For the past few months I’ve been bombarded with adverts for some supposedly next generation headphone technology which adapts to your individual hearing, the ‘Nuraphone’. Various industry professionals were shown in the accompanying videos, reacting with apparent amazement at the sound quality. As a bit of an audio geek, I wanted to see for myself whether or not there was anything to the claims, and ended up picking up a pair recently – something that probably also partly confirms that online marketing campaigns really do work.
One thing that’s worth noting is that Nura released a software upgrade for the headphones at the end of July which added a bunch of features, and corrected some issues that people had reported. They even added in active noise cancellation – which wasn’t present before. That is particularly cool, and something that it’s good to see a company do. Newer stock of the Nuraphone come pre-loaded with this update.
Custom Hearing Profiles
The main principle behind the Nuraphone is relatively simple, in theory at least. You first connect them to a smartphone app, where some quick tests result in a custom ‘hearing profile’ being created. This profile is then stored in the headphones, and playback is tailored accordingly – theoretically resulting in sound that is far more pleasing to your ears than a generic approach would provide.
Over and In-Ear Design
The other main defining characteristic of the Nuraphone is their unique over/in-ear design. The outer silicone cup encloses your ears (and doesn’t irritate any of my many cartilage piercings), and delivers bass frequencies, whereas the inner ear portion sits just inside your outer ear, delivering the mid and treble frequencies. This helps provide a nice separation, and a much fuller sound. It works very well, though does feel pretty weird at first.
Immersion mode uses drivers in the outer cups to provide ‘feeling of a live performance’. This basically makes the bass much fuller and deeper, without compromising on the quality of the mid or treble frequencies.
What Other People Say
I was intrigued by the Nuraphone, but also pretty skeptical. It didn’t help that the reviews online ranged wildly from the bizarrely enthusiastic to the dismissive. There were many puff pieces from sites who were clearly just happy to get a free pair, but there were also users who claimed that they and their friends had the quality was so good that they had actually been moved to tears on their first listen. Others weren’t as enamoured, angrily dismissing the Nuraphone as nothing but marketing spin, or even suggesting that £30 generic earbuds sounded just as good. Ouch.
In general, many of the criticisms seemed to focus on the following:
- The design was too heavy and uncomfortable – especially if you have glasses.
- The sound wasn’t that impressive.
- The setup was complicated and confusing, resulting in different profiles every time.
- The ‘generic’ profile that you compare your personalised profile with sounded worse than it should, and that something shady must be going on.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such conflicting experiences with a single product, which only pushed me to try them out for myself.
Setting up the headphones was as simple as downloading the app, connecting via Bluetooth, and following the on-screen instructions. I had no bother getting the cups in the right place, and despite trying the calibration process a few times, my profiles were pretty much the same each time. It couldn’t really have been much easier.
The one real annoyance is that once set up is complete, you’re encouraged to switch between a generic ‘flat’ profile and your own personalised one to hear the difference. As many people have commented online, the problem is that the generic profile sounds pretty terrible on its own – far worse than you would expect even as a baseline from far cheaper headphones. It’s as if it has been heavily compressed. As a result it all seems a bit disingenuous, and Nura have probably not done themselves many favours by including this ‘feature’.
After reading all of the negative reviews, I expected the Nuraphone to be extremely heavy and uncomfortable, but in actual fact, they slipped on with ease; the silicone of both the ear-cups and headband feeling both soft and comfortable. They weren’t particularly heavy – at least not markedly more so than other cans I’ve worn, and even the in-ear protrusions didn’t feel all that bad – going less deep than I expected. As for my glasses, they didn’t seem to make the slightest bit of difference to proceedings.
I wore the headphones for about seven to eight hours on the first day (with breaks), and my ears definitely got a bit sore by the end, though I knew to expect this from the Nura support team, who claimed that the tips of the in-ear portions would soften up with use. Despite this physical discomfort, my ears didn’t ever get hot or sweaty, which seems to be thanks to the use of the ‘TeslaValve’ air-flow technology. Not just a gimmick after all!
After listening to feedback on the issue of comfort, Nura have started to include different tip sizes with new purchases, including small and medium. There are also some third party options out there that are compatible, though whether they have a significant impact on the sound (negatively) is up for debate.
Many of the fundamental controls of the Nuraphone are contained within the accompanying smartphone app. Some of these can be mapped to a couple of touch sensitive ‘pads’ on the side of the cans – such as volume up/down, play/pause, etc. Both single and double tap gestures are supported, allowing you to choose four controls to make use of.
I personally have volume up and down configured for the single taps, with social mode and play/pause for the double taps. At first I thought this was a bit awkward, but after a day or so I found it really natural, and have even found myself trying to tap on the side of my other headphones out of a force of habit. After using the Nuraphone controls, the physical buttons on my Sennheisers feel a bit clunky and unintuitive.
Speaking of social mode, this is a nifty feature that turns off the active noise cancellation, and turns on microphones to allow you to hear what’s going on without having to take off the headphones. I’ve found this really useful in practice, though it can be a bit disconcerting to have certain ‘exterior’ sounds suddenly amplified louder than they actually are with the headphones off.
It’s not all great news though. The controls themselves are extremely sensitive, with no adjustment possible. Often I would end up accidentally triggering the pads when adjusting my glasses, or just moving my arms about, and I had to continually turn the headphones back down. There are also some functions that can only be accessed via the app, which is a bit annoying. For example, at the time of writing you can’t adjust the level of Immersion mode without being connected to the phone app – which would be handy for switching between genres. I’ve heard from Nura that they are working on a desktop app which would help alleviate this issue for those of us who regularly listen on our computers.
