Earlier this month, we visited the New York Audio Show. We hoped we’d find some audio gear to write about on iLounge, but didn’t find much that would be relevant to normal people — though the stereo systems on display at the NYAS were amazing, many of them cost more than some people’s homes. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday, for sure, but we found something interesting in the most unexpected place: on our way out the door, we noticed a small booth showing what appeared to be Bluetooth headphones by a company called Hooke. We stopped by to chat with the founder about his product, and we’re happy we did. The Hooke Verse ended up being one of the most unique headphones we’ve ever used — it’s not just a headphone, it’s a head-mounted microphone array.
For those keeping track, the Hooke Verse will be the second headphone we’ve reviewed that is less focused on listening than it is on hearing. On the surface, the Verse seems like any other Bluetooth headphone: it plays music, it comes with a bunch of silicone and foam ear tips, charges with a micro USB cable, and includes a nice semi-rigid zippered storage case. The Verse’s battery and electronics are housed in relatively large pods that rest relatively discreetly behind the ears; if this were a normal Bluetooth headphone, we’d say that it was too bulky compared to the competition, and that maybe Hooke should have tweaked its design. Luckily for Hooke, this isn’t a normal Bluetooth headphone, a fact which is hinted at by its inclusion of foam windscreens and a custom-designed cable designed to work with GoPro’s proprietary audio and USB connections. What really sets the Verse apart is its microphones mounted on the outside of each driver housing — according to Hooke, the Verse is the world’s first Bluetooth headphone capable of recording 3D or, more accurately, binaural audio.
For the uninitiated, binaural recordings use two microphones — sometimes mounted in a dummy head with realistic ears — to capture sound the way that humans actually hear it. Though two microphones mounted a few inches apart can provide the effect of stereo separation, dummy heads with ears are ideal, since they mimic the tiny adjustments to sound made by the human ear’s curves and valleys. A good binaural recording will work with any headphone, and can create a three-dimensional, almost virtual reality effect, making the listener feel like they’re actually there in the recording. Binaural audio isn’t new; plenty of videos and audio recordings can be found on sites like YouTube, and there are plenty of jazz CDs out there in this format. The difference is that these recordings were made with professional equipment. With the Verse, Hooke claims to be able to capture binaural audio in high fidelity and, since the microphones nestle into the ear, on par with what would be heard in real life. We don’t pretend to be audio recording professionals but, in our testing, the Verse mostly live up to Hooke’s claims.
The Verse requires its companion app to unlock its binaural recording ability. With the Verse connected, the Hooke Audio iOS app will display a “3D” icon, indicating that binaural recording is ready. From there, either video or audio recording is possible. Colored bars indicate sound level for each ear — swiping down allows the user to increase the recording level (a metaphor for compression, maybe) to just above that of the ambient sound, so that clipping can be avoided. Recording level can also be adjusted during the recording, although in our testing those changes seemed to have a momentary delay that was noticeable during playback. With audio-only recordings, it’s possible to continue capturing binaural audio after switching apps or locking the phone. After recording is finished, we were able to apply filters that can add echo and reverb, tweak the stereo image, perform extra noise reduction, or optimize recording for loud concert settings. Audio and video recordings can be shared with other apps like any other file via the iOS share sheet. Hooke is even developing a service where Verse users can share binaural recordings with others. The app is free, but you’ll have to pay to remove slightly-obnoxious video watermarks ($1.99) and to access the extra audio filters ($4.99) — we think these in-app purchases may be an unwelcome surprise for Hooke’s customers; though some additional cost for optional audio plugins makes sense, an extra $2 to remove video watermarks is harder to accept after paying $240 for the device.
