Given it’s getting to the end of the year I thought I would revisit the site and blog and update it a bit, and change the direction of the content too. The main intent of the blog when it commenced in early 2013 was to chronicle my journey overseas to complete grad school. That purpose went out the window a long time ago.
The secondary intent was to keep my writing skills somewhat sharp, and there’s still some scope for that. I’m not ready to throw out the logo on the front page though, and in retooling the blog I think I will keep it to the things I am passionate about – coffee, music, and just about everything else.
So in that vein, I’ll start off by reviewing my early Christmas present – the Nuraphone. I’m going to make this a two part review, with this first entry covering the non-musical aspects of the device. In the second part I’ll do a comparative test against a few of my other headphones to see how they stack up.
So what is a Nuraphone?
Yes you read that right, singular not plural. Apparently they’re not to be called “Nuraphones” or “headphones”, just “Nuraphone”. It sounds a bit like a marketing gimmick, and it kind of is. However, the Nuraphone differs from other headphones in a fundamental way – it contains a special microphone and software designed to measure and calibrate its response to the way that you hear sound. The (Australian) company behind it produced the first run as a Kickstarter and have now taken it to the broader market with a hip website, marketing campaign, and pop-up stores in major cities. After being able to have a test run of them a few weeks ago I took the plunge and put them on my wish list as an early Christmas present. They arrived a little early and with permission I got to open them and have a try out.
So what’s so special about the Nuraphone?
Well, it comes down to physiology. Everyone has a unique hearing response – some people hear bass better than others, others hear treble frequencies better, basically everyone’s response is a unique fingerprint-like identifier.
Nuraphone uses clever software and the special microphone to figure this hearing response out for the listener (and turn it into a pretty visualisation). The technical term for it is oto-acoustic emission testing (OAE), which has been adopted in medical circles in the last two decades as a way to measure hearing loss.
This is a photo of my profile – from 12 o’clock on the circle it plots the response of my ears to sound frequencies, going clockwise from low to high. The larger the radius of the plot, the better the response. You can see for mine that there’s a big dip at around 9 o’clock onwards, representing a loss of hearing at the higher end. Early reviewers noted a lot of variance in the plots between tests, but mine has stayed pretty stable after testing it a few times. Moreover, my higher frequency hearing response has been poor since childhood, so these results line up with those from professional medical testing.
The controversial part: is there such thing as a truly flat response?
Once the profile is made, the Nuraphone adjusts its output to compensate for peaks and dips in the hearing profiles of users. So in my case it boosts the treble a little to make up for my lower response in that range. This ends up creating a “flat” response for the listener, which in theory represents what the music sounds like as intended by the artist. This has proven a bit of a controversial statement as it goes against a lot of audiophile practice which has been to make the speaker response as flat as possible (i.e. all frequencies come out at the same volume from the speaker).
In principle this makes sense (and for non-headphone speakers it’s an especially good goal), but the reality is that everyone has different hearing responses, and anyone who has worked in sound engineering knows that frequency responses in the studio or live recording are never truly flat. The Nuraphone at least attempts to take the human element out of the equation. Whether it works is the subject of this review (well part two anyway).
A word of warning
These headphones aren’t cheap. The standard retail price is AUD499, which makes it on par with some of the more high-end headphones on the market, such as the Bose QuietComfort and Sony WM1000. On the other hand, on paper it has a lot of the same features you get with those headphones (bluetooth, touch controls, active noise cancelling) so the hearing profile feature isn’t too great a premium. But if you’re used to getting your music from the headphones that came free with your smartphone it’s a big jump.
But let’s get to testing the Nuraphone out.
The Nuraphone, reviewed
Unboxing: It comes in pretty packaging – minimalist grey on the outside but when you pull it open it’s a psychedelic revelation in recycled cardboard. They’ve really invested in the unboxing experience, it’s slick.
Storage case: Like most high-end headphones the Nuraphone comes with a storage case to protect it when it’s not in use. And it’s one of the nicest cases I’ve had. It feels solid, like studio grade equipment. The magnetic elements that keep the case closed and hold in the interior case with the charging cable are a nice touch. The only slight on it is that it’s missing a carabiner for clipping it to other gear, which I have on two of my other pairs and comes in handy when travelling.
Initial fitting: The Nuraphone has an unusual design in that they operate both as an in-ear headphone and an over-ear headphone. I haven’t seen that before, and the first time you put them on it’s a little disconcerting, but after that it’s fine. And the double design makes sense from an engineering and noise isolation standpoint – you can get more bass while also reducing outside noise. It’s the best of both worlds.
There’s no on/off switch either, you just put them on and go. There’s a voice that addresses you by name when you put on the headphones. It’s a nice touch, even if they can’t quite get my name right. The tips (which come in three interchangeable sizes) and fit are comfortable, not the most comfortable I have owned, but far from the worst.
The headphones stay on pretty tight when you’re upright, and they’re comfortable to wear for long periods (though I notice them more than other headphones). However they do start to slip off when you’re horizontal, so for bench pressing or lying in bed they’re not ideal. And re-adjusting the position of the Nuraphone on the ears every now and then improves the comfort. Adjusting the fit is reasonably easy, though it’s easy to hit the touch buttons when doing so.
