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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Bizarre Dyson Zone Pollution Mask Doubles as Headphones

No, this is not an elaborate April fool. This is the Dyson Zone, a personal air-purifying mask and noise-canceling headphone doohickey that started life well before the Covid-19 pandemic made masks mainstream. 

Available globally sometime next autumn, the Zone has taken six years to develop and represents either a bold new world of personal pollution protection or an economic and PR disaster for Dyson. Frankly, we're not sure which it will be.

What Is the Dyson Zone?

It’s a head-mounted, fan-powered, personal air purifier with over-ear headphones, obviously. On each ear a brilliantly engineered miniature fan—essentially a shrunken version of the type found on the brand's Cool and Hot range of home air purifiers—sucks in dirty air, trapping the nasty stuff in an elaborate series of filters, before squirting a smooth stream of clean air across the wearer’s mouth and nose.

The reasoning behind the Dyson Zone is a somber one. Globally, air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people every year. Data from the World Health Organization shows that 99 percent of the global population breathes air that exceeds guideline limits on pollution, with, unsurprisingly, low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures. 

According to the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, both China and India suffer from over 1.2 million air-pollution-related deaths each year, while Public Health England states that air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK, with 28,000 to 36,000 deaths a year attributed to long-term exposure. 

In short, our air quality is killing us. But if you pop on a Dyson Zone before heading outside it will filter the air to 0.1 micron particles and capture 99 percent of those 0.1 micron particles, which is as close to clean as you can get.  

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Undoing the atmospheric damage caused by centuries of unchecked industrialization was never going to be easy. Encouraging the uptake of low-emission vehicles, aggressive levies on antiquated industrial practices, investment in public transport infrastructure, citywide reengineering, and rapidly evolving tech innovation will all help, but why bother when a personal air-filtration device can keep you healthy?

Getting back to the product, the chrome-effect plastic mouthpiece sits away from your face, making it significantly more comfortable than a traditional face mask, and, fortunately, it can be pulled down quickly if you need to talk to someone. And, despite its considerable size, the whole unit is surprisingly well balanced and comfortable to wear—though we have not tried the Zone for periods longer than a few minutes.

How does it work? Two tiny precision-engineered compressors within each ear cup draw air through dual-layer filters. The negatively charged electrostatic filters capture ultrafine particles such as allergens, while a potassium-enriched carbon layer grabs gas pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and Sulfur dioxide. 

It is a typically Dysonesque feat of engineering, and the execution—if not the aesthetics—is impressive. The Zone has four air-purification settings, including Auto, which uses onboard accelerometers to judge how fast you need your clean air delivered.

It’s worth noting that, despite pumping perfectly clean air over your face, the Zone is not a replacement for a surgical face mask, but Dyson is supplying a face covering attachment (we didn’t get to see this) that forms a seal and meets FFP2 filtration standards.

As for the headphones, behind the fans and filters Dyson has squeezed a neodymium electroacoustic driver, with multilevel active noise cancellation and all the features we’ve come to expect, including mics for calling, ambient pass-through modes, and app-based EQ tweaking. 

But why combine headphones and air purification? Because those fans stuck to the side of your head are noisy, and without the ANC you’ll hear nothing but a whir in your ear. Dyson readily admits it’s a problem of its own creation, and as a result the ANC and passive noise isolation on the Zone seems (in our limited preview) impressive, and you can barely, if at all, hear the fans while wearing them. 

It’s an entirely different situation, however, for the person sitting next to you. Who cares though? This is personal protection, and to hell with the rest of the population. It’s a case of, ‘I’m all right, Jack,’ or maybe, given the chief engineer involved, that should be Jake? The Zone is Jake Dyson's baby, apparently. Jake is James Dyson’s son, and he designed the company's innovative CSYS desk lamp.

In the few minutes we had with the Dyson Zone, we could tell the headphones were well made, but the sound performance was definitely on the safe side. Neutral, if you’d prefer. The ANC didn’t seem to cloud the music like it often can, but we weren’t bowled over by the majesty of the audio. Given these headphones are designed to be your go-to commuter pair, we hoped for more—but we'll hold off judgment for a full review. They’re functional, too, and if you don’t care about sonic subtleties—and many don’t—they’ll be fine. 

