Dyson Zone hands-on: We tried Dyson’s new air purifying headphones
Dyson's newest device combines a powerful air purifier and ANC headphones into a single, remarkable headset.
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Dyson, the stylish appliance-maker known for powerful statement-piece vacuums and TikTok-coveted hair straighteners, wants to help you keep car exhaust out of your lungs on your morning commute. Its newest product, the Dyson Zone, is a personal air- and noise-pollution purifier—a strange-looking headpiece to keep smog out of your lungs and traffic out of your ears. The air purifier pulls air through its filter and then blows it directly into your nose and mouth, ensuring that what you breathe lacks the particles and gasses from car emissions and other pollutants. Meanwhile, it also acts as a set of Bluetooth active noise-canceling headphones to keep crowd noise and, again, excess noise from nearby cars, from impacting your hearing.
The Zone is, in many respects, a first for Dyson. It is the company’s first wearable product. It is also the company’s first product primarily made for outdoor use. The motors, which you can see running in the center of each ear cup, are the smallest that Dyson’s ever produced. Though the device seems quite large compared to an average pair of Bluetooth headphones, every millimeter of the device is packed to the gills with tech. Personal air purifiers and noise-canceling headphones already abound. Like everything Dyson makes, though, the Zone’s unique design is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
A personal air ‘bubble’
The Dyson Zone’s air purification system reminds me of science fiction “rebreathers” that allow characters to breathe in space or underwater without bulky helmets. Motorized fans pull air into the headphone ear cups and through a pair of custom-made dual-layer filters, then push the clean air through the plastic tunnel in front of your face called a visor and out into your nose and mouth. According to Dyson, the quick, continuous stream of air flowing directly from the filter into your body creates a “bubble,” ensuring that you breathe the purified air without it dispersing as it leaves the headset. Dyson engineers have taken measures to direct the air as much as possible—the air exit hole on the visor features rubber flaps that prevent it from dispersing too fast, for example. Still, the Zone effectively cleans your air and pumps it directly into your body without actually covering or even touching your nose and mouth.
Dyson created a replaceable dual-layer filter for the Zone, which it claims can filter out 99 percent of particulate matter at .1 microns or larger, which covers pollutants you might not be aware of like particulate matter created every time a car hits its brakes and the pads rub against the rotors. Assuming that’s accurate, it provides the same level of filtration as Dyson’s waist-height home air purifiers. The compact, donut-shaped filters feature two layers of material to capture pollutants: a HEPA-style filter to grab particulate matter and a carbon filter enriched with potassium to absorb harmful gasses, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and Ozone (O3).
According to Dyson Engineering Manager Vicky Gibson-Robinson, creating an effective filter in such a compact form factor required a new design that purifies air differently than Dyson’s home purifiers. In order to compensate for the small filter size, which restricts air flow, the filter features an electrostatic charge that pulls particles out of the air as it passes through the more breathable filter material.
The Zone protects against pollution, not necessarily COVID
At a glance, you might assume that the Zone, like the Razer Zephyr and the recent wave in UV cleaning devices, is a reaction to COVID-19. That’s a totally reasonable response, but one that Dyson would like to put out of your mind. The device was conceived with an eye toward providing protection against environmental pollutants—particularly in urban centers where cars and industrial pollution are hard to avoid. In fact, the development team has spent more than five years working on the Zone. The project began well before the pandemic led to mainstream masking initiatives.
More importantly, the Zone does not prevent the spread of COVID. While its filtration is akin to an N95 mask on paper, it is not rated for medical-grade respiration. More importantly, the headset doesn’t cover your mouth, so it can’t suppress the particles in your breath from spreading to others.
That said, the Zone development team did react to the rise of wearing masks as a reaction to COVID. It comes with a mask attachment, allowing you to take extra precautions and comply with masking laws. Still, Dyson is going against the grain by not marketing the Zone as an anti-COVID precaution and drawing firm lines between what the headset can and cannot do.
What about the ‘noise pollution’ part?
The Zone’s air filtration system is what makes the device fascinating, but Dyson bills the Zone as a solution for air and noise pollution. Its protection against noise pollution is more conventional. In addition to the motors and filters, it is a fully functional pair of Bluetooth headphones with active noise cancellation. That means it can connect to your phone–yes, there is an app–play music, make calls, and do anything else that one of the best Bluetooth headphones can. The front-facing visor, which pumps air into your mouth, is removable, so you can choose to use the Zone purely for its noise-canceling properties.
