This spring Dyson launched the Zone, which pairs noise-canceling headphones with an air-purifying visor. It was swiftly met with backlash for its funky, bane-like aesthetic. Oh, and it's $949 price tag. What no one could have predicted is that, just a few months after Zone launched, a massive Canadian wildfire would billow enough smoke across the East Coast to turn New York City’s skyline into a surreal orange nightmare. The “orange scare” was a freakishly timely event that drew attention to the climate crisis. This, in tandem with the World Health Organization's (WHO), estimates that 9 in 10 people around the world are breathing in air that exceeds pollutant limits, should be enough to scare anyone – especially considering how quickly urbanization is growing, exacerbating those problems. Suddenly AQI entered everyone’s vocabulary and probably more than a few people started giving the Dyson Zone another look.
Dyson’s reputation as a maker of household air purifiers gives the company solid ground to build on; it’s just making the tech wearable. The company claims that the Zone’s two-stage, sealed filtration system can remove 99 percent of ultrafine particles and “city fumes.” Dyson’s engineering lead Vicky Gibson-Robinson told Engadget that the Zone uses an electrostatic filter to capture particulates as small as 0.1 microns. That, paired with an activated carbon filter that she claims can absorb fumes and gasses such as nitrogen dioxide (the main pollutant emitted by cars, trucks, and buses), is the bread and butter of the filter. Keep in mind, though, that the Zone will require electrostatic filter replacements, anywhere from every six to 12 months depending on the dirtiness of the city you are based in. The carbon filter, on the other hand, Dyson engineers said will not need to be replaced as often and should only be swapped out when “it starts smelling.”
The Zone has three air flow rates based on your level of activity: rest (level one), light (level two), and moderate (level three). Gibson-Robinson says the best way to get the most out of the Zone is by setting it to auto mode to preserve battery life (a big point of contention which we will get to later). “If you put it in auto mode, it will just ramp up and ramp down as it needs to,” she said, meaning the Zone is smart enough to know when to increase the filtration rate depending on the wearer’s movement and breathing rate. The more you strain and move, the more inhaling and exhaling, and the more filtration is needed.
Gibson-Robinson says that all the claims made about the Dyson Zone, such as its ability to remove fine particles like PM2.5 that can enter your respiratory tract, were made via testing each part of the filtration system individually. Meaning, the electrostatic filter, the activated carbon filter, and the impeller fan were tested alone. Gibson-Robinson claims that since we were not planning to disassemble the device during our tests, we might find that the Zone's ability to filter pollutants would be even greater than claimed.
Engadget picked three locations to test how well the Zone performed, including a clean lab as a control, and a subway station in New York City, followed by a busy intersection. We reached out to experts at NYU's Grossman School of Medicine who work in partnership with the University’s Langone’s Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards to help us test the Dyson Zone's filtration system.
"The subway is a good substitute for a worst-case scenario," said Terry Gordon, NYU Professor at the Grossman School of Medicine, who helped Engadget run these tests. Gordon, who has researched the underground transit systems and its health effects on commuters, says that in a scenario where an air quality emergency is not taking place, the air quality inside a subway station is comparable. Meaning, how well the Zone does in the subway station would be a good indicator of how well it would perform during another acute air pollution crisis.
Once we agreed on a mission, our aim was simple: test how well the Zone removed pollutants from the air surrounding a wearer’s breathing zone, no pun intended. We primarily used two lab-grade devices: a portable particulate monitor and a particulate counter. The portable particulate monitor gave us real-time measurements of PM10 and PM2.5 particulates in the air, which are the two main types of pollutants scientists care about and differentiate based on size. Meanwhile, a particulate counter is used to measure the concentration of pollutants left in the air. In an ideal world, we would have liked to test the Zone's ability to filter out volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or toxic chemicals that come from home products and natural sources like benzene, formaldehyde or acetone, but these compounds were not easily detectable in the city streets or on the subway by our handheld VOC detector. This made sense since the subway tract is mostly run on electricity, not coal or gas.
For each test, we collected data while the Dyson Zone's visor blew air in my face, instead of a dummy head. We did it this way for two reasons. For one, the lab-grade dummy head was not always detected by the Zone, so the filter would not run properly. Also, this allowed me to include real-world user experience in our assessment.
So first, in the NYU lab, while the visor blew fresh air into my face, Gordon's Ph.D. students David Luglio and Antonio Saporito held clear tubes connected to both the portable particulate monitor and the particulate counter in the path of the airflow. This happened in the small cramped space between the plastic visor and my lips. By doing this, we were able to gauge how the numbers recorded on the devices changed when the filter was turned on and off. Because it was a clean lab, the air quality was already pretty good. When we turned on the filter to rate three, the volume of PMs measured by the monitor dropped to zero. No surprise there.
