What do you hear when you listen to that infamous audio clip? Yanny or Laurel? What you hear depends on how you hear, and whether your brain decides to emphasize higher or lower frequencies.
We often think about hearing like we do a big volume dial that makes sound louder or quieter. Either you can hear clearly, you’re hard of hearing, or you’re deaf. But it’s not that simple. You may not realize it, but there’s a good chance how you hear the world is quite different from the people around you. We all hear different parts of the audio frequency spectrum differently, with more or less acuity, because no two ears are exactly alike.
Normal headphones don’t adapt to your unique way of hearing. Not one bit. They’re tuned by a set of audio experts that may or may not hear music like you do. A pair of Beats By Dre headphones may sound fantastic to someone with less bass sensitivity, but overpowering to someone who hears low rumbles more acutely. This is one reason why some music apps have equalizers that let you customize the volume of some frequencies. Even then, few of us understand enough about our own hearing to use them properly.
A small Australian startup called Nura wants to demystify the art of the EQ by automating it. Its Nuraphone headphones, which began as a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016, aim to shape their sound in order to arrive at the optimal mix for any particular pair of ears. All it takes is an expensive, aerospace-grade microphone and an algorithm that gives every listener a 60-second automatic hearing test.
Like a far more robust version of the device that doctors use to automatically detect if a newborn baby can hear, the Nuraphones are a sleek, strange-looking pair of over-ear headphones with a set of earbuds built into them. Wearing them gives you the odd feeling that your ears are being probed. And they are! Before you can listen to any music, the Nuraphone app guides you to squish those inner earbuds nice and deep into your ear canals and listen to an entire spectrum of frequency tones ranging from a deep 250hz to a high-pitched 8kHz.
As you listen, likely perplexed by how in the world this could ever work, those different frequency sound waves enter your ear canals and vibrate your ear drums. This causes the bones of your inner ear to move, which then swish around fluid that bends thousands of microscopic hair cells back and forth in your cochlea, triggering electrical impulses that get sent to your brain. But every time the cochlea is stimulated, it sends faint echoes back out through the eardrum, called otoacoustic emissions. These emissions are about 10,000 times fainter than the sound going in, but the Nuraphones can pick them up using an extremely sensitive microphone.
“We found out recently that the microphones that we use in the Nuraphones, the microphones in each of the earbuds, those same microphones are being used by NASA for the Mars 2020 mission,” Dragan Petrović, Nura’s CEO and co-founder told me. “You can imagine these are very high sensitivity, very high dynamic range microphones. Not to mention the most expensive components in the whole thing.”
By using that mic to analyze the strength of those faint emissions, Nura claims it is able to figure out how sensitive you are to the entire range of audio frequencies. The app then creates a graph of your unique hearing profile, which it paints in pleasing colors and wraps around a circle so you can view it.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why Nura didn’t just release a pair of earbuds, it’s because the test requires the noise isolation gained by the over-ear cups. Any outside noise that leaks in can disrupt the initial test and change your results, as I’ve noticed using them for the last couple weeks. Nura’s algorithm says my ears are extra sensitive to mid tones and deep bass, and pretty normal at picking up high treble, but I’m less sensitive to medium bass. The mix it generated for me sounds stellar, even if it took taking the test a few times to get it just right.
Ace the Test
Instead of having a pair of full-range drivers do all the dirty work by themselves (like many headphones), the Nuraphones have an architecture more like a set of high-end home speakers. The earbud drivers belt out much of the high- and mid-tones and the over-ear drivers thump with a deep bass that vibrates the bones around your ear. Unlike a lot of headphones, you can feel the adjustable bass much in the same way you can feel the bass tones vibrate the air at a concert.
“We end up delivering that bass to your skin of your earlobe rather than your eardrum,” Petrović explained. “So your eardrum still gets a very clear signal … and you can still get the bass. So you can jack up the bass without damaging your hearing like at a concert because that bass is going to your earlobe, not your eardrum.”
