Review

Good vibrations: feel every beat with the Flexound Humu Smart Cushion

One item the world is not short of is Bluetooth speakers. They’re everywhere, in all shapes, sizes, colours and materials. If you’re planning to enter this market, you’d better have a solid and compelling unique selling point (your product’s USP) to stand any chance of rising above the morass of cheap-as-chips plastic Chinese imports.

Finnish company Flexound has come up with a fresh approach to all of the above: the Humu Smart Cushion, which features integrated speakers inside a pillow-soft foam interior and fabric outer wrapping and that can connect to any audio device either via Bluetooth or a 3.5mm auxiliary cable. A singing pillow, then? Sounds intriguing.

As it turns out, Humu is more than just a comfy cushion with a couple of speakers sewn inside. Where traditional loudspeakers vibrate soundwaves through the air, to be received by your ears, Humu vibrates sound through its proprietary Flexound Xperience module and patented EVE (Elastic Vibrating Element), vibrating the sound into its foam interior and from there into your body, providing a unique listening experience.

Humu apparently means “humming” or “commotion” in Finnish. It is also, helpfully, a contraction of “human music”. In a funny way, the sensation of lying on Humu whilst listening to any bass-heavy music covers all three definitions. You hear it and feel it – both in a very pleasing way.

Flexound’s story began in Finland, in a therapeutic space with Jukka Linjama, a PhD in acoustics, a violinist and inventor to-be. Linjama’s wife is an occupational therapist working with disabled and autistic children and he had the idea of creating a device that would assist his wife in her work and be of benefit to the children. Linjama invented what eventually became the Taikofon FeelSound Player, Flexound’s first product and one intended for therapeutic use. The step from there to developing Humu as a consumer device, building on the sensory appeal of physically feeling the music for entertainment and relaxation, was a natural one.

Humu was designed by Pasi Pennanen, an acclaimed industrial designer and the winner of the 2016 Ornamo Design award for his work on the Toroidion 1MW concept electric supercar. He had previously worked with brands such as Jaguar, Honda and Zagato Centrostile. Pasi describes Humu as “form and functionality meeting ergonomics in a vibrant acoustic experience”.

Currently nearing the end of a successful Indiegogo campaign (with over 90 per cent of funding goal reached at time of writing), Humu is clearly capturing the imagination of anyone who hears about it.

Having a simple feature set allied to a unique listening proposition, Humu is suitable for all people, from the sofa-surfing box-set binger, to the teenage gamer, the streaming millenial hipster, the meditating mum or the old movie-loving silver-haired fox – anyone who wants to relax in comfort and immerse themselves in good-quality sound.   

The speaker can be connected to virtually any audio source, either via Bluetooth or using a 3.5mm stereo cable connected to the jack socket. This is located – along with the on/off button and charging slot – behind the clever magnetised fabric-matching flap at one end, so all the sockets and ports remain well hidden when not required. That’s a nice touch. At the other end of the cushion is a fabric carrying handle, so it’s no problem moving it from room to room – another nice idea.

Naturally, Bluetooth is the neatest option for playback, as there are no cables for you (and your clothes and hair) to get tangled up in every time you adjust your position on the cushion. We tried it both ways: the auxiliary cable is fine and delivers the best audio results, while a cable-free Bluetooth connection has that wire-less advantage.

There are no status lights or anything extraneous on the cushion – from the outside, for all intents and purposes, it looks sort-of like a yoga accessory. Turning it on generates a short two-note chime and a welcoming vibration, so you know all is well, and turning it off does the same in reverse.

There is no control app to install on your smartphone or device. All volume control, content selection and navigation is done from the audio source device, whatever that may be – smartphone, tablet, TV, games console, hi-fi etc. The caveat here is that with no dedicated volume control on Humu itself, when using a wired connection the volume relies on the output power of your device. We found we had to crank our iPhone 7 up to full volume when wired, whereas with a Bluetooth connection dialling it up halfway was more than enough. 

The rechargeable battery inside Humu seems to last for hours of continuous play – the company says eight hours and it was a full working day in our experience. If you’re not listening to it constantly, say a couple of hours at a time, the battery lasts for days before it needs recharging. You can also use the pillow while it charges, with approximately four hours being necessary for a depleted battery to be fully recharged.

The feelsound technology used in Humu combines high-quality sound reproduction and physical distributed vibrations, letting users hear and feel sound simultaneously. This soft, near-field listening experience minimises any disturbance to other people in the vicinity of the device, even when listening to bass-heavy frequencies.

Humu covers the frequency range from 20Hz to 20kHz with a single element, with the vibrating sensations naturally felt most at lower frequencies. Middle and high frequencies create a unique soundscape, one that the company calls the “Humu sound island or sound bubble.”

