HUMU Augmented Audio Cushion Is a Vibration Sensation

When I first saw Flexound's HUMU Augmented Audio Cushion at CES 2018 in early January, my initial reaction was "[deleted] gimmick!" But then I sat down for a demonstration followed by a long discussion with Mervi Heinaro, Flexound Systems' CEO. As you might guess, I don't normally spend much time talking with folks about gimmicky products or technologies. (I have enough crazy ideas running through my head already, thank you very much.) As it turned out, HUMU is the real deal — one of those magical products that I always hope to find at CES. A product that's simultaneously unusual, cool, compelling, and ready to ship. At least in this case, I got three out of four, because Heinaro said HUMU wasn't available in the US at that moment. She assured me, however, that Flexound could ship a sample to me by the end of January.

It didn't quite end up that way, although it wasn't the company's fault. My reply email containing my shipping address got scooped up by their spam filter and didn't get discovered until early February. (Normally I'd be suspicious about the "lost in the spam folder" excuse, but it happened with multiple other emails I'd sent around that time. Why it occurred I still haven't been able to figure out. Maybe I should stop sending out so much spam…) The short version of the story is that I received the HUMU sample a little over a week after Heinaro gave me the heads up about the email snafu.

You're probably wondering what, exactly, is an "augmented audio cushion"? It sounds like somebody shoved a speaker into a pillow and then gave it a fancy, high-tech description. (HUMU, by the way, means "humming" or "commotion" in Finnish, which is appropriate since Flexound is a tech startup based in Finland.) To further add to the cutting-edge technology vibe of HUMU, the company says it's "the first consumer product to add the sense of touch to entertainment." All of which means nothing until you actually get the chance to hear-and feel-what HUMU is and does.

The most non-tech way of describing HUMU is to say that it's a rechargeable Bluetooth speaker installed inside a cushion. Another way of putting it is that HUMU is a sophisticated near-field listening device with applications for both entertainment and health. (The foundations of the technology were initially developed for therapeutic use with disabled and autistic children.) An integral part of the speaker system inside the cushion is a pair of embedded vibrating sound boards that, according to Heinaro, produce sounds and vibrations in much the same manner as a musical instrument does. When the listener rests his/her head on the cushion, the element of vibration in this near-field listening device engages the sense of touch along with hearing and, when watching a movie, seeing: "HUMU sounds, ripples, resonates and soothes, augmenting every listening experience with feeling, touching your body and mind in unison."

You can't do much serious listening in a hectic, noisy convention hall, so I was looking forward to sitting or lying with my head on HUMU. The specs for HUMU claim a "sound and vibration frequency range from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz." It's important in this particular type of product to note the "and vibration" part of the specification. I have no good way of measuring HUMU's acoustic and vibrational output; but I can tell you that, when I listened to music or watched a movie with significant bass in the signal, I could hear and feel the mid-bass and then the lowest bass notes/effects. At no time did I sit there thinking, "I wish the bass output of this augmented audio cushion was stronger. I'm just not feeling it…"

If anything, my initial reaction — and I'm sure most folks' reaction would be, too — was surprise and, at the very beginning, a bit of annoyance. Intimate, single-person listening sessions, whether it be with headphones or desktop speakers, don't provide this kind of sensation in the low bass region of the sound output. So, for the first few minutes, it was somewhat startling when the bass kicked in and I could feel the vibrations in my neck, my head, and, to some extent, my shoulders. It didn't take long, however, for the performance of HUMU to seem smoothly integrated and very natural-although at the very loudest volume levels (definitely louder than I would normally want to listen to music or a movie) the effect did get a bit overwhelming.

Flexound says that, in addition to its entertainment uses, HUMU can also be used for personal health purposes, such as enhancing meditation or synchronizing your brain waves through the use of binaural beats or isochronal tones (if you're into those types of activities). HUMU is exceptionally adept at reproducing frequencies below 60 Hz, which is something you won't experience with headphones.

The low-frequency vibration that is the "augmented audio" part of HUMU is, of course, what makes this "cushion" unique on the market. But HUMU's performance with the mid- and high-frequency ranges was outstanding-surprisingly so, as a matter of fact. Depending on the source material, the soundstage I heard when using HUMU could be enormously wide; and the high-frequency was extremely detailed without any brittleness or harshness with music from piano or violin or brass instruments. Instead of hearing the music inside your head, as with most headphones, vocals and other instruments or effects in the center of the soundstage seemed to be coming from directly behind my head with everything else stretching out far to the sides. That rear-to-side-expanding soundstage, like the vibrational bass extension, did feel out-of-the-ordinary at first but was soon forgotten thanks to the exquisite sound quality of HUMU. If you're a fan of over-the-ear, open-back headphones — like the Sennheiser HD 660 S ($499) or HIFIMAN HE400i ($449) — the light, delicate, airy nature of the sound is very similar, with the exception of the bass sensation, of course.

In terms of build quality, HUMU is quite impressive. It's designed and constructed more like a piece of furniture than an ordinary pillow. It looks like a headrest from a luxury automobile, albeit an oversized one. In fact, I'd love to find a way to use it as a replacement for the headrest on my office desk chair. It might make the chair a little top-heavy, but I'd much rather to listen to music through HUMU than the PSB Alpha PS1 speakers on my desk — and I think the PSBs are excellent for a small set of desktop "multimedia" speakers. Because HUMU is constructed so sturdily and, perhaps, because the padding over the soundboards inside has to be thinner than a non-augmented cushion (and acoustically transparent), I found that two-and-a-half to three hours was the max listening time before I began to feel uncomfortable. That's plenty of time for a movie, but you wouldn't want to sleep on HUMU. Of course, it's not designed for that, so that's not a flaw.

I guess I should mention some of HUMU's pertinent specs:

o Rechargeable (Lithium Polymer 3.7V, 5.5 Wh battery)
o Low energy consumption: 3 hours of charging and 8 hours of usage
o Sound and vibration frequency range from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz
o Weight: 1.5 kg
o Cover material: Soft microfibre (50% polyurethane and 50% Nylon)
o Measurements: 480 mm (length) x 270 mm (width) x 145 mm (height)
o Patented Flexound Xperience technology
o Two embedded vibrating sound boards
o Connectivity: Bluetooth (4.2, A2DP audio protocol; connection distance of up to 10m) or 3.5 mm jack
o Colors: Light Grey, Dark Blue/black
o Warranty: 1 year

Although HUMU isn't available through retail distribution in the US at the moment (mostly because Flexound is still ramping up production capacity), you can order one for delivery to the US via Indiegogo InDemand for $299 (plus shipping). If you're considering just the bass performance alone, that would be an okay deal. But HUMU is so much more than that, in terms of sonic fidelity, build quality, and bass-vibration integration-and applications-that $299 is a steal of a deal. According to the Indiegogo page, the future estimated retail price will be $399. I hope HUMU gets retail distribution in the US sooner rather than later because there's nothing else quite like it available anywhere, and it needs to be experienced in order to truly understand what it's capable of.