Why I’m both skeptical and optimistic about The Dash heart-rate monitoring music headphones


It’s funny, as a general rule, I don’t like writing about Kickstarter projects where I haven’t seen or touched the product hands-on.  I think that introduces too much risk where people assume that because I write about it, it’s a good product (even when I clearly don’t like the product).

Nonetheless, I’ve received so many e-mails, tweets and messenger pigeons over the last few days around one Kickstarter project in particular, that despite some tweets from me about it, the questions keep on coming.  The project is The Dash, which are tiny waterproofed headphones that not only play music via Bluetooth (and 4GB of internal storage), but also measures your heart rate as well as even pace and cadence while running – all without a mobile phone being present.  Boiled down, the core features advertised are as follows:

– Tracking of heart rate data via optical sensor in your ear
– Tracking/recording of fitness data (pace, cadence, steps)
– Music storage and playback

My skepticism is of course not tied to the music portion – that’s relatively straight forward (well, mostly).  Obviously, how well you can hear traffic around you and areas such as passive noise reduction will need attention in a review – but those are largely well charted territory for companies today.


Rather, it’s tied to the heart rate and activity monitoring portions.  That’s the piece that’s a bit messier.  And, the piece that’s completely un-charted.  Many big-name companies in the past have attempted to measure heart rate via ears (such as Motorola), but have come up short. There’s been renewed focus on it in the past few months (as I previewed at CES), but none have put together a product (actually on the market) as diverse and complex as this.

Looking at the fitness side, we’ve got the following pieces (from their site):

image    image

You’ll notice that a few of them require the smart phone to operate, but the vast majority are in the unit itself and self-sustaining.

Looking at the left side, we’ve got the heart rate component – and this is the piece that I believe introduces the most risk.  I spent the better part of 30 minutes talking with the founder and owner – Nikolaj Hviid – about where the components stood as of today.

The Dash will be using optical sensors to measure heart rate within your ears. It’s sorta like the Mio Alpha and Mio Link, and the Adidas Smart Run GPS.  The Dash will leverage red LED’s that are currently used in medical systems, and measure the light being emitted about 55-65 times per second.

Once that’s done, like other systems, they have to remove the noise through what’s called a low-pass filter.  Basically optical systems have historically been designed for a medical environment where you’re sitting still in front of a doctor/nurse.  Introducing running/swimming/jumping and all sorts of other crazy random movements and impacts causes an immense amount of ‘noise’ into the readings.  Thus, it has to be removed.

The team plans to use the accelerometer located in the unit to correlate impact against the optical sensor noise to attempt to clean up the data.  Finally, when it comes to HRV, in talking with them it’s officially more of an estimation.  Like other units on the market, optical can’t actually accurately get HRV information by itself.  The folks behind Dash believe they have a way to bridge that gap.  Whether or not said way is accurate remains to be seen.

All of this is also transmitted via both Bluetooth Smart and concurrently legacy Bluetooth as the standard heart rate device profiles – so it’ll pair up with devices that support that.  It won’t support ANT+, as the company said it would draw too much power.


Next, the activity monitoring portions.  Within the unit itself they’re going to track cadence, steps and pace (running), as well as areas for others spots such as airtime and G-Force.  Cadence is fairly straight forward – it’s kinda the easy one.  You hit the ground and an impact is sustained and then measured.  Straight forward stuff.  Steps is the same (you simply count cadence).  Pace is where things get tricky.

In talking with with them, they’ll be initially calibrating the pace portion via the GPS on your phone.  So you’ll go out for a run with the phone and the unit and the two will talk and correlate the data, ultimately combining the vertical bounce with the cadence and cross-referencing it with different pace ranges.  Generally speaking it’s similar to what other companies are working on, such as the Wahoo TICKR straps.  Once you’ve calibrated it, it’ll then allow you to run without the phone and still get pace.

It’ll be interesting to see how the accuracy shakes out on both of those efforts.  From my testing of pace calculations with watches without GPS (and without a footpod), things are still pretty rough in this area.


So – with all that, why am I a bit skeptical on the project as a whole?  Well, the timelines in my opinion aren’t realistic.  As it stands today, they have two different hardware prototypes.

The first is one prototype with a full software stack running on it, but with ‘oversized’ development hardware.  Basically, larger hardware that most definitely won’t fit in your ear (seen below on the development board connected with wires).  The second prototype they have is of the physical hardware, with all the things that fit in your ear – but with no software on it yet.  The combination of the two doesn’t come for a bit longer until some new chips arrive later this spring, allowing them to load the software on the hardware.


Right now, they’re targeting to get the first alpha prototypes in June – which will be the first opportunity they’re able to test everything on a human in all the environmental conditions from sunny days to snowy days to 1-meter underwater.  It’s also the same time they’ll be doing testing of the heart rate algorithms (again, on a human) in a sports environment.  And that assumes there’s no delays between now and then.

