There comes a point in many relationships where one just has to say, “Honey, you know I love you. But you snore like a warthog.”

So how much would you pay to mute the beast in your bed?

For the past week, I’ve been testing a new gadget from Bose, a company best known for noise-cancelling headphones. Its Sleepbuds explore the new frontier of snore-cancelling.

Wait, they can do that? Yes, these tiny wireless headphones can at least mask nocturnal nuisances, including snoring, barking dogs and garbage trucks. But a pair of Sleepbuds will cost you $250, require you to wear buds inside your ears all night long — and might not work for everyone. They only partly worked for me.

Medical and quasi-medical “wellness” devices have long promised to abate snoring, including face masks and mechanical pillows. Now sleep tech is booming like fitness tech did a few years ago, and Bose is the biggest name yet to try to get into your bed. It’s not hard to see why: a 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll found that 60 per cent of US adults experienced at least one kind of sleep problem every night or almost every night.

But the science of sleep, like fitness, is as clear as mud. Dr David Claman, the head of the Sleep Disorders Centre at the University of California at San Francisco, tells me patients lose sleep for reasons ranging from stress to environmental factors, including distraction by glowing smartphones, temperature and, yes, noise. There’s little data on the most effective remedies for noise, he says.

I take Bose’s push into sleep seriously because it has a history of engineering rigor and because noise is arguably one of the hardest environmental sleep challenges to fix. Bose’s work on Sleepbuds included a pilot last year on Indiegogo, after which it tweaked its design and sent all those beta testers replacement ear buds. The final version has been available in stores since late June.

So in the interest of science, I set up a dreadful experiment on myself. Next to my bed, I played an eight-hour recording of someone snoring like a runaway freight train, while I wore the Sleepbuds to see whether I could still catch some Z’s. Gadget reviewing isn’t as glamorous as it appears.

Noise masking

Before we get to the results, a word about how the Sleepbuds work. They don’t use the active noise-cancelling tech that Bose is famous for. There’s no microphone or processor to wipe out background noise, like the Bose QC35 headphones you see on planes.

Bose wellness category director Brian Mulcahey says the company didn’t use its most well-known tech in the Sleepbuds because to be effective in bed, they needed to be small enough to wear while sleeping (they weigh 1.4 grams, according to a press release) and efficient enough to run all night (up to 16 hours). Night-time distractions are also a different sonic beast than the steady hum of an airplane — and noise cancellation tech wouldn’t have been enough, Mulcahey says.

Instead, the Sleepbuds use noise-masking tech. That starts with buds that seal off your ear canals like earplugs. Then the Sleepbuds play additional monotonous sounds that are supposed to make your brain stop paying attention.

When you’re ready for bed, you put the Sleepbuds in your ears and then choose one of 10 themed “sleep tracks” on an accompanying smartphone app. You can also set an alarm to wake you in the morning through the buds.

The Sleepbuds charge in a battery-equipped case, which looks neat, but I had some trouble using. When you place the buds back in, you have to line them up at just the right spot — and if you don’t, they won’t turn off.

The biggest hurdle: you have to wear these things while you sleep. For a gadget that goes inside your ear, the Sleepbuds are remarkably comfortable. They feel snug without putting pressure on your ear, and are set in enough that you sleep on your side. But despite these smart design choices, we’re still talking about a gadget that lives, literally, inside your head.

Will they work for you?

So back to my test. Yes, the Sleepbuds did sufficiently mask the sound of the snoring for both me and my partner. But that doesn’t mean either of us got great sleep.

My brain was perturbed just enough by the sound of my own breathing that I couldn’t get into deep sleep.

I had the same problem when I tried wearing the Sleepbuds without the snore track playing in the bedroom. Even after a few days, it was hard for me to just forget the Sleepbuds were there.

Bose says I might eventually get used to wearing them. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a sleep-medicine doctor and neurologist who consulted with Bose on developing Sleepbuds, says many learn to sleep with earplugs.

So should you buy a pair? $250 is a lot for ear buds that can’t even play music — but it’s also cheaper than marriage counselling. The thing about sleep is that we’re all different. If noise is your main problem, you might have a great experience with the Sleepbuds — there just isn’t much evidence yet.

The Washington Post Service

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 30th, 2018

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