Come for the Spotify playlist, stay for the hating on Apple's EarPods.
Read Part One here
Nuraphone Battle Test
So we left off the first part of this review with me feeling a slight sense of headphone regret after trying out the Nuraphone for a couple of weeks. However, given that this wasn’t the first time I had experienced that feeling, and given that I’m an evaluator and have an insatiable need to develop an evidence base, I decided to battle test the Nuraphone against some competition. So after two weeks of testing four sets of headphones in different scenarios using a carefully curated playlist the results are in.
As a music addict I have owned (and lost and destroyed) a fair few sets of headphones, so I scrounged around the house and found a few sets to test the Nuraphone against.
These are probably the closest competition to the Nuraphone on a technical level, these are high quality active noise cancelling headphones with an over the ear design. However they are wired headphones – more recent models have wireless capabilities. These have been my go-to set of over ear headphones for over six years, and part of the motivation for getting the Nuraphone was that these are starting to die from years of hard use, the switches are wearing out and the headband is nearly worn through. But they still work and sound good so they’re being tested.
The Shure SE215s are in-ear headphones that lack active noise cancellation, but make up for it by having a sound-isolating fit. Imagine a set of earplugs that play music and you get a pretty good idea. The audio cable even detaches so that you can use them as earplugs. They’ve released a wireless version of this recently but I bought the wired versions about a year ago and these have been my usual headphones for taking to work and the gym.
Amazingly, I found a set of these buried at the bottom of a box, brand new. They must have come with my phone years ago and I had forgotten to re-gift these to someone I don’t like or send them to the electronics recycling. Prior to this test I had never listened to music on these, despite (or because of) their ubiquity. These are the headphones that are on the ears of every second person on the train, and so they make a good baseline as entry level headphones for the market. If the Nuraphone can’t beat these then we’re in trouble.
For the occasion I made a playlist in Spotify to run each set of headphones through their paces. I could probably write a post all in itself of why each of these tracks made the cut, but I wanted to make it representative of the range of music I listen to as well as strongly test the headphones. There are some excellent headphone testing playlists on Spotify but this playlist is more familiar to me, and I know which details in the music to listen for.
Generally, this playlist puts the headphones through their paces by exposing them to a variety of genres and vocal styles to see how well they respond. It also uses a range of mixing and production styles, ranging from lightly miced recordings with little post-production through to highly edited and compressed pieces. There are also different eras of music and recording represented, including analogue and digital techniques.
The playlist also includes songs with a high degree of sonic complexity, with multiple layers of instruments and fast note changes. There are also pieces with a lot of soft-loud dynamic, which tests sound isolation and response at different volumes.
As well as the Spotify list I tested the headphones with YouTube, using a recent upload from genre-bending music project Eratora which seamlessly blends Japanese Anime with Bossa Nova. The driving force behind the project (Van Leucia) is a good friend of mine (so this is a not so subtle plug for their work). Seriously though, I’ve worked with him on few recording projects and know that he’s got a great talent for audio production and finding the right balance between instruments.
While I did the bulk of the audio testing in a quiet space at home, I also tested the headphones in a variety of situations to get a sense of how well they worked in daily use. I wore them at the office and on the train, as well as around the house. I also had the chance to test the Nuraphone’s noise cancelling capabilities in the air, travelling to and from Canberra for work.
Because looks are everything, right?
EarPods: If they weren’t worn by just about everyone they’d be cooler. In truth, they’re sleek and minimalist and exude the Apple look that was once so desirable in 2008, but the lack of any non-plastic component makes them look a bit cheap by today’s standards. Not to mention uncomfortable.
SE215: The small zip-up carrying case makes these compact to carry on a belt loop, and the Shure logo immediately lets everyone know you know audio gear. The headphones themselves have a clear cable, which again makes them look like serious studio equipment (even if they are the entry level model for the actually serious studio equipment, but nobody needs to know that).
ATH-ANC9: This comes in a solid hard case, which again harks back to the professional credibility and pedigree of Audio-Technica. The headphones themselves though don’t look that different from the Bose noise cancelling headphones… or was it the Sony headphones, or maybe the Sennheisers? I remember accidentally mistaking someone’s headphones from a different brand for the ATH-ANC9s once, true and awkward story.
Nuraphone: I covered this a bit in Part 1, but in one word they’re fashionable. But they also look solidly constructed, like a minimalist tank.
EarPods: You know how when the AirPods came out and people joked about how people were going to be walking around with only one in their ear because they had lost the other one? That’s justified, given that the AirPods are just the wireless version of the EarPods. And they feel loose. Constantly. It feels like any movement is going to knock them out of place and leave them dangling. Not a good feeling.
