Sometimes a product comes along and changes the world. Sometimes a product comes along and claims to change the world but doesn’t really. And sometimes a product comes along and claims to change a bit of the world that didn’t really need changing, but you have to admit it’s pretty chuffing great anyway.
Nuraphone, the headphones that tune their output to match the peculiarities of the individual user’s hearing, can be filed in the third category.
A high-profile launch at the start of 2018, these canny cans are now even cannier thanks to a software update that has unlocked their capability for active noise-cancelling. There are other tweaks to the app too, including a very clever ‘social mode’ that will stop supermarket cashiers hating you.
DESIGN: WHAT’S GOING ON HEAR?
The unboxing of our review unit was greeted by an office-wide chorus of “Eeurrrgh!” For some reason, over-ears with in-ear bits look all sinister and intrusive, like something you’d find in a secret cupboard at Dystopia District Hospital. But if you’re brave enough to jiggle those buds into place, the oddness factor is soon (nearly) forgotten.
Once you’ve installed the iOS/Android app and sorted your Bluetooth pairing, the setup procedure involves sitting still for a calm moment while Kraftwerk-style bleepy noises are fired at your eardrums. A kind of echo-sounding process, this is Nuraphone’s way of reading how your ears respond to different frequencies. At the end you’ll have your profile, complete with blobby graphic, and you’re now free to go back to actual Kraftwerk.
Toggling your profile on and off lets you hear just how different it is from the headphones’ generic sound… which is not quite as instructive as it seems, because that ‘flat’ sound is so horribly crude we suspect it’s been tuned that way just to emphasise the contrast.
SOUND: RIGHT HEAR, RIGHT NOW
How can you make objective judgements about sound that’s personalised to each listener? Well, you can’t. But by setting up profiles for a few different people, you can at least get a fuller picture of what’s happening; and if each of those people says their profile sounds fantastic, and prefers their own to everyone else’s, you know something good is going on.
On the whole, that’s the case. Certainly my profile sounded excellent, with thumping bass, sweetly spacious mids, and no harshness in the top end. Drastically different from other high-quality headphones? Not necessarily, but without doubt a totally hi-fi experience, and a bit of a wow moment.
There is some scope for tonal fine-tuning, thanks to that combination of in-ear buds and full-size earcups. The ‘immersion’ bar, originally accessed on a separate screen but now tucked at the bottom of the main one, lets you adjust bass levels by selecting how much low-end punch the big outer drivers are adding to the mix. It can get pretty thunderous, but stays impressively focused. Even so, unless there’s a block-rocking party going on in your head you’ll want to keep this fairly low for a realistic balance.
There’s no such tweakability with the top end - which is a pity if you’re not completely happy with Nuraphone’s reading of your hearing response. In fact, with some styles of music I found that my wife’s less treble-boosted profile (she clearly hasn’t abused her ears as much as I have) sounded more likeable than my own. This does detract a little from the magic of the profiling concept, but all it really calls for is more options to customise and compromise within the app: if I could just combine Mrs P’s more restrained treble with my less pushy mids, these things would be getting six out of five.
NOISE-CANCELLING: HEAR I GO AGAIN ON MY OWN
When we originally reviewed the Nuraphones in the print edition of Stuff, we noted the lack of active noise-cancelling but didn’t really mind it, simply because snug buds and closed cups make an extremely effective combo for passive isolation. But the microphones for ANC were there all along, and the latest version of the app adds it to the headphones’ arsenal of tricks.
The result is an almost eerie removal of yourself from the sounds of the outside world. Broadly speaking, isolation muffles the high end while cancellation kills the lower frequencies; in tandem, they turn a clattering commuter train into something like a humming fridge.
And if the world wants you back again? Here’s another new feature, ‘social mode’, which can be set up for activation by a tap on one of the outer buttons on the earcups: the music level drops a little, and the noise-cancellation mics are flipped back in phase so that outside sounds are actually boosted rather than cut. No more lifting off one cup and going “Uh?” whenever someone tries to get your attention - it’s not so much social as anti-anti-social, and it works superbly.
CONNECTIVITY: WIRE WE HEAR?
Bluetooth performance is solid, but you’re not stuck with wireless listening: jack, USB and Lightning cables are also available. Just be warned that the connection on the cans is a Nura-specific type, so generic cables won’t be any good here. And you’ll definitely need to look after the USB cable for charging, even if the stated battery life of 20 hours is not too far-fetched.
Crucially, profiles live in the headphones, not the app, so once you’re set up you can connect them to any music source and still feel the benefit of personalised audio. Yes, I still have an iPod Classic, and no, I’m not in the least bit embarrassed about it - especially now that I’ve heard just how good my favourite not-on-Spotify albums can sound
The first thing to say in weighing up these funny-looking headphones is that they sound absolutely sublime. The second is that the addition of active noise-cancelling has given them a real lift. That’s the important stuff, and that’s why they’re getting five stars.
The question of whether ear-tuned headphones are genuinely the way forward for personal audio isn’t quite so clear - and there’s a lack of flexibility in the Nuraphone system that can be frustrating. But we’re not complaining too much when they perform this well.