Immediately thereafter in July, they plan to do the beta prototypes and first trial runs of the units.  That’s effectively only a month after receiving their alpha prototypes.  The logistics alone involved in testing those units will take more time than I believe they’ve allocated, let alone the process of getting the feedback incorporated back into them.  Given they aren’t at the point of having these algorithms working on a human with the units (today), it means there is going to be a ton of ground to cover in a very short timeframe.

Then, there’s the white elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about: It’s summer….and more importantly, summer vacations in Europe.  Almost their entire team is based in Europe – and having lived in Europe now one quickly realizes how much of the business world shuts down for July and August.  We’ve seen the impact of that on other Kickstarter technology projects.  While the team may promise to work through it, I just don’t see that being realistic for all staff members – it’s going to have some tangible impact on a schedule that’s already very tight.

Remember, there still is work to be done on the tracking pieces for fitness and sport, as well as whatever is there on the music side.  And they’ve got two apps to develop – iOS and Android.

Finally, we get to September for another trial run and then the first units of 1,000 pieces in October (that’s production).

image image

Having seen many products – both from crowd-funded startups as well major corporations, these timelines are just not realistic.  Keep in mind that Bragi (the company behind The Dash) hasn’t taken on any external investment funds/partners, which means its ability to go to Mom/Dad and ask for an extra million dollars to add more resources (human or otherwise) is highly limited.  Many people don’t realize that most Kickstarter-like technology projects have a vast amount of 3rd party funding beyond what Kickstarter is raising.  As one company recently told me: “The Kickstarter funds are just a drop in the bucket.”

Looking at the timelines, I think that a Spring 2015 timeframe (March-May 2015) is probably the most realistic guess of actual delivery – assuming no major issues.  I don’t see any major single issue for Dash, but rather a lot of little issues that will take more time to sort out than they realize.  Project schedule death by a thousand cuts essentially.

That said – I am excited about the potential for the product.  I’m excited about any sports/fitness and health product that bridges into new product areas and brings consumers cool new functionality.  I have ‘backed’ the project – merely because I’m curious how it will turn out.  But I definitely don’t expect to see it before the end of the year.

With that – thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!


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  1. Chuck

    I too looked at the time lines and had second thoughts. The deal breaker for me is the claim of 1m water resistance AND charging via micro usb. One of the best devices I’ve ever used (after a custom firmware) was the Motoactv. However I killed four of them with sweat thanks to the silly micro usb charging port. Where are all the induction charged devices? There’s no need for the little copper leads or USB anymore.

    • Chuck

      Also if this device was to use the TI WiLink system on chip they would get bluetooth 4.0 AND ant+ from one chip.

    • They’re using CSR because they said the power profile going to the TI chipset would reduce it by half (down to roughly 1.5 hours), and that it didn’t offer the audio quality that the CSR chip does.

      Whether or not that’s accurate/true, I don’t have any way to confirm. Just the messenger there…

    • Idefix

      the micro usb is on the carrying case not the Dash. the Dash has 4 pins to connect to the case. the dash is filled with silicone to make it watertight.
      they said induction charging was considered but too slow. probably a combo of too slow or too big.

      idefix, also just a messenger ;)

    • Charles Xavier

      Unless its offered as a addon *TO* MicroUSB induction charging would be the last thing i want.

      Having to have another proprietary charger to carry around with me (essentially tied to my hip) is a incredible PITA.

  2. Koen

    I’m really stunned by the usage of in-earplugs by sporters. I’m only using those old-fashioned earbuds that doesn’t creates a vacuum that is called ‘my head’. This has led to getting that smack/boom! effect every step I took, besides I can’t find these to be very safe.

    I don’t know if you’ve already mentioned this, but I find this a good kickstarter-product: link to kickstarter.com. It’s in production and ready to order, though paying 170 euros for a set(!) of lights is way too expensive.

  3. Idefix

    On the audio side of things the Dash can switch from passive closed to active open. Meaning it is a passive isolating headphone that can actively mix in surrounding noise/sound if you wish. So you can listen to music on a plane without hearing much engine noise or you can wear them on a bike in traffic listening to music while still hearing the traffic sounds around you.

    idefix, still just a messenger ;)

  4. Paul S

    Nice idea, but the wrong place. I must not be the only one who won’t wear headphones out on the road. About the only time I’ll wear them exercising is when I’m skiing laps in the local park. And in ear? No thanks.

    But on the other hand, I’d be very interested in something that continuously took as many vitals as possible non invasively.

  5. Mike B

    There is a descent ear phone that measures heart rate and more the Iriver ON.

    link to iriverinc.com

    Unfortuatnely the apps that support it stink and it costs $200.