The separation of bass and treble between the earbuds and over-ear drivers helps vocals pop, and it gives the Nuraphone a big soundstage for a pair of headphones. I’ve been listening to a lot of The Kooks recently, and particularly love how much it feels like I’m in the room with the thumping drums and bass guitar grooves in tunes like “Bad Habit.” The Nuraphones sound so clear they make my favorite headphones feel a little flat by comparison. (Among others, I tested them against the Blue Sadie and the Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC, both of which are well-rounded out of the box.) The included AptX HD Bluetooth codec helps, too.
Am I hearing my version of perfect equalized sound? It’s difficult to tell. There isn’t anything else quite like the Nuraphone, so they have a way of making you question whether you have really heard your favorite albums in their optimal form before. As a test, I let my wife and a friend try them, and both loved their custom hearing profiles, even after trying out some other high-end headphones that weren’t EQ’d. It was affirming that when I wore the headphones while running their hearing profiles, the music sounded like hot garbage.
The app is far from perfect. I caught typos in the setup instructions, which weren’t as clear as they could be (I kept hunting for a power button, but there isn’t one). The “Generic” hearing profile Nura provides to help you understand how amazing your custom hearing profile sounds is also suspiciously awful. It sounds far worse than the $8 Panasonic earbuds I have lying around, which made my results feel a little suspect during setup. Nura says that this is how the Nuraphone sound with “no tuning,” but even the crappiest earbuds have some level of tuning.
Currently, you can only store three hearing profiles at a time, and I found it takes multiple tests to nail your own sound. I hate having to erase my old profile when I’m not sure if the new one I’m creating will be better or worse. Most of the time, the profiles are similar and still sound great, but you will get an oddball profile now and then. I tend to get slightly different results (though sometimes they’re much different) in the same quiet environment minutes apart, without so much as nudging my headphones. In time, I have begun to recognize my optimal sound shape (or at least the one that I like best), but it wasn’t easy to get back to it when I accidentally erased my best profile to let my friend give them a try.
Petrović hinted that in the future, the Nuraphones might continuously test your hearing, learn its nuances, and slowly adjust over time. Hopefully an update like that comes sooner rather than later.
Now Hear This
The stainless steel headband, aluminum earcups, and soft, hypoallergenic silicone ear cushions are comfy and adjustable, but some folks probably won’t ever love the strange feeling of having earbuds on inside a pair of over-ear cups. Some early buyers have also complained about the weight. They are heavier than many competing over-ear headphones and don’t twist to rest on your shoulders or fold to fit in your bag.
On the plus side, there is no power button on the Nuraphones because they don’t seem to need one. They power on automatically when you place them on your head, and even say hello and speak your name. Each earcup has a touch button that you can customize, though you may wish for a volume toggle or extra control. A full-size USB charging cable is included, but you can order 3.5mm, Lightning, USB C, and Micro USB cables if needed. You won’t need them often, though. The battery life stretches a full 20 hours, and it holds a charge surprisingly well.
The passive noise isolation is so good, it rivals a lot of high-end headphones with active noise cancellation. I can’t hear so much as a drum beat when someone else is rocking out with the Nuraphones, and everyone yells back at me when I ask them questions. The company did a good job cutting out the loud noises of the subway, as well. On the downside, they aren’t great for phone calls. There is no monitoring mic to let you hear your own voice, so you tend to yell when speaking on the phone. Also, callers reported hearing a distracting amount of background noise, which tells me that the microphones aren’t yet tuned well to isolate my voice.
Petrović wouldn’t say what features Nura might add to the Nuraphone headphones, but he did hint that the half-dozen microphones and other tech already in them will let Nura add a lot of premium features in the future. For example, they can already be remotely disabled by Nura if you report your pair as stolen. Since they require an app, these are headphones that may improve considerably in time with easy firmware updates.
Nura isn’t the only company toying with custom sound, but its tech and automatic otoacoustic testing seems far more advanced than the current crop of rivals.
At $400, the Nuraphones are not cheap, but they also aren’t out of step with the price tags on many of the best wireless headphones. (You can find them on Nuraphone.com or Amazon.) You’ll have to get used to the probing feeling of the hybrid earbud/over-ear design, and you should take your hearing profile test a few times to get the best match. But the effort is worth the fabulous audio that awaits.
After wearing the Nuraphone, I’m not sure I want to go back to regular headphones. They may feel a little comfier, but without that custom-tailored sound, I can’t help but feel they’re also … a little dumb.