Muse

Muse S headband sleep-tracking review: Reading brain activity to improve sleep

The Muse S brain-monitoring headband has gained comprehensive sleep tracking

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Overall Rating:
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10

The Muse S arrived earlier in 2020 as a meditation device, worn around the head and used to guide you through a range of calming audio classes while tracking brain activity.

We at GearBrain reviewed the Muse S back in January and awarded it four stars out of five. We praised its comfort, and how easy the smartphone application is to use. Now, the Muse S has been updated, via software, to also act as a sleep tracker.

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There are essentially two elements here. The first uses audio produced by the Muse smartphone app to help you relax and fall asleep. After that, the app goes quiet and the headband monitors your brain activity, movement, orientation and heartbeat constantly throughout the night, before awarding you with a score out of 100 the next morning.

Some elements here are shared by other apps and devices, but since the Muse S combines meditation, preparation for sleep, and sleep tracking itself, we wanted to give it a go.



Muse S sleep tracking review: Hardware and setup

If you are new to the Muse S, then you'll want to spend a few minutes with the tutorial stages of the companion phone app. This teaches you how the headband works and helps you position it correctly, ensuring each of the seven sensors are making good contact with your head.

The app smartly shows how well each sensor is performing and flags up any problems, which can be fixed by adjusting the headband slightly and trying again.

Muse S Muse S meditation aid and sleep trackerMuse

I was dubious about how comfortable a product like this would be, especially when asked to wear it around my head for the entire night. The answer is that, thanks to its soft fabric design, minimal weight and compact, flexible construction, it is indeed comfortable. Because the bulk of the hardware, in the form of a detachable module, sits in the middle of your forehead, you can sleep on your back or side without really knowing it's there.

The only minor distraction I encountered was how the flashing green light of the heart rate monitor can leak out slightly, illuminating nearby bedding. I was at first confused about what was causing this, but once I'd realized I was able to move a pillow to reduce the reflection.

I should also say that my first night with the Muse S didn't go as planned, as I woke up in the morning to find the headband on my bed. I must have removed it in my sleep. Thankfully this only happened once and for subsequent nights I was able to sleep without the headband being a problem.

Once the app gives you the green light to say the Muse S is positioned correctly, it's time to try out your first sleep session.

Muse S headband The Muse S senses movement, brain activityMuse

Muse S sleep tracking review: Falling asleep

There are two options here. You can either pick a guided relaxation track, where sounds of nature are joined by soothing voices. These each last in the region of 10 to 20 minutes and are narrated by a range of different male and female voices. Each needs downloading before you listen for the first time, but are included for free with your existing Muse subscription.

Described as journeys, this collection of audio tracks are best listened to using wireless earphones so you can get comfortable in bed without a cable in the way, and earphones provide a more immersive experience than using the speaker of your smartphone on the nightstand. Each relaxation track has a slider for adjusting the balance of sound between the narrator and the background sound effects.

The journeys start off a lot like guided meditation, with instructions on breathing deeply and concentrating on how your body feels laying against the bed.

The background of these journeys changes depending on your movement and heart rate. For example, in one journey the noise of crickets and a wind chime increases with your heart rate and movement, encouraging you to breathe more slowly, move less and relax. Unlike the Muse's daytime meditation sessions, there are no bird sounds as a reward for relaxing your mind. Instead the focus here is on falling asleep instead of listening out for the birds – however, Muse points can still be earned for each sleep session you complete.

If you don't want guided meditation, there are 17 so-called soundscapes to pick from instead. These have no voice, include sounds like nature with names like Mountain Wind, Sunny Meadow and Ocean Rhythm, and can be set to whatever duration you want.

Once your journey or soundscape has finished, sleep tracking begins. You don't need to do anything here, but I found it best to remove my earphones and settle down to sleep as I normally would. The Muse app stays connected to the headband over its Bluetooth connection, and begins tracking your movement, brain activity and heart rate throughout the night.

I at first found I had to adjust my usual sleep position to account for the headband, but once I had the pillows just so, it wasn't difficult to fall asleep.

My only complaint here is how the audio ends abruptly instead of fading gradually to silence. The sudden ending can come as a surprise if you are falling asleep by this point.

Muse S sleep tracking review: Sleep tracking

Sleep tracking data from the Muse S Sleep tracking data from the Muse SGearBrain

Once the audio has stopped and you have put your earphones to one side, the Muse S tracks your sleep stages (awake, REM, light and deep), brain activity, sleep position (sitting, left, back, right, front), heart rate, and stillness. Each of these metrics is plotted on a line graph against time for analysis in the morning, and all but your heart rate are given a percentage score.

Having used a variety of sleep-tracking devices over the years, including smartwatches, fitness trackers and sleep analyzers, I know I have always struggled to get enough deep sleep. The Muse S also reported this, with one night showing just nine percent deep sleep, and another reaching a slightly more respectable 18 percent.

Metrics I hadn't been able to record before using the Muse S include stillness, sleep position and mind activity. For these I could see how my mind activity shifted through numerous cycles each night, roughly in line with my sleep stages shifting from light to deep and REM.

I know I tend to keep still during sleep, and the Muse app confirmed this with a 91 percent score for stillness one night, followed by 93 percent the next.

Muse S sleep tracker The Muse S tracks sleep and movement throughout the nightMuse

It is certainly interesting to see so much data collected from a night's sleep, and I can see some users discovering useful correlation here. For example, if a smartwatch or sleep tracker had previously flagged up signs of sleep apnea (or a partner had complained about excessive snoring), the Muse S reporting hours of sleeping on one's back could explain this.

On closer analysis, there are some gaps in the data. During one night, the Muse S claims my mind showed no activity for 90 minutes from 2am, right when my heart rate was at its highest for the night. No technology like this is perfect, and I imagine that once the Muse S has been worn for many weeks or even months, a clearer picture emerges and the occasional anomaly is easier to ignore.

Verdict

As we mentioned in the earlier review of the Muse S, it is an expensive device at $350, and requires a $13 monthly subscription. So you need to think carefully about whether you will use such a device regularly to justify the investment.

That said, I've been very impressed. From the moment I was guided through the first tutorial, there is something about the Muse S that makes it feel like a quality item. The way you can control the sounds of birds by changing what you're thinking about serves as a great demonstration of how the technology works.

For sleep tracking specifically, I liked the soundscapes and journeys that help you fall asleep (apart from their abrupt endings), and the device is far more comfortable than I was expecting. Apart from the first night where I removed it in my sleep, I don't think wearing it caused my sleep to suffer at all.

Overall, the Muse S is an impressive product that has received a whole new set of features, for free, via a software update. For the same price it is now a meditation and relaxation product, as well as a highly sophisticated sleep tracker. The company also promises future updates due in early 2021 will include the option to track sleep without going through an audio session first, and for Apple Health integration too.

Pros:

  • More comfortable than you might think
  • Good range of audio options to encourage sleep
  • Broad range of data collected

Cons:

  • Expensive (but better value than before)
  • App subscription required
  • Battery requires daily charging
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