We applied the same method on the 14th Street-1st Avenue subway platform in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which is often flooded with college students taking the L train into Brooklyn. Using the particulate monitor and the particulate counter, we recounted how the filter did before and after being turned on. The results clearly demonstrated the Zone's effectiveness. The ambient particle monitor went from giving a reading of 200 micrograms of particle matter per cubic meter of air before it dropped close to 50. This meant the air quality went from dangerous to normal with the Zone running a level three.
Meanwhile, the particle counter went from measuring 20,000 particulates per cubic centimeter to under 1,000 at the level three. So instead of all those fine particles going up into my respiratory tract, they were wafted away through the filtration system.
NYU doctoral student David Luglio, whose thesis work has primarily focused on the health effects of long-term exposure to subway air quality in large metropolitan areas in cities like New York and D.C., was shocked by how well the Zone filtered the subway air. "Air quality in the subways in general, wildfire or not, is probably one of the worst environments to be in in New York City because concentrations are typically at least 100 micrograms per cubic meter, and outside on a typical day it is only 10 or less."
In our final test, we used the same method on the busy street corner right across from the subway station. Again, the Zone did its thing. Readings from the two live monitors spiked and dropped again-proving that the Zone actually worked.
"It's Dyson and Dyson knows particles and filtrations, that's what they're famous for," Gordon said. The Dyson Zone proved it can remove ambient particles from the surrounding air, he continued. Those particles "are the main contributor to the adverse health effects of air pollution-more so than ozone, NO2, SO2," and ultimately wearing a device like the Zone will protect your lungs and your heart from the adverse health effects of long-term air pollution.
This is all great in theory. However, there almost always has to be a catch with experimental devices that explore new categories like the Zone does: the battery life. Unfortunately, while testing, the Zone would only last about an hour and a half. We had to keep a charger handy in case it decided to shut off. This, coupled with the fact that we weren't even using the audio feature while testing, told me that the device is still a long way from being practical for everyday use. Dyson is fully aware of this issue. "Although the audio system and the airflow system are two separate systems, they're sharing the battery," Gibson-Robinson said.
You only have to look at what Dyson has done with the vacuum cleaners, Gibson-Robinson explained. To draw a comparison, Gibson-Robinson brought up her first handheld vacuum. "[It] had a runtime of something like nine minutes, 15 minutes, something like that and now my newest one, which I got the other week, actually blew my mind. It's like 60 minutes of runtime," she continued.
It took the company a decade to make that leap. While Dyson's capacity to boost battery life in its handheld vacuums could be a good indicator that there are loads of gains to be made for the Zone, it’s nearly impossible to justify the $949 asking price. That, coupled with the fact that the climate crisis is worsening day by day, some consumers (myself included) might not be willing to wait for Dyson.
Still, Gibson-Robinson says the compromise on battery life "felt adequate" in order to offer a device that could double as a headphone and a filter. "We've obviously had to balance between because the batteries are housed in that headband... and we've had to balance comfort and weight with battery life and performance," she said. But ultimately, "It's engineered and designed to be worn primarily as a pair of headphones and then secondary, which pains me to say because I did all the filtration stuff, the secondary function is that it's a purifier," she added.
Besides the disappointing battery life, I wasn't a fan of the plastic visor itself. Although Dyson claims it's super durable (Gibson-Robinson even dropped the visor from a balcony once out of curiosity), the detachable plastic felt like an awkward appendage at times. You can pull the visor down to sit below your chin while you're wearing the headphones if you don't want to run the filter all the time. You can also flick it back up and have your face covered in a second if you are ready to turn on the filtration mode. But something about it hanging beneath my chin when the filter was off felt kind of gross after a while.
If you’re a germaphobe like me, there's plenty of reason to worry about something being so close to your face all the time. For one, it bumps into your face when you put it on in a rush and do not adjust it properly. It also comes off pretty easily, making it easy to drop on, say, a gross subway station floor. On the plus side, although the material feels cheap and flimsy, it’s at least easy to clean since it’s removable and wipeable.
Still, there's a heaviness to the device overall. I don't feel like I can just brandish the headphones around my neck, especially with the visor up. Not only is it uncomfortable after a few hours of wear, but it’s sure to attract attention, which isn’t ideal when I just want to feel invisible on my commute home.
If I were really concerned with my respiratory health and wanted to limit my daily exposure to pollutants, I would choose something more practical and affordable. Is it nice to know the Zone does in fact work? Sure, but why would I drop $949 on this when I already have a pair of good noise-canceling headphones, and cheaper filtration alternatives exist. Besides the standard K-95 mask, a chemical respirator with filters used in construction and for painting, there are portable HEPA filters you can buy off of Amazon for under $50 bucks. They run for about 200 to 500 hours and have a filtration efficiency of 99.7%. It basically provides what the Zone offers in its level one filtration mode, but at a fraction of the cost and without any of the battery limitations.