Australian startup Nura hopes to disrupt the personal audio business with Nuraphone, a set of headphones that can create a tailored listening experience based on an individual’s hearing. Scott Wilson finds out if Nura’s technology can deliver on the promise of clearer sound.
What if your headphones could be tailored for your hearing in the same way glasses are tailored for your eyesight? That’s what a Melbourne startup called Nura believes it can do with Nuraphone, a pair of self-learning headphones that it claims can tailor audio playback for every person’s individual way of hearing. Chances are, you’ve not even considered that the way you hear sound might be different from everyone else, but according to Nura, even the most expensive headphones are offering us a less than optimal listening experience.
The idea behind Nura’s technology is that the we all hear sonic frequencies differently, and if we can measure how sensitive we are to low, mid and high tones and adjust the output accordingly, we should all be able to hear music more clearly. Nuraphones do this by measuring optoacoustic emissions, a low-level sound emitted by the cochlea either spontaneously or when sound enters the ear – in other words, a kind of echo. Inside Nuraphones are tiny microphones capable of picking up these emissions, which work in tandem with a smartphone app (on iOS or Android) to create a unique listening profile.
Even if the science behind Nuraphone is sound, the technology seems hard to believe. It didn’t stop 7,730 people backing the project when it launched on Kickstarter last year though, and the product today (October 3) launches to the general public. But the question remains: can a pair of headphones reallydeliver on the promise of tailored sound, and more importantly, are they worth the high price tag?
A pair of Nuraphones will set you back £349/$464, but for that money you do at least get a beautifully designed and very well engineered product. The headband is high-grade stainless steel and the ear-cups are aluminum, with soft, comfortable silicone used for the pads. They look and feel great; they’re the kind of headphones that you wouldn’t feel embarrassed wearing on your commute, and they have touch buttons on either side that can be mapped to different features with the app. They even come inside a lovingly designed clamshell case with a magnetic pouch to store your charging cable.
The most striking feature of the Nuraphones, in fact, are the proboscis-like protrusion from each earcup. Nura calls this blend of inner and over-ear design “inova”, and has two purposes: one is to ensure that the process of scanning your ears to determine your hearing profile is as accurate as possible, and the other is to channel the melodic sounds to the in-ear speaker while bass sounds come from a separate driver in the over-ear portion of the earcup, which delivers the lower frequencies through your skin.
In order to create the unique hearing profile for your Nuraphones you need to go through a setup process, which takes about three minutes from start to finish. You’ll need a smartphone and the Nura app to do this, but it only needs to be done once; after it’s finished, your personalized profile will be uploaded onto the headphones themselves. If you want to share your Nuraphones then you can create multiple profiles with the app and switch them over when you’re connected to it.
The process itself is very simple and involves high-pitched tones being played through the Nuraphones; at the end you’ll have what looks like a colored ink blot on the screen, which represents your unique hearing profile. Before you get to hear it though, the Nuraphones play a reference track (‘View2’, by Sasha) in generic mode to give you an idea of what “normal” headphones sound like in comparison. The difference is stark.
Whether you buy into Nura’s technology or not, one thing is for certain: in personalized mode, Nuraphones sound better than any headphones I’ve ever used. The first track I chose to play was ‘Oh Baby’, the opening track from LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream. There’s a lot going on in it: live drums, analog synth bass, organ and vocals, all of which are drenched in reverb. On personalized mode, the track doesn’t just sound brighter and clearer, it sounds almost three-dimensional – even though there’s no virtual 3D sound trickery being done, to my knowledge.
Even after several days of use, I still can’t quite believe the difference in clarity whenever I switch between generic and personalized mode. In generic mode everything I listen sounds flat and muddy in comparison, and I thought that the generic mode was perhaps made purposefully ‘bad’ by Nura to trick the listener into thinking the personalized mode sounds better than it is. However, A/B testing with my SoundMAGIC E10 earbuds and a pair of AIAIAI TMA-2s proved that the generic mode is on a par with, if not slightly better than, ‘standard’ headphones. I had a few friends create Nuraphone profiles on my phone to test the difference, and each one sounded different. In fact, I preferred mine.
Another feature of the Nuraphones that makes a huge difference is the immersion mode. This uses the outer-ear drivers (that is, the drivers in the cup around your ear rather than the ones inside the smaller inner-ear component) to crank up the bass. This isn’t a simple bass boost, which will just add bass across the whole track, but an effect that’s more like a subwoofer; because the mid and high-level frequencies are delivered directly into your ear canal the low frequencies can be kept separate.