SE215: These come with a range of tips that attach to the headphone speaker, so you can pick and choose the size and fit that is most comfortable for you. I use foam tips that are the same material in industrial earplugs, you squish them up and pop them in, and the foam expands to fill the ear canal. It’s a little weird the first time, but you get used to the fit and after a while they are so snug you don’t realise they are there. The cable goes out over the top of the ear as well to make the fit even more secure. I’ve worn these on trans-Pacific flights as earplugs and not had a problem.
ATH-ANC9: In one word, comfortable. The earpads are soft and don’t become too hot over time, and they are light enough that you barely notice them most of the time. However, they aren’t good for lying down or sleeping; as soon as there’s pressure on the ear cups it’s uncomfortable.
Nuraphone: These are a tight fit. The double design of having an over-ear speaker and an in-ear speaker means that you feel like the Nuraphone is gripping your head. You tend to be aware at all times that they’re on, which can be a little distracting. But they don’t ever really become uncomfortable to the point of having to remove them. And despite the tight fit they aren’t the best for lying down, as the headband tends to slip.
What you are actually here for.
EarPods: Now I remember why these were buried at the bottom of the box. Too cheap to want to use, too expensive to throw out. 2014’s Kris Kringle gift. It’s like listening to something that is playing on speakers in the next room. Not the worst headphones in the world, and pretty good given their design, but they’re not even comparable to the others here.
There’s little bass to speak of, but to criticise earbuds for their lack of bass is like complaining that a dog can’t meow. But the treble is overbalanced. Low fidelity recordings like Black Flag’s “Rise Above” are just noisy. In fact across most of the playlist the treble heavy balance made the instrumentations feel cramped at the top end, like too much was going on. I will note that it performed surprisingly well with Ray LaMontagne's "Part Two - In My Own Way", with a good soundstage. But then you would play it on the ANC-ATH9s and the Nuraphone and you’d realise that there is a bass drum in the mix that has gone completely missing on the EarPods.
That wasn’t all that went missing. Sonic detail would get lost at the edges (for example, the rawness of the violin in Arvo Pärt's “Spiegel im Spiegel”), but the EarPods picked up some details I thought it would miss, particularly Tracy Chapman’s whispering in “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” which usually gets washed out on most speakers. But overall these were pretty bad. If you’re strapped for cash but want a decent set of replacement earbuds, Wirecutter keeps a running review of the best cheap headphones – even they recommend getting something other than the EarPods if you can.
SE215: The first important thing about the SE215s is that they use very little power, which means that during testing I constantly had to dial down the volume before putting these in. They pack a punch. Unlike the EarPods, there’s a bit of bass but it’s not as strong as over ear headphones. Still, it’s impressive for the size. Where the SE215s stand out is that they have a very crisp sound, and the sonic clarity is very good. You can easily hear the lyrics of fast moving songs like Outkast’s “B.O.B.” or the quickly thrown away words of Joni Mitchell’s California (not to mention the details in the guitars).
These are excellent headphones, and with the small drivers they put up a very brave fight but after a week of testing I found they just couldn’t compete sonically with the big headphones. They're still way better than the EarPods though.
ATH-ANC9: In one of the three noise cancelling modes that it has the headphones are good, largely due to the inbuilt amplifier. With the noise cancelling off there’s a more restrained and flat sound, a bit like the “neutral mode” on the Nuraphone, come to think of it. One issue is that you can hear the noise cancelling in quiet moments, a pleasant but present hiss. Sonically, these headphones have a rich mid-range, but come across as slightly overdriven on the bass. This was especially noticeable on bass heavy mixes such as the Phaxe, Ray LaMontagne and Aphex Twin tracks where it felt a bit overwhelming relative to the rest of the mix.
The clarity was very good, for example with these headphones you can hear all the instruments in the mix in Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. Did you know that there’s a set of bongo drums playing in Jolene? They come in on the line “He talks about you in his sleep…” in the left channel only. Who knew? That level of detail you only get with high quality headphones, brilliant songwriters, and obsessive recording studio producers.
Nuraphone: After listening to the other three headphones it started to become clear that the Nuraphone is as good if not better than the others on all fronts. With the custom profile there is a clean sound, every instrument has a place in the mix on an expansive soundstage. If there is a criticism it is that the Nuraphone, like the ATH-ANC9s, can get slightly overdriven in bass heavy tracks (for example, Justice’s “Safe and Sound”). However, unlike for the ANC-ATH9s and other headphones, when that happens you can jump into the app and dial down the level of immersion mode and it rebalances comfortably. Problem solved.
But even when the bass is overbearing it is clean. Phaxe’s “Angels of Destruction” moves back and forth between loud bass heavy sections and quieter sections with to mid-high range sounds and neither ever felt forced. Even in sonically rich mixes like Hans Zimmer’s “2049” it felt balanced in a way that the other headphones didn’t quite achieve.