According to Hooke, the Verse captures audio using a custom codec, capable of recording at extremely high resolution with broad dynamic range (the difference between quiet and loud). We tried capturing video and audio in a variety of settings, including noisy city streets, parks, subway platforms, and a quiet room. For the most part, the binaural/3D effect works, and when it does, it’s an incredible experience. Unlike sound recorded from individual microphones (which, by comparison, is like listening with ‘one ear’), listening to binaural audio can trick the brain into feeling like it’s really “there.” Perhaps the best part is that these recordings “work” with any headphone — there’s no special software required for playback, and the Verse’s recordings aren’t any bigger than a standard audio file (for example, a four-minute audio-only file is about 4 MB in size).
Using the Hooke app is simple. With the Verse connected, the app will display a “3D” icon indicating that binaural audio recording is possible. Video or audio modes can be selected, though only audio recording is available when the app is in the background (iOS does not allow background video recording). Before recording, users can monitor ambient noise levels with left and right meters on the display; swiping up or down adjusts recording level, which can be monitored in real time. It’s best to choose the recording level before starting the recording, since adjustments made during recording happen suddenly, and after a short delay, which can be jarring to hear during playback. When a recording is finished, the Hooke app processes the file and places it with other recordings within the app. Though the recorded files can be played from within the app and shared with other files, we wish it were possible to have the Hooke app accessible through the iTunes file sharing menu — it can be tedious to transfer multiple files using the iOS Share Sheet, and iOS will apparently scale down the quality of files shared via Messages as it sees fit.
Though using the Hooke app is simple, getting perfect recordings takes practice. The Verse’s high-sensitivity mics can pick up a lot of background ambient noise, and wind can cause buffeting that ruins recordings. For example, many of our outdoor street recordings were dominated by NYC’s ever-present low-frequency background hum; it’s easy to ignore in normal life, but hard to miss when listening to binaural audio. Even in a quiet room, it takes some trial and error to choose levels that make the audio target loud enough to hear without also amplifying ambient noise to the point of ruining the recording. It may be that the Verse’s microphones are too sensitive, but we are mostly willing to give the Verse the benefit of the doubt. Background noise and interference from wind are challenges inherent to all audio recordings — there’s a learning curve to picking the right balance between recording volume and background noise. Also, the Verse’s included windscreens do a good job to keep outdoor recordings listenable. For those who haven’t yet mastered this, we think you’ll find that the Verse performs best in settings where the audio you’re trying to record is substantially louder than the background noise or where the audio source is very close to the Verse.
We initially experienced some bugs using the Verse with the Hooke app, including recordings that started before we pressed record and choppy audio at the beginning of video recordings. We raised our concerns to Hooke’s developer, who was extremely responsive — these were apparently new issues caused by changes to the way iOS 11 handled its “AV sessions.” An updated version of the app is, at the time of this writing, pending approval by the App Store. The developer gave us early access via TestFlight (iOS’s app testing platform), and we can confirm that the recording bugs were squashed. One issue that may not be resolved in the most current update, however, is how the Hooke app displays on the iPhone X — the entirely new resolution, addition of the “notch” at the top of the display and home bar at the bottom of the display partially obscure the Hooke app’s controls in portrait mode. We don’t hold this against the developer, though, as it was a hardware change outside of Hooke’s control and all iOS apps have to be updated to accommodate the new display features. Hooke’s developer is aware of the issue, and told us that a fix is in the works.
We’ve seen plenty of headphones — especially Bluetooth headphones — that look like little more than a jumble of off-the-shelf parts. The Verse, however, feels completely unique and custom, which goes a long way to justify its price. Even the cardboard box that the Verse ships in is unique — follow the directions, and the box converts into a makeshift binaural recording head for interviews. When we were able to get clean recordings, the sense of space and 3D imaging that the Verse can capture can be amazing. This feat is even more impressive when we consider that this is achieved wirelessly, in a form factor discreet enough to make it seem like the user isn’t wearing two omnidirectional microphones on the head. There’s a bit of a learning curve to get the most out of binaural recordings, but if you’re looking to create some very unique audio content without a lot of extra equipment, the Hooke Verse is definitely worth checking out.
Company and Price
Company: Hooke Audio