Review: Bragi Dash Wireless Earphones
Do good things come to those who wait? In January 2014, Bragi opened a Kickstarter campaign for the “World's First Wireless Smart In Ear Headphones.” The Dash ($299) would be truly wireless and waterproof Bluetooth headphones with fitness tracking, a touch interface, and even 4GB of onboard storage for completely untethered operation. Health tracking was a major feature; the Dash would track heart rate, oxygen saturation, training goals, and calories burned. These were huge promises for such a small device at the time, and thousands of backers bought in — Bragi asked for $260,000; the company raised almost $3.4 million. Then the waiting began.
Bragi’s Kickstarter campaign estimated delivery in October 2014, but 2014 and 2015 passed with no product being shipped. In over 50 updates to its campaign, Bragi kept backers informed of challenges in design, manufacturing, and shipping that caused massive delays. Many backers feared that the Dash would become another Kickstarter vaporware story, but excitement and confidence were reignited at CES, where Bragi showed off an impressive production sample and promised shipping in the coming weeks. In the two years that had passed since the Bragi’s Kickstarter, The Dash had demanded a lot of patience. When we finally received the Dash in mid-February 2016, it asked for a bit more.
The Dash’s packaging makes an excellent first impression. A hefty matte-black box about the size of a hardcover book slides open to reveal thick cardstock pages. Each page illustrates some of the Dash’s many functions, providing a clear orientation as the Dash is slowly revealed. Not only does this provide a delightful unboxing experience, it’s also a brilliant way of introducing the product. We appreciate the thought that went into the Dash’s packaging because the Dash’s interface mostly unfamiliar to most users. To some extent, it feels like Bragi has reinvented the user manual.
Getting started with the Dash was, unfortunately, less delightful. The Kickstarter edition we received was shipped with a very early version of its firmware and had to be updated before the Dash could be used. We had to charge the Dash for two hours, then wait through a two-hour update procedure. The next morning, another major update was released, which meant another two hours before we could really test the Dash. The update procedure is slow and nerve-racking — only the flashing of the Dash’s LEDs let you know it’s working, and there’s no way to tell when it will finish. In the future, we hope that Bragi finds a way to push firmware updates through the iOS app.
The next task was to fit the Dash to our ears. Four sizes of “fit sleeves” ship with the Dash which, unlike other IEMs we have tested, don’t add any size inside your ear. Instead, the fit sleeves add thickness around each earbud for a secure fit in your outer ear. Once we got used to the motion required to seat the Dash properly in our ears, we found them to be secure and comfortable with a reasonably good seal. Possibly due to the minimal amount of material in the ear canal, we never tired of wearing the Dash, which is more than we can say for most IEMs that we have tested.
Pairing the Dash to your phone is a two-step process. The right earbud must first be paired to the phone, then the left dash to the app. After pairing, the Dash will automatically detect whether or not it is being worn, and will power down into standby or re-pair on its own. Initial pairing was straightforward, but we had intermittent problems with ongoing connectivity. On a few rare occasions, the Dash seemed to freeze, requiring us to “reboot” the earphones by placing them in the charging case. Connectivity to the iOS app, unfortunately, is much worse. The Dash never connected to the Bragi app on its own — each time we used the app, we had to “eject” the previous connection and put the left earbud back in discovery mode to re-pair. Bragi is aware of this bug, and has plans to fix it. We experienced some brief dropouts outdoors when our phone was in our left pocket, but nothing worse than we found with other small Bluetooth devices.
The Dash packs a ton of functionality into its small size, and everything is controlled with swipes and taps. Voice prompts and a series of tones make it easy to navigate through the Dash’s functions, and to know whether you’ve activated a single, double, or triple tap. For example, a long press on the left earbud prompts the voice to offer running, cycling, or swimming activities, a single tap selects and starts the activity, and a double-tap retrieves heart rate and other activity info. Taps register a little bit differently than you may be used to on an iPhone or iPad, but we got used to the interface quickly enough.