  6. Josh Parks

    Thanks for the comments Koen – I tend to agree with you. I went for a run once with nice headphones and came back in need of replacing them, never again! (I also really liked your link too!)

    Now I wear pretty good $6 basic phones that are just north of disposable (though they seem more durable than others I’ve tried).

    I’m thinking that this is one of those tools that Ray reviews more for the general athlete rather than the more than serious data junkies out there. After all, who’s going to ditch their Garmin 620 for this? Those folks don’t own a nice Garmin, because they’re already happy with their Track-my-run type app.

    Horses for courses…

  7. Mack

    This is one of the reasons that I both love and hate Kickstarter. I love the idea of helping to fund interesting projects like this with the possibility of getting something tangible out of it. I hate the fact what I get out of it will likely be a not-quite finished product (albeit at a slightly reduced price). Personally, I’d rather get a coupon for a discount on a fully realized retail unit.

    The problem that I have with the Dash in particular is that there is no mention of use with a GPS watch. Even if the data it collects is good, audible feedback for general workout data on-the-fly sucks. Try saying the elapsed time, distance, speed, and heart rate out loud and see how long it takes. Unless they have a novel way to hear a specific piece of data you’ll have to hear the whole thing every time. It’s a pain.

  8. Marc Taylor

    Great idea, hope they can make it work

  9. Mike

    I wonder what the battery life will be. that can really sink a product.

  10. Frank Young

    The interesting thing about all of this to me is the integration with phone based GPS. Why aren’t the apps related to Fitbit, Jawbone and Basis taking advantage of this? Runkeeper has been doing it for years. Polar is rumored to be doing it with Flow but it seems that might cannibalize sales of their wrist based GPS products like the V800.

    • Yann Vernier

      Polar have been selling heart rate monitors for use with phones for many years. I personally use a Polar Wearlink Bluetooth model with Sportstracklive on Android; some more recent Polar watches even use the Bluetooth Smart (low energy) version of the strap. IIRC the first bluetooth model was sold in a Nokia bundle at first.

  11. Myria

    I wish I could be optimistic on this one, but even setting the timeline issues aside — and at this point pretty much everyone should be aware that Crowdfunding project timelines should never be taken seriously — I feel like they’re likely *vastly* over-promising compared to what they’re ultimately going to deliver.


    They may be able to overcome some of the problems others have run into trying to accomplish some of these goals, but overcome all of them simultaneously whilst maintaining a tiny form factor and multiple conflicting functions?

    Just don’t see it.

    Not just trying to do too much, but trying to do too much that has been shown to be problematic before in a form factor that is itself problematic.

  12. I would need to see these in the flesh before putting that kind of money down. Nice concept though.

    • Cool stuff, especially since they dive much more into the electrical/chipset engineering side. In many ways, these two posts compliment each other. They give a really solid deep insight there, whereas I’m more focused on the realities of the fitness portions. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Charles Xavier

    In addition to ANT+ and probably more importantly what they are missing and what would have made this perfect is FM radio with RDS *and* FM Transmitter.

    Being able to use the RDS stream to send that back to a iPhone would give you a always on singlecast connection for news, weather, forecast information and other useful alerts. Then being able to send that information BACK to the mobile device makes that 10x more powerful.

    iPhone users want to cut the cord with cellular companies. This would have empowered them to take one step closer to doing that.

    Instead its just another bluetooth headset on steroids. Not a true AIO.

  14. Everyday Fella

    You can buy a biometric sports Bluetooth headset today — the iriverON. It uses sensor technology by a startup named Valencell. I own one, and it’s quite impressively accurate. There is a neckpiece on this one which is different than most Bluetooth headsets, but the neck controls are nice. Have you tried it?

    LG, Intel, and Blaupunkt have announced that they will be launching products with this same tech. Have you tried any of these products? (Might be harder to get hold of since I do not think they’ve launched yet.) I’m not certain if Dash is using Valencell’s stuff as well, but if not, I suspect they will at some point in order to not be blocked by Valencell’s patents. Also, the Valencell guys talk about how getting this stuff to work accurately during running (and on multiple ears) took thousands and thousands of datasets to figure out.

    At one point there was a Hong Kong company with in-ear (ear canal) technology, and I think they licensed it to Motorola, but I presume their tech must have not worked well since Motorola halted production without shipping any units. Did you ever try this one out?

    • Yup, I’ve played with the iRiver unit a bit as well as the native Valencell stuff, and spent quite a bit of time talking to them.

      As for LG/Intel/etc, they were only on display at CES. And even Intel pulled their units by 11AM the first day (just an hour after they put them out).