Finally, the controls don’t work when a cable is connected, which is understandable, but a bit irritating, breaking the continuity of experience.
I’ve been dubious of wireless technology for a long time, given the pretty crappy historic quality of even higher end headphones. As a result, I only recently bought into the whole arena and was pleasantly surprised. Still clinging to this, I was put off at first by the prospect of having to buy a separate, expensive analogue cable, but realised that I don’t actually need one for everyday listening.
In terms of the quality of the bluetooth connection itself, it was generally pretty good. For some reason my first pair worked fine with my laptop, but dropped out constantly when connected to my phone when I put it in my pocket. That meant they were totally useless for walking about, and I was restricted to using them when stationary at a desk, or on the couch till they got replaced. Generally though, once this was resolved, the connectivity was good, and I only had the odd blip here and there. Definitely not something that would be irritating or especially notable.
This all leads nicely to my biggest issue with the design of the Nuraphone: the proprietary nature of the cable connection. Apparently in order to allow compatibility with a bunch of separate devices, they had to create a new single port that is used for everything, including charging. I’’m not really convinced by this argument, and it means that it’s yet another cable to carry when travelling, which isn much harder and pricier to replace. The nightmare scenario would be misplacing one while on a trip.
In the past I have played with various special music EQ apps that provide extra stereo spacing and increased ‘ambience’, but always returned to listening flat, as they never did a great job of applying equally the quality across genres. In other words, what sounded good with electronica would make grunge sound utter garbage. I suspected that this would be much the same with the Nuraphone, and I was pretty disappointed when it seemed to be the case upon first listening. Techno sounded pretty good, but generally the sound was too coloured, with vocals often lost in the mix. It wasn’t until I realised that I had an additional EQ set on my Mac already that was interfering with things that I actually heard what the Nuraphone could do, and my perception completely changed. Why bother even bringing this up? To highlight that it’s important to start with a flat EQ, or you’re going to get a distorted perception of the sound – which is easily done.
While I wasn’t exactly reduced to tears, the sound from the Nuraphone really was pretty impressive, bringing a whole new feeling of dynamism to music that I knew well. It was as if my favourite tracks had been given a personal re-mastering, and it was amazing. I scoured my library to find old songs and re-discover them in a different light. Despite an overall perceivable increase in quality, a lot of this seemed to come down to the ‘Immersion’ mode. When I first read about it, I was dubious. Cranking up the bass so it rattles against your ears doesn’t really ‘capture the feeling of being at a live performance’. However, I have to honestly say that there is something in that claim. With the slider at 75% I could feel every kick of the bass drum in early Green Day albums as if Tre Cool himself was in the same room, and there were times during some songs that genuinely reminded of being at a music festival due to the interaction of instrumentation.
There have been some comments that the Immersion mode is too heavy handed, such as:
The Immersion effect might suit bassheads or movie-watchers, but you’ll get the most balanced sound with it on very low – or turned off.
That hasn’t really been my experience (though maybe I’m a basshead?). Even at a fairly high level (70%), the Immersion mode only serves to add a bit of greater depth to the tracks, and doesn’t result in distorted or farty bass – though there is a definite cut off where this changes. To be honest though, if I wanted a flatter, more ‘balanced’ sound, these are not the headphones I personally would be using in the first place.
How do they compare to my other headphones though? I don’t really have technical details here, but there’s no doubt in my mind that they offer a much more dynamic and engaging sound. My other headphones still sound and feel great, but if I want to really get lost in the music, I’ll go with the Nuraphone every time.
- Portability: Unfortunately, despite having pretty great passive and active noise cancellation, the Nuraphone don’t seem especially great for travelling. They don’t fold down, and the protective case is pretty chunky. I still need to decide whether or not they are worth sacrificing precious space for in my carry on.
- Audio fade in: The Nuraphone have a built in ‘fade in’ to the audio when they start playing back from silence. That means that if you fire up Spotify, stick on the headphones, and start playing a track with a banging intro, it ends up lacking punch. I can see the benefit of this feature when you put the headphones back on – to avoid getting blasted mid-song at full volume, but this should 100% be an optional feature, not something that can’t be turned off.
- Noise cancellation: The passive noise cancellation of these headphones is pretty decent already, but the active noise cancellation is especially good. The combination seems to block out more ambient noise than my Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC cans, and it’s pretty amazing to hear the difference toggling ‘social mode’ on and off makes.
- Battery life: The Nuraphone boast an impressive 20 hour battery life. I haven’t tested them continuously, but what I do know is that the headphones arrived on a Monday; I used them heavily, and by Friday morning they were only down to 40%. In practice this means I’d only really need to charge them about once a week, which is pretty great.
I really didn’t want to like these. Despite having a glimmer of hope that they might be decent, I planned to try them out for a few weeks then send them back after discovering that they were mostly just marketing puff after all. However, that isn’t how things worked out.
The truth is that I really like the Nuraphone. The sound is different to anything I’ve heard before in a set of headphones, and the Immersion mode really helps bring certain kinds of music alive. I’m excited about listening to music again, and for that reason alone they are well worth the money for me. If they only took standard cables, and folded down to be a bit more portable, it’d be tough to find any big flaws.
They retail for £349, but you can often find 20% off discount codes on Reddit.