The core experience of the Dash is music, and we are happy to report that it performs well. Bragi initially planned to incorporate the higher-quality apt-X codec into the Dash, but that was scrapped due to battery and connectivity limitations. We have definitely heard better headphones, and the quality of your experience will definitely depend on how good a fit you can get with the Dash’s fit sleeves. That said, we’re inclined to give Bragi some leeway when we consider how much tech Bragi has crammed into these tiny devices. Though there was nothing about the Dash’s sound signature that we found offensive, we should note that the current firmware (version 1.3) appears to have its gain set too high. This causes a constant low-volume hiss and microphone clipping. Bragi is also aware of this issue, and plans to make gain adjustable in future updates.
The Dash also features a “transparency” mode, similar to the “Ambient Aware” feature of the JBL Everest Elite 700. Swiping up on the left earbud activates both of the Dash’s microphones, allowing you to hear your surroundings and, in theory, hold conversations without removing the Dash. Unfortunately, we found the microphones to be far too sensitive (it may have been another gain issue), making the transparency feature jarring and uncomfortable at times. We speculate that the microphones need tweaking because call quality on the Dash was also terrible on the current firmware. You may be noticing a trend here — Bragi is aware of these issues and has promised improvements in future updates.
In a package so small, Bragi had to make compromises, and battery life is always the first to go. The Dash will only last about three hours on a single charge. Bragi solves this problem by including a charging case with an internal battery that can quickly charge the Dash up to five times on the go. The case is about the size of an old iPod classic, and comes with an impressively sturdy anodized metal cover. Though the cover probably adds unnecessarily bulk to the package, we appreciate the attention to detail and quality feel of the case. The Dash’s case is an excellent solution to the battery issue and, as a result, we never felt like battery life would be a problem.
The Dash can be connected to a free companion app, simply called “Bragi.” The app is as well-designed and beautiful as the Dash, with a clear interface and fast response to taps. Currently, the app offers little more functionality than the Dash itself, adding only a quick reference for touch controls and a way to quickly submit support requests. We were frustrated by the Bragi app’s limited features, especially because it has so much potential — we should be able to manage activities, tweak sound profiles, or at least see a battery percentage indicator from within the app. Bragi probably feels the same way; we think the app is currently a placeholder for future features as the Dash’s code is further refined.
The remaining features of the Dash — activity tracking, onboard music storage, and gesture control (such as nodding your head to accept a call) are all functional but too immature to explore in detail. For example, the Dash will track your run, bike ride, or swim, but it’s not clear where the data is stored. At the time of our review neither the Dash nor the Bragi app had any connection to our iPhone’s Health app, and the Bragi app kept no independent activity history. The Dash is simply not ready to compete with the huge range of full-featured activity trackers currently on the market.
Overall, living with the Dash was a mixed experience. When the Dash works, it’s brilliant and feels like the future. When it doesn’t work, it’s very frustrating. In addition to intermittent connectivity issues, we often found that taps and swipes did not register. For no apparent reason, the Dash sometimes failed to recognize the first, second, or even twentieth tap; we can only imagine what our fellow subway commuters must have thought while we stood there furiously tapping the two black blobs in our ears. We can only speculate that the cause of this intermittent unresponsiveness is that the Dash may be trying to put itself into lower power modes to save battery, and has trouble switching back to full power. As with all the Dash’s shortcomings, we are optimistic that future firmware updates can solve the problem.
It is difficult to criticize technology that is truly “new” and still in development. The Dash has very few direct competitors, and there are no previous versions to measure it against. We don’t know if Bragi could have done better preparing the Dash, or if the current functionality is at the limits of available technology. To be fair to Bragi, we reviewed a product that has, in many ways, tried to achieve more than almost any headphone we have seen. Bragi has been quickly releasing firmware updates, and it has high hopes for the future, including live fitness coaching, live translation, sightseeing guides, health tracking. The list of moonshot features is long, but the future is uncertain.
In the face of this uncertainty, our criticisms and recommendation are based on the Dash’s current feature set and performance. The build quality of the Dash is excellent, but its software has a long way to go. If the touch interface works intermittently now, we feel like it should be possible for it to work all the time. Bluetooth discovery and connectivity shouldn’t be any worse than existing headphones, and phone calls should not sound as bad as they do on the Dash. Bragi has promised fixes, but only time will tell if the Bragi can become worthy of its $300 price tag. If you’re patient enough to look past some bugs in exchange for some exciting technology, give the Dash a try. Everyone else should wait a few months to see if Bragi can refine the experience.