headphone of the future, and it has to start somewhere.

That makes it a tough spot for a reviewer. I want this device to succeed, sooo bad, but can’t quite recommend it until all the usability issues are ironed out. I’m also looking at that steep price tag when I think about it. But at the same time, I want people to buy it, because then Bragi will eventually dish out a sequel that will be the true product.

The Dash does do some great things already, though. The fit is impeccable and the sound quality is solid. The battery case is also well-thought-out. If you can manage with the touch controls, there are functions galore. I applaud Bragi for being so ambitious and hope it can continue.

A shout out to my buddy, Miguel Calderon, for letting me borrow his Dash unit! He supported the Dash on Kickstarter from the beginning. Thanks man!

Bragi Dash product page

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