Nura says this mode creates “the immersive feeling of a live performance”, which isn’t an exaggeration: cranked up to the highest setting (“front row”, Nura calls it) you can feel the bass pounding against the side of your head as if you’re standing next to a speaker stack in a club. Listening to Four Tet’s New Energy album with this feature turned all the way up felt like I was listening in room one at Fabric. I was worried that this would damage my hearing, but Nura reassured me that because the bass is isolated from the sound that’s going into your ears you shouldn’t suffer any damage, even at the highest setting. As far as I can tell, Nura’s not lying: my ears felt reasonably unfatigued after a few hours of use.
The inova design and immersion mode are a bit like using earplugs at a club; the damaging frequencies are filtered out but you can still feel the physical sensation of the bass. Of all the Nuraphones’ features, this is the most impressive, and the one I’ll find it most difficult to live without. Sure, you can buy high-end headphones with decent bass response, but because the lower frequencies aren’t isolated in the same way your ears are likely to become fatigued more quickly.
It’s also worth mentioning how great Nuraphones are at cancelling ambient noise. Having a double layer of protection thanks to the inova design isolates the sound incredibly well, to the point where I couldn’t hear a conversation going on right in front of me while the calibration process was taking place. It makes huge difference to the level of immersion you feel while listening to music, even in a noisy open-plan office. I haven’t tried them on a plane, but I imagine they’d completely silence any engine noise if the immersion mode was turned up.
Another worry with wireless headphones is the quality of the audio over Bluetooth, but Nura has excelled here too. Nuraphones use high quality aptX-HD Bluetooth to connect wirelessly, and I didn’t have any problems with dropouts or audio fidelity. You can also use a wired connection: these include Lightning, Micro USB, USB-C and 3.5mm analog cables, but these are optional and only connect the the Nuraphones’ proprietary socket, which is also used for charging. It’s irritating that Nura has gone with a proprietary connector when a USB-C connector could have done the job, but the battery life is at least excellent, clocking in at 20 hours.
There are a few other aspects of the Nuraphone design that might prove to be an issue for some users. For a start, the inner earphone part takes a lot of getting used to; something about the combination of silicone material, probe-like design and “welcome back” message when you put them on makes it feel like you’re interfacing with a contraption from the mind of Philip K. Dick instead of a pair of headphones. If you can’t stand noise-cancelling earbuds because of the way they feel, you’re unlikely to be comfortable wearing Nuraphones.
I also found the Nuraphones to be little heavier than I would have liked, which caused some issues with comfort. My outer ear, which usually gets crushed by other over-ear headphones, didn’t ache at all, but the weight of the earcups sometimes pulled the inner ear part down, which in turn tugged on my ear canal. I got around this by adjusting the headband to the smallest size, but the resulting fit was very snug.
My ears did, however, stay surprisingly cool. Nuraphones use a 100-year-old invention called a Tesla valve to keep air circulating without affecting sound or build quality, and it seems to work: my ears didn’t suffer from overheating at all during use, and there was barely any perspiration after two hours of continuous use. Despite this, they’re probably not great headphones for exercising in: the weight of them means that if you shake your head or tilt it forward too far they’re liable to shift around quite significantly. I wouldn’t want to risk dropping them on the floor either, especially with the microphones inside.
Finally, there’s the issue of the app. You need to be connected to the app to utilize the full features of the Nuraphone, such as immersion mode and switching user profiles. Some basic functions can be mapped to the touch buttons, but these are easy to trigger accidentally when you’re adjusting the earcups, and you’ll probably want to keep them for play/pause and track skip functions. It meant that if I was listening on my laptop and wanted to adjust the settings, I’d need to connect to my phone, open the app, then reconnect to my computer. It’s a small thing that could be easily fixed with a desktop app, but it might grate for some users.
I was sceptical about how good a pair of Nuraphones could be, especially given the way the audio industry tries to use questionable technologies like “high-resolution audio” to sell headphones and hi-fi systems. But the fact is, Nuraphones sound incredible. The difference between listening to music on Nuraphones and listening to music on even my trusty pair of Sony studio monitor headphones is like the difference between moving from a CRT television to a 1080p HD set.
I’ve been going back to some of my favourite albums to see how they sound on Nuraphones, and I always seem to find new sonic details I missed before. I’ve been listening to classical music to see how that compares to my usual diet of techno and ambient music, and Nuraphones offer the silence and the clarity necessary to make it feel as if you’re listening in a concert hall. What’s also significant is that I never felt I had to increase the volume to uncomfortable levels to achieve this kind of immersion and clarity.
A pair of Nuraphones will set you back £349/$464, which is a lot to spend on a pair of headphones, whether they adapt to your hearing or not. But next to some of the ultra-audiophile headphones on the market, like Focal’s £3,500 /$4,655Utopia model, £350/$465.5 for a pair of Nuraphones isn’t all that bad. Whether you buy a pair or not though, one thing is pretty clear: Nura is onto something here, and I’d be surprised if the rest of the headphone market doesn’t follow suit.