It certainly is a curious, but very cool, phenomenon, how the music sounds good and loud, and the vibrations strong, when you have your head on the Humu cushion or pressed against your body, but stepping away just a few feet the perceived volume decreases rapidly.

This doesn't mean it isn’t loud enough to share or to fill a small room – it is. Granted, Humu is not a party speaker, designed to pump out maximum wattage over the chatter of 100 excited guests. Humu is intended as a more personal audio device – like headphones, only without that “closed off from the world” feeling. In a standard living room get-together or for a dinner party, with just a few friends round talking and laughing, Humu works perfectly well as an audio playback device for your evening’s soundtrack. Humu isn’t waterproof, though, so it’s not one for pool parties (although what did you expect with leather and suede covers?).

We had the grey artificial suede model on test and it looks and feels good when we hold it and when it’s supporting the neck. The outer suede is soft and tactile and the memory foam inside remains comfortable over long listening periods.

It is slightly strange to roll on to your side and have one ear pressed against Humu, with your other ear obviously no longer receiving the same intensity of sound. Humu is definitely best enjoyed lying on your back, with the cushion behind the neck. This is the most comfortable position and also the best sound experience.

Other pleasurable uses for Humu that we found included resting our feet on it, placing it in the small of our back on a sofa and hugging it to our chest. For total sensory immersion in the aural moment, it’s also fun to lie face down on the pillow, so all you get is sound and vibrations – no sights to distract you!     

We really enjoyed our time with Humu. It’s a great idea, executed well. It takes a simple concept – good-quality near-field sound, without the need for headphones, with added physical immersion and interaction – and delivers on its promise. It’s not every gadget you can say that for.

It’s probably something that you never thought necessary or desirable, but once you’ve tried it, a speaker you can comfortably lie on for hours on end seems like an attractive option. It’s not a loudspeaker for every occasion, but when that occasion does hit you, Humu is the only game in town. This could be the start of something big – and soft.

https://flexound.com/

Q&A with Mervi Heinaro, CEO of Flexound

Where did the inspiration for Humu come from?

Therapists have used music, vibration and sound separately in their work with different customer groups. Occupational therapist Mirja Linjama, who has been working with autistic and disabled children for over 25 years, discussed with her colleagues that it would be great to have a therapy tool that combined unlimited sound content and vibration. At home, she then asked her husband, Jukka, who is PhD in acoustics, to create that kind of device for her.  

After many phases, prototypes and thorough testing, Taikofon FeelSound Player was born and it has been used for various therapy purposes since 2015. As the core technology is novel, we have received a patent for it and have several further patents pending internationally.

We also realized that the developed technology is very much suitable for entertainment and wellness, so we decided to make a product that serves the needs of those segments too. This is how Flexound Humu Smart Cushion came to be.

What have been the technological and engineering design and build challenges you’ve had to overcome?

Humu was designed together with the award-winning Finnish designer Pasi Pennanen. We say that creating Humu is similar to crafting an instrument. The challenges have been many, but to pick one, we could mention choosing the right materials. The cover material is very important for the user experience (softness vs looks vs durability) and of course for how the vibration and sound can be sensed through them. We are quite happy with the result.

What kind of uses do you imagine for Humu?

Humu enhances all audio or audio visual entertainment there is.  One can enjoy films, music, games, Skype-ing - there is no limitation. Humu and the sophisticated feeling of the sound adds a new dimension to the experience. You can enjoy your favorite content with one added sense, the sense of touch. People who want to get even more out of their film, favourite music, or a game, get the additional kick they need with Flexound Humu.

Humu does however not fail to attract people who wish to enjoy relaxing music, sounds of nature or just ambient music. Humu offers an easy and very efficient way to relax and it is a great companion to mindfulness or meditation. Music works like a miracle medicine and when you add the feeling of the sound, that is a very pleasant and relaxing experience.
 
As Humu is very easy to use, customers can be from any age groups. Kids just love it with any content and elderly people enjoy e.g. audio books or radio.

What other products might Humu inspire for you?


Our patented Flexound® Xperience technology can be integrated into different seats: in cars, movie theatres, gaming chairs or in almost every soft item that comes into body contact. We are licensing the technology to other companies so they can add the sense of touch to their own products and turn them into multisensory audio heavens.

Technical specification

Physical dimensions: 480 mm x 270 mm x 145 mm; Weight: 1.5 kg
Battery: Lithium Polymer 3.7 V, 5.5 Wh; up to 8 hours
Bluetooth: 4.2, A2DP audio protocol; connection distance of 10m
AUX: 3.5 mm socket for stereo line in
Operation ambient temperature: 0 °C to 35 °C, non-condensing
Certificates: CCC, CE and FCC
In the box:
1 pcs Flexound HUMU Smart Cushion SC200
1 pcs USB charging cable
1 pcs user manual

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