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Interestingly, Dyson says it tuned the headphones using a purely data-driven set of factors—based around the Harman curve—rather than going on feel or calling on the services of an audio expert, or “golden listener” as they call it. Not asking for outside help is a classic Dyson move, but maybe having just good headphones is enough here, when their primary job is to block out the sound of the fans.

Dyson actually based the design of the Zone's headband on a horse’s saddle, with weight positioned over the sides of the head rather than on the top. It’s a neat engineering solution that could make all the difference on long journeys.

The user can remove the mouthpiece and just listen to the headphones, which is a smart move, but these cans are huge and look more like a pair of listen-at-home headphones than an everyday commuter pair. Would we buy them as headphones? No.

Who’s Going to Wear Them?

“Polarizing” is the polite word here when describing the Zone. Be honest: When you first saw the pictures above, what did you think? Our initial outward reaction was one of guarded bemusement, but inside we were astonished, and not in a good way. Six years’ development and a global pandemic, and this is the answer? It looks like chrome-effect plastic Ant Man mask. And that's the PG rating. Some people's minds may well wander toward darker territories.

But as time went on we started to wonder how often you would need to see someone wearing a Dyson Zone for it to become normal. Yes it’s big, bold, and plenty bonkers, but we’re all used to masks now, so what’s the difference? While reserved Brits and Americans might take a bit—OK, a lot—of persuasion, we can imagine the uptake in Asia to be more gung ho, especially as the air pollution is significantly worse in Beijing than in Birminghams on either side of the Atlantic.

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Remember when nobody wore ski helmets (or bike helmets for that matter)? Yet in just a few years they became ubiquitous. It doesn’t take long to change what normal looks like, but is the Dyson Zone the product to change the way we think about personal air quality? If it was built into a cycling or motorbike helmet, then sign us up, but for now we’re not quite thirsty enough to drink the Dyson Kool-Aid. 

Yes, Even the Zone Has Competition 

What’s also interesting is that Dyson described the Zone as a first-to-market product. This might have been true six years ago, but in the post-pandemic, mask-wearing world, this innovation is now far from unique. 

Will.i.am’s $300 Bluetooth-headphone-toting, fan-powered Xupermask launched—with a fair few sideways glances and the odd giggle—in April 2021; LG’s PuriCare personal air purifier was teased even earlier, at the International Franchise Association’s 2020 convention. 

Since then Respiray has launched a personal clean-air device, Atmoblue’s mask promises fresh air on demand, and Air Ring’s private atmosphere-generating, shoulder-mounted mask pumps clean air right into your face.

Yes, many of these devices will have limited releases, and some may, cynically, be little more than bandwagon-jumping pandemic marketing exercises, but Dyson is promising a global launch of the Zone, which, given its typical product launch spend, pretty much guarantees that most people in affluent society will know about it.

And let us not forget that Dyson is a brand founded on reinvention, not invention. It has transformed the vacuum cleaner, the air purifier and the hair dryer, even the wheelbarrow, and has reimagined the table lamp for the LED generation—but all of these products were well established categories before Dyson tucked into them. 

Six years ago, personal air purification wasn’t a thing, but Dyson saw a gap in the market and went all in. It isn’t, and never was, designed to protect from disease, but can you imagine the Dyson Zone existing in a world that hasn’t been through a global airborne pandemic? 

Health for Wealth?

Despite a frankly startling design that can at best be described as “polarizing,” the apparent lack of established audio know-how, and, by Dyson's own admission, no consumer-focus-group testing on the product whatsoever (in other words, Dyson doesn't know people want the Zone, it just assumes they do), we have another fundamental issue with these health-tech headphones: their price.

Dyson has refused point blank to talk pricing on the Zone. We have no idea what a pair will cost. But considering the years of development, the complex mechanics, the patents developed, and the sheer cost of making something in a completely new category, these will not be cheap. If you balk at spending $350 on some Sony WH-1000XM4s, then these will surely be more expensive. They will likely cost more than the $550 AirPods Max, too. 

In short, the goal here of providing portable clean air for us to breathe as we callously continue to pollute our planet is laudable. But the Zone looks very much like it's clean air for the rich, for the comfortable, for those who likely have access to preferable environmental conditions already. And that's a thought almost as uncomfortable as looking in the mirror wearing these headphones.


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