Like most ANC headphones, it offers a fair amount of passive protection simply by covering a listener’s ears. The active noise cancellation relies on a microphone array that listens to incoming noise and allows the headset to first analyze then partially negate it. As you might expect, the Zone is very large compared to other headphones, which might be annoying for off-head portability, but works in its favor as a means of keeping sound out.
While its functionality is fairly conventional, the design needed to make the headset work as everyday-carry speakers and an air purifier lead to some interesting design challenges. First and foremost: The motors that power the filtration system reside in the earcups, less than an inch away from the headphone speakers and your ears. Motors, as you may know, tend to get noisy and vibrate: Noticing the motors in any way would basically kill the whole design, right? To keep the motors from ruining the wearer’s day, they are mounted with rubber, which absorbs the vibration and much of the noise.
What’s it like wearing the Dyson Zone?
Dyson asked to meet with PopSci in early March to show off the Zone and explain its design to us. They also let us try it on and walk around a bit. (Sadly, we were not allowed to take any selfies.)
Despite its hefty appearance, the Zone actually felt fairly light on-head during the few minutes I wore it. Using three pads to distribute its weight across your head, it felt balanced without pulling my head forward or to the sides. That doesn’t negate its size—you will never forget that you are wearing a piece of headgear—but I expect that it should be comfortable to wear long-term, throughout the day.
The Zone filtration system features three breathing modes, which pump more or less air depending on your preference or environment. At “low,” you barely notice the air shooting at your face. At “mid,” it felt like a gentle breeze. At “high,” the air flow was very noticeable, to the point where some might find it distracting. In all three settings, the flow is comfortably soft. Since no portion of the breathing apparatus touches your face. Your breathing intake never feels suppressed, as it can with a mask. The Zone does feature an “auto” setting that will change the setting as needed but, obviously, you can adjust it using onboard controls or the Dyson Zone app.
As a pair of headphones, the Zone seemed solid. I only listened to a few clips of songs for maybe a minute of total airtime, but the sound quality seemed on par with a good pair of Bluetooth headphones. Sound quality is probably a secondary concern to most people interested in wearing a large air purifier on their head, but a crackly sound might break the experience. Crucially, though, you could not hear the dull hum of the motor with active noise-canceling and/or music turned on.
I have to admit, it’s a bit jarring when you first put the full headset on. The front visor is large enough that it’s in your field of vision when you glance down. In the mirror, it kind of looks like the bones of an astronaut’s helmet, since there’s a large curved piece of plastic in front of your face and an outsized set of cans on your head. In a world where a large number of people got used to wearing masks when leaving the house, however, I’m confident that most people would take to it quickly.
As I mentioned before, the front visor is also detachable. By gently pulling it down, you can simply remove it at any time. When you do, the Zone automatically cuts filtration so it doesn’t run unnecessarily and it’ll kick back on when you reattach. The only instance I can think of for removing the visor without taking off the headphone would be working out—in theory, the Zone should supply enough air for you to jog while wearing it at high output—but Dyson said it isn’t made for exercise. (That said, I imagine you might want to wear earbuds or at least a smaller pair of cans at the gym?)
Final thoughts on the Dyson Zone
I am not an engineer but, at a glance, the Dyson Zone looks like a systematic marvel. It does things I wouldn’t have thought possible—cleaning the air you breathe without sealing out the unfiltered air around you—in a remarkably efficient and compact design.
The question of whether or not it will appeal to people broadly, as it isn’t medically minded, still feels very up in the air to me. While Dyson makes a very convincing case for getting city dwellers and suburbanites to wear a device like this and protect their lungs … well, it’s a large honking headset and will definitely draw some eyeballs when you wear it in public.
There are also some questions in the air about the device and its design. According to Dyson, you will need to replace the Zone’s custom filters about once a year, assuming you use it for about six hours a day. We have no idea how much those filters will cost, though, or if they’ll be readily available (a key point of concern in these supply-constrained times). Dyson was also very vague about the Zone’s battery life, though they suggested it should last “all day” even when using air filtration and sound.
Dyson hasn’t revealed a price for the headset yet, but my assumption is that it will be prohibitively expensive for many compared to regularly buying N95 masks. That said, it may not need to see wide adoption to trigger a wider interest in personal air purification as protection against long-term environmental factors.
When can I get a Dyson Zone?
The Dyson Zone will launch in select countries in fall 2022. Dyson said it plans to reveal more details about the launch, including the price of the headset and replacement filters, “in the coming months.”