On the detail front it also picks up subtle details in mixes, even more clearly than the others. We are talking about things that would get lost or unconsciously missed, for example the lower glockenspiel tones in Mike Oldfield’s “The Bell”, the artifacts from the erased guitar track in the Beatles' a capella version of “Because”, or the exact moment when Sally Whitwell takes her foot off the sostenuto pedal in Glass’ “Metamorphosis 4”. The Eratora cover is clean and allows each of the instruments to shine without overwhelming the vocal performance. There’s a reasonable argument to say that because of this clarity the Nuraphone is unforgiving of mistakes in the mix or performance, and some people might end up feeling that beloved works are being ruined by being too clear, but my feeling is that the nuance and occasional imperfection makes for a richer, more human experience.
Except of course for egregious mistakes like when an entire choir sings a note on the wrong pitch which happened while I was listening to a recording of Verdi’s “Messa da Requiem” this week – that’s inexcusable.
In short, from a sound standpoint the Nuraphone simply outclassed the competition.
EarPods: Noise isolation, what noise isolation? The lack of a snug fit means that sounds leak into the mix, even in quiet rooms. And the sound leaks out, which is why people are always glaring at EarPods users on the train. More than once I have considered pushing a $20 into the hands of a commuter to encourage them to go buy decent headphones and stop polluting the environment with garbage treble noises.
SE215: By contrast, the SE215s have fantastic sound isolation for headphones that rely purely on acting like an earplug to block sound. They’re not perfect, and train noise still leaks in, but they do cut out most of what’s going on around you. And they work especially well on airplanes, getting rid of more engine noise than they should be reasonably be expected to, even when you’re not playing music.
ATH-ANC9: These have good active noise cancelling, with three modes to choose from (one is calibrated specifically for airplane use). Even with the active noise cancelling off the sound isolation is still good.
Nuraphone: The Nuraphone had the best sound isolation of all of the headphones tested. There is no background hiss from the noise cancelling when it is activated, unlike the ATH-ANC9s. Even with the feature turned off in the app the sound isolation is still strong, due to the combined over-ear and in-ear isolation. It didn’t quite manage to cut out all of the airplane noise on my flight, but it did well nonetheless.
EarPods: They’re cheap, solid and disposable enough that you wouldn’t be fussed chucking them in a gym bag or knocking them about. But that’s the only thing that really recommends them. The carry case is also a bit fiddly to wrap them up too.
SE215: These are probably the most portable and practical of the headphones, as the case protects them but is small enough to clip onto a belt loop or fit in a suit pocket without being obtrusive. The foam tips have to be squeezed and fitted every time you put them on, but that becomes a habit after a while.
ATH-ANC9s: As over-ear headphones they are always going to be less practical than the SE215s, but for most of the time they have been okay, with the case being attachable to a laptop bag or stored inside (and there’s enough spare space inside to hold the SE215s should they be needed. The noise cancelling is powered by a single AA battery, which is either a good thing (they’re common and cheap) or a bad thing (no in-built charging). They have become less practical as the headphones have aged though, with the switches wearing out. They may not last another year.
Nuraphone: From a case and portability standpoint they’re probably the least best of the lot – the case is good quality but can’t be attached to anything and is surprisingly awkward to fit in a lot of bags, as I found out on my work trip to Canberra. And despite the looks I am not sure I want to take these into rough situations, it’s not that they’re not durable, it‘s just that they’re pricey enough that I don’t want to test how durable they are. However, the features of the Nuraphone make them a lot more practical than the others, with the touch controls, social mode, and controllability through the app being special highlights. Social mode especially, that’s had the most use.
Coming into this testing process I definitely was feeling a bit of headphone regret. But it was tempered by the fact that this wasn’t the first time I had had this feeling. The only time I hadn’t had headphone regret was nearly fifteen years ago, listening to a pair of Sennheiser HD 202s that I had just bought after years of listening to music through low grade earbuds (or hifi speakers, as was the style). That experience was like night and day.
That’s why the Nuraphone feels to me like more of an evolution than a revolution. It’s not the angel trumpets and devil trombones experience of the hype I was buying into. However, after testing I do honestly think that for the price these are probably the best headphones on the market right now. The sound quality is good, the noise cancelling and isolation is the best out there, and social mode is a game-changing innovation.
Is the personalised profile all it’s cracked up to be? Yes and no. My hearing naturally drops in the treble range, and yet for the earbuds I tested the treble was the strongest feature (which is by design). I could probably have gotten by in life with earbuds and never really have known the difference.
But I found during testing there was definitely a difference in sound every time I changed headphones, and I kept finding myself wanting to go back to the Nuraphone. It just sounded better, felt better. The music was livelier, more interesting. The more I tested with other headphones, the stronger the feeling.
The Nuraphone is growing on me.
And the headphone regret?
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.