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(Human Photo)

Update, Aug. 21: Human announced a “special introductory price” of $259 for its headphones, one day after launch.

After nearly five years of development, Seattle technology startup Human is releasing its long-awaited $399 wireless headphones, promising premium audio quality, 32-point touch control, seamless integration of digital assistants, real-time language translation, a 9-hour battery life, and 100-foot wireless range. They even become a bluetooth speaker when attached to each other.

But the first thing everyone notices is the design.

The unique form factor features two completely wireless cups designed to wrap snugly around individual ears. Whether or not you’re a fan of the look, there’s no disputing that they stand out in a field of existing competitors that ranges from Apple’s popular AirPods to traditional wireless headphones from Bose and others.

“This is a market that is just smothered with nothing really that different,” said Human co-founder and inventor Ben Willis. “Everything looks the same.”

That is most definitely not the case with the Human headphones, as we discovered in more than a week of testing them out in the office and around the city.

Human CEO Bill Moore; Human co-founder Ben Willis; and Human CMO Ann White. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

When we first wore them in the GeekWire newsroom, several colleagues snickered and said they thought the headphones looked ridiculous. But jaded journalists are one thing, and the buying public is another.

A quick Twitter poll suggested that many people wouldn’t wear the headphones, at least based on images of them.

But there’s nothing like actually trying the devices in person. So we hit the streets of Seattle to do our own market research. The general consensus from our small sample set: most people thought the design was cool. A few said the headphones looked like earmuffs. Some had problems getting them to fit securely, at least initially. Most thought the audio sounded nice.

“I thought it was the case, but saw it on your ear and realized it’s actually the headphone,” said one person we spoke with.

Bill Moore, CEO of Human who joined the company in 2016 after a stint leading RootMetrics, said he and his colleagues conducted consumer polling on the design, and the results “came out overwhelmingly positive” with little pushback on the aesthetics. The design will accommodate 90 percent of ear shapes, the company said.

“It’s almost shocking to see the difference of the footprint, the sleekness, the curves that we tried to put into this product,” Willis said when comparing Human’s product to traditional over-the-ear headphones. “And we think that that is going to be something that warms up very quickly in the market.”

But everybody we spoke with (in our admittedly limited sample size) balked at the $400 price tag. At that price, Human will be going head-to-head against similarly priced over-the-ear headphones from established brands such as Bose and Beats, and less-expensive alternatives such as Apple’s popular $159 AirPods.

In our usage over the past week, we were able to get the headphones to fit snugly, for the most part, after some practice putting them on using the unique hinged design that secures and stabilizes them behind the ear. They felt a bit wobbly when running and exercising, making us feel as if they might fall off, but they never actually did.

The sound quality was impressive; the touch controls came in handy; and the translation feature that works with an accompanying app (iOS/Android) was certainly cool, allowing a user to say something in one of 11 languages and hear it immediately in another. There’s also a neat “blend” feature that increases the sound of the outside environment, letting a user keep the headphones on throughout the day.

“We built this to be a headphone that really adapts to your daily life in a way that no other headphones do, from your morning commute, to when you’re at work in open office environments, to when you go to the gym, to when you go home and you stream on Netflix or HBO,” Willis said. “Headphones are used completely differently than they were five or 10 years ago.”

There is a ton of technology packed into the product, such as the six microphones that triangulate voice capture. Human has invested heavily to maintain top audio quality in a lightweight hybrid design. But the cost could be too steep for consumers looking to buy a nice pair of wireless headphones.

(Human Photo)

Human is hoping to ride the wave of wireless headphones, spurred on by Apple’s popular AirPods in a market expected to reach $15 billion by 2024, along with the proliferation of voice technology.

The company has raised more than $26 million from investors, including Microsoft, which inked a strategic partnership with Human that gives the startup access to translation services built by the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant. Other backers include Sage Venture Partners, Sugar Mountain Capital, Darling Ventures, and Ropart Asset Management II.

Human also raised more than $500,000 from an Indiegogo campaign in October 2016.

Willis previously sold two startups before launching Human. (His co-founder Joe Dieter no longer does full-time work with the company, and execs including Paul Cole and Mark Kroese have left in recent months.)

There are 40 employees at Human. Other company leaders include Ann White, chief marketing officer, who previously led device marketing and design for Amazon and spent more than six years at Microsoft prior to that; CFO Ron Stevens, formerly a financial exec at RootMetrics and Haggen; Eliza Arango-Vargas, vice president of engineering who spent eight years at Microsoft working on products including Zune; and Jim Holt, executive director of firmware and software who previously worked at Microsoft and Intellectual Ventures.

GeekWire reporter Kurt Schlosser contributed to this story.

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