      Thus, in many ways, with the exception of iRiver, everyone else is solidily in the camp of ‘still need to prove it’. With Motorola, they had prototype units, but never scaled to production due to accuracy issues they were seeing (from my understanding). Looking at the iRiver and the Dash, the significant differences are not just the size, but also the sheer quantity of things that Dash believes they can accomplish in addition to just monitoring HR. I believe they’ll get there – but I don’t believe they’ll do it in the timeframes they speculate.

  15. Stephen

    Apple have just received a patent for similar functionality…
    link to appleinsider.com

    • Everyday Fella

      Looks like this patent is limited to monitoring biometric and activity information and identifying actions associated with them to replicate those actions on a portable communication device. That is actually a very narrow patent. I don’t think Dash is doing this, are they claiming so?

  16. RhoBot

    I was a little skeptical of them saying “ANT+ would consume too much power” as ANT+ is lower power than BLE, but it’s probably due to the fact that they’d have to switch to a TI chipset which at the moment isn’t as low power as the CSR chipset.

    • Correct, it was in reference to switching from the CSR to TI chipset (or, Nordic).

    • Yes, I was also surprised to hear they were not using ANT+ with it’s ultra-low power. I went out to dinner here in Munich with one of the technical developers and he confirmed it was also for this reason, that they are using BLE. Hmmm, is ANT listening? It might not take a Google or Apple throwing their weight behind BLE to squash ANT+ (BetaMax vs VHS!).

      The time line also doesn’t take into account the Oktoberfest in September and all the drinking that will be done!!

  17. I wonder about claimed battery capacity of 100mAh. It seems to be almost impossible to place such a battery in their tiny package.

  18. PWA

    This does seem to be a potentially very good product, for which I would likely obtain a set for multiple reasons, all of which Bragi covered in their website.

    My only question/concern(complaint?) is:
    “The USB connection. Bragi is using BT v4 but staying behind w/USB v2 – why didn’t they go to USB v3 for the faster data transfer speeds that ‘everyone’ wants or would like to have? Is there some kind of patent/license cost overhead or something preventing them from doing so?”

  19. johnny

    Ahh, more technological snake oil. No way this company will deliver a reliable product with that level of integration under those harsh environments. Even in 2015. I hope those kickstarters feel good about making those donations because they won’t be getting anything close to what Bragi is claiming.

  20. pdsdownunder

    Seriously…would just like a pair of good quality noise cancelling in ear wireless headphones (I fly a lot). Don’t need the rest, why not aim slightly lower and deliver at least that…. and then progress up from there.

  21. Skeptic

    There is now a working prototype of the Dash that performs as expected. Looks like all you naysayers were wrong.

    • Yup, not exactly.

      First, they’ve just got all the parts to fit in your ear. But they haven’t shown that it actually works. Seriously, it’s ‘easy’ to jam all stuff in your ear if it doesn’t yet work and be accurate.

      Second, they’ve already delayed the project – and that was before the first prototypes were done this week, which was supposed to be back in June and handed off to beta folks then.

      Again, I really want them to succeed – I think it’s great. But I also see them as promising the world in a timeline they can’t deliver. If I’m wrong about the first point above, then they would have no problem showing me a functional demo. It’s only a few hour train ride/45 minute flight. I’d be happy to go over and demo it and post about it. The CEO has my cell number…

  22. Warren Jones

    I’ve always wondered why such devices never became popular. I had one at least ten years ago, but it finally broke down. It had a strap around the chest connected to the headphone by cable. You would set your desired workout range and at a desired frequency, a girls’s voice would say something like, “You’re slowing down-95,” or, “You’re working too hard-140”. To me, nothing could be better, but I guess the world disagreed, because that company is now out of business, and no one else manufactures such a product today. Why? You tell me. Come to think of it, I have more than the device I bought originally. They worked about the same way, but their quality was lacking. I think I still may have them, and I’m going to go looking for them, because I recently started hill-climbing for exercise, and they would be very useful.
    The price? Well it was a long time ago, but I’d say around $40.00.

  23. TED

    Actually there have been 3 earbuds that can track heart rate:LG HRM, SMS audio using Intel sensor,and Jabra. They will become popular soon.

  24. Eric Peeters

    Just ordered it, current delivery expected April. I am very curious about the useability in combination with iBeacon kind of products to support indoor orientation, steering and monitoring of personnel. Anyone anticipating on this or want to team up?

  25. Dan

    If these could replace the Garmin HRM and still sync with Garmin Connect with some watch app, that combo would be my ultimate “this is the future” product combo.

  26. Einundsiebzig

    Ray, have you already had a chance to get in touch with the dash?
    It is out now, and what I could read from a couple of reviews, they have to sort out a lot of problems with connectivity (bluetooth), heart rate accuracy, usb uplink speed, connectivity between both earplugs…
    Any plans to review the dash in near future?