The app: Yes, there’s an app. You don’t need it running to listen to music though, it’s there for setting up your profile and settings for things like the touch controls. From a design standpoint this is one of the outstanding features of the Nuraphone. It’s visually pretty, and straightforward to use. The guided instructions to set up your hearing profile are intuitive, though shifting the headphones around on your head to get them in the ‘right’ position for the app is a little fiddly. Once you’ve done it though it’s set up. You can also set up multiple profiles, perhaps if you’re into swapping headphones with other people, you probably want to clean or swap the tips before you do that (thankfully that’s easy to do).
Bluetooth: Connecting is automatic once you’ve configured it. The transmission quality is good, only the (very) rare stutter. The range is 10-15 metres before the signal breaks up, which in practice means you can’t go further than the next room, but that’s still better than my Logitech UE Mini Boom Bluetooth portable speaker, which can’t handle being placed much more than a couple of metres away before turning whatever you’re listening to into an impromptu Aphex Twin glitch remix.
Touch buttons: These take some getting used to. It’s easy to knock them accidentally, pausing playback or activating social mode (we’ll talk about that below). The “double-tap” buttons are also a little tricky to time at the beginning, but once you get used to them they work well. It is kind of cool to be able to tap the side of your head to change playback, very sci-fi.
Battery life: It’s apparently good for more than 20 hours of playback, which I haven’t fully tested. But I’ve only had to charge it once so far, after listening to it most days since I got them. Charging is done via a USB cable that plugs into the Nuraphone. The downside is that charging disables the bluetooth function so unless you’re charging from the same device as you’re listening to you’re going to have to take a break.
Noise cancelling: The noise cancelling only has one setting (unlike some competitors which have multiple settings), but it is very good with almost no background hiss which is only perceptible when music is off (and even then it’s barely perceptible). It helps that there is good passive noise isolation from the combination of the in ear tips and the over ear design. In some ways it might even be too good – if I have the kitchen exhaust fan when cooking I cannot hear it or the sizzling of the food in the pan. There may be burnt food in my near future. It still can’t block out the obnoxious music at the gym, but after using these I’m not sure anything can.
Social mode: Social mode is nothing short of amazing – and it was added as a software upgrade! It basically provides a pass-through mode where you can hear what is going on around you without having to take the headphones off. This is especially useful for when you are at work and someone wants to have a conversation and launches into it without noticing/caring that you have headphones on (this happens almost daily to me, in every job I have worked).
One touch on the side of the headphone and you can hear clearly what they are saying – because the Nuraphone has an active microphone system for the noise cancelling functions, it appears that Nura are doing some software trickery to enhance vocal frequencies to make conversations clearer against the background noise. I’m not sure if other headphone manufacturers are doing this, but it should be a standard feature. And when you turn it off it’s like a cone of silence goes up around you – it’s the nicest feeling.
Immersion mode: Another feature of the Nuraphone is an “immersion” mode which basically controls the strength of the bass drivers in attempt to simulate the experience of hearing (feeling) a live performance. At full strength it produces head wobbling bass – if you’re into a Beats-type sound then you’ll dig it, and it’s best suited to the resonant bass that’s popular in a lot of hip-hop and dubstep production. For most other music the rest of us will set it about halfway and forget it’s actually there. For rock and metal it can’t replicate the visceral punch in the chest of bass coming through a speaker stack, you get a bit of vibration around your ears but at full setting the bass is just a bit mushy. Dial the setting back though it does add a subtle heft to the low frequencies which is welcome.
Neutral mode (is it neutral?): The app has the ability to compare your personalised profile against a “neutral” setting. Comparing the two there’s an obvious difference in sound. Almost too obvious. Other reviews have noted that neutral mode sounds far too flat and restrained, and some have gone so far as to accuse Nura of deliberately making the neutral mode sound bad to make the personalised profile sound better by comparison. I have to say that the neutral mode sounds very dead and underwhelming, but this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this. My existing active noise cancelling headphones also sound a lot deader when the noise cancelling is disabled. It sounds to me like neutral mode strips out all of the enhancements, personalised or otherwise. For that reason I am testing the Nuraphone against other headphones rather than against neutral mode alone.
Early impressions – why can’t I shake the headphone regret?
After a week of use I found myself feeling a little underwhelmed by the Nuraphone experience. It wasn’t the world-shattering, life changing, forget-everything-I-ever-knew-about-music experience that the marketing wanted me to believe. Don’t get me wrong, it was good (okay, social mode is genuinely amazing, and the comparison between neutral mode and personalised mode is night and day). But it wasn’t great, in a tears-in-my-eyes revelatory experience great.
I had headphone regret.
Why did I get these? I have plenty of good sets of headphones already.
Then I remembered that I have experienced headphone regret for literally every pair of headphones I have bought in the last 10 years, expensive or cheap.
So in an attempt to settle the issue we're going to battle test the Nuraphone against some of my existing pairs of headphones using a carefully selected Spotify playlist that's designed to cover an eclectic range of tastes and push the limits of any hardware. So stick around for part two of this review.