A few years ago, my gym offered a complementary exercise class featuring bouncy shoes that looked like enormous Rollerblades and felt like pogo sticks. Whatever you’re imagining, they were bigger and dumber. But they were fun; everyone in the class was sweaty and laughing as we bounded around the room in ridiculous $250 boots. I loved that experience so much, in fact, that I got my own pair. I strapped them on and bounced into the wild (a concrete park near my Manhattan apartment), where I discovered something terrible: Everyone was staring at my stupid feet. I might as well have been holding a sign that said, “I’m in dire need of attention.” The people around me were no longer just bystanders, but participants in my workout, whether they wanted to be or not. (They did not.)
This is what it’s like to use Sony’s Immersive Wearable Speaker while walking in public. The horseshoe-shaped device, which is new to the U.S. but has been out in Japan since late 2017, is part of a wave of wearable speakers introduced in the last couple of years. There’s the Bose Soundwave Companion, the slightly more design-y Cleer Halo, JBL’s Soundgear, and a few more from companies we’ve never heard of. Like those other speakers, Sony’s rests on your shoulders while surrounding you (and, to a lesser degree, those around you) in 360-degree sound. Unlike those other speakers, this product isn’t Bluetooth enabled, so it has to be attached to your phone or another sound source by an extremely long cord. If you use an Apple product, it’s attached via the long cord and a conversion dongle. Imagine a boom box that looks like a neck pillow, provoking bemusement and derision from passersby who all seem to run through the same thought process: (1) Where is that music coming from? (2) Oh, it’s that woman’s neck! (3) Jesus Christ.
To be fair, Sony’s speaker is clearly meant to be used inside, where you still wear it around your neck, only seated on your couch, away from the judgmental eyes of neighbors. A transmitter plugs into your TV and sends a wireless signal, which means no more long cord. Even in an optimal indoor setting, the audio quality isn’t really better than a regular speaker. But being immersed in whatever you’re watching is more intimate, especially when you turn on the unnecessary-but-fun vibration mode. When I watched the Taylor Swift Netflix documentary Miss Americana, I got actual goosebumps as the sad bass underscoring Taylor’s emotional nadirs hummed over my shoulders. And feeling the buzz of the string orchestration on USA’s creepy crime series The Sinner spooked me so much that I gave up on an earlier plan to wear the speaker to watch the much scarier (and misleadingly named, from a speaker-testing perspective) A Quiet Place.
I don’t really do video games. But my husband does, so I draped the speaker on him while he played Fortnite. Gamers are used to vibrations in their controllers, so the haptic feedback from the Immersive Wearable Speaker (which most other wearable speakers don’t offer) provided the same rumbles he expected, just to an unexpected body part. Hearing gunfire from all directions, rather than just the right or left, better tipped him off to his digital enemies’ location. It also let him clearly receive the coordinates and abuse being shouted at him by the 10-year-olds he was playing with. (Because the speaker doesn’t have a microphone function, limiting my husband to communicating only through game violence and disrespectful victory dances, he declined to join his regular party of adult friends in battle.)
But the speaker had the most utility during an activity I can’t imagine Sony intended it to complement: a bike ride. It’s dangerous to wear headphones when running or biking, since they block out the noises of things that can run you over and kill you. Consequently, many headphone-makers have settings to let some ambient sound in, like the Awareness mode in Poly’s new Backbeat Fit 3200 earbuds. With a speaker on your shoulders, instead of in your ears, this is not an issue. Traffic noise made it to my ears as clearly as Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’s harmonies on “Islands in the Stream.” Like my first experiment using the Immersive Wearable Speaker in the park, I did get some looks. But as I sang about the joys of making love with each other, I didn’t care. By the time I noticed any detractors, my dorky speaker and I had already pedaled by.
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