Corrective eyeglasses have been around for longer than you might think – since ancient Greek and Roman times. For several thousand years, we’ve understood that individual eyes are different and we don’t all see the world identically.
The same isn’t quite true when it comes to hearing. Sure, you know your grandma is deaf in one ear and that mate of yours struggles with conversation at the pub after too many loud concerts. But it’s not common knowledge that everyone’s inner and outer ears are shaped differently from birth, meaning we hear the same sounds in different, subjective ways, even when our hearing is healthy.
Nura, a Melbourne start-up, puts this idea to work in its wireless Nuraphone, which claims to adapt to each individual’s ears and make music sound better than conventional headphones were ever able to.
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The science is real. Nura’s co-founder and CTO (chief technology officer) Luke Campbell is a qualified medical doctor. While training to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon, he started researching electrocochleography, a technique that measures the tiny electrical signals your ear generates in response to noise. The associated subject of otoacoustic emissions refers to the unique, imperceptible noises ears make with or without external stimulation. Both areas are vital to ongoing research into tinnitus and cochlear implants.
When you slip on a Nuraphone for the first time, it runs a 60-second test initiated by your phone. Sensitive internal microphones listen to your ears’ otoacoustic emissions and the Nuraphone generates a unique listening profile that smooths down areas of particular sensitivity. Each Nuraphone can hold three profiles.
Initially, Campbell and electrical engineer Kyle Slater – his research partner at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital – just wanted to develop a more useful hearing test; one that didn’t require patients to push a button when they heard a tone. They developed a pair of earbuds and started testing them on people with earmuffs or DJ-style headphones placed over the top to make the ear quieter and the tests easier. Hence the Nuraphone’s divisive design, which combines buds and over-ear cups.
Then inspiration struck. “We thought, ‘Let’s use one of these objective tests of hearing and build that into a headphone using all the smarts of modern electronics to give people a different way to experience music,” Campbell says. They had no idea if it would even work, but pushed on after positive feedback to their initial prototypes. “Regardless of how big or small the change is, people still really seem to appreciate it,” Campbell says. “That’s one of the insights we really didn’t expect.”
In 2015 the duo was accepted into the Melbourne Accelerator Program and flew to San Francisco to pitch to several venture capital (VC) firms. That led to the better-resourced HAX Accelerator, which “finds hardware start-ups with good ideas and takes them to China to help them turn their ideas into bits of metal and plastic.”
Back home in Melbourne, Campbell and Slater set up a crowdfunding page and asked for the naive sum of $100,000 to bring the Nuraphone to market. After two months, they’d raised $1.8 million, still the largest sum in Australian Kickstarter in history. “In hindsight there’s absolutely no way we could have built and delivered headphones to people for $100,000,” Campbell says. “If you want to mass-produce a product you need, at an absolute minimum, half a million to a million dollars to get something off the ground properly.”
Slater stepped away from the company at the end of 2017 and Campbell now co-owns it with Dragan Petrović, a more business-minded product manager he met on that first trip to San Francisco. Nura wasn’t willing to share revenue figures or the number of units it’s shipped, but the company appears to be doing well. It raised another $5 million from investors last year and now has about 30 staff working between SF, London, China and Melbourne. A recent software update added active noise cancelling to existing Nuraphones, plus several other new features.
Our first question with all this: if adaptive headphones are really that much better, why hadn’t they already been invented? Decades-old audio companies such as Yamaha, Pioneer, Sennheiser, Sony, Klipsch and Grado Labs have their own talented researchers working on the next big leap. How did two then-20-somethings from Melbourne outfox them all? Is their invention just not that special? “I think traditional headphone companies are heavy on electrical engineers and acoustic engineers, but they don’t actually have need for hearing scientists,” Campbell says. “There’s a disconnect between things you can take from the medical hearing research world and what you can put into a product. The bridge just isn’t there.”
He also points out that until recently it was very hard to fit the required components into a pair of wireless headphones, even if otoacoustic emissions have been understood since at least the ’70s. Only the development of smartphones, and other consumer electronics, has driven miniaturisation to the point of viability. Apart from a couple of chips, nearly everything in a Nuraphone is custom-made, and the trickiest components took up to 150 prototypes to perfect. Finally, the hybrid bud-and-cup design is weird enough to turn potential designers off it altogether. “People laughed us out of the room when we first proposed it,” Campbell says.
And indeed, the Nuraphone elicited plenty of uneasy or confused looks when I passed a test pair around the Broadsheet office. I was pleasantly surprised by how easily it fit my head and ears, although the feeling does take some getting used to. An online reviewer described it as like putting your fingers in your ears, which isn’t far off. The sound isolation this creates is quite remarkable, though. Even with no music playing, I found it hard to hear nearby conversations. In quieter rooms, I could hear my pulse thumping in my ears. When I did have music playing – even at full bore – it was hard for people around me to hear it.
Setting up was easy. I paired the Nuraphone with my phone via Bluetooth, downloaded the official app and moved to a quiet room so it could run a test on my ears (60 seconds of a weird Theremin-like tone) After a couple of errors and one re-start of my phone, I had a nice pink and blue orb on screen, representing my particular hearing. I tried the default/neutral profile first. As other online reviews have noted, it’s suspiciously awful.
So, the $1.8 million question. How does a personalised Nuraphone actually sound?
Good. Really good. For a past decade I’ve been using Sennheiser’s HD25 headphones, which are renowned in the DJing world for their ruggedness and decent sound quality, but which few people would consider a studio-ready headphone. I wear them for 8–10 hours a day, five days a week. The Nuraphone sounds better (which it should, at $200 more expensive), but not so dramatically I found myself smiling goofily like the first-time testers in the promo videos on Nura’s website. Over the course of two weeks, I tested the product with a bunch of very familiar songs drawn from genres including pop, rap, stoner rock, indie rock, house and techno.
As expected, the Nuraphone has a vastly superior soundstage – i.e. the illusion of space and 3D-ness in the sound. In particular, stoner rock’s trippy, drawn-out effects have more room to breathe and seem to decay more slowly. Even with electronic genres, individual instruments, voices and sounds feel more separated and easily discernible. In high-gloss pop tracks such as Drake’s Hotline Bling, I noticed small sounds and details I’d never realised were there. This didn’t carry through to low-budget indie rock, though. Bands such as Methyl Ethel and D.D Dumbo aren’t that well recorded and mixed to begin with, meaning those smaller, unnoticed details were harder to come by. But in general, the Nuraphone has an impressive level of detail. Hi-hats are razor-sharp and the bass is lean and muscular rather than flabby.
How much of this is down to personalised “ear matching” and how much is down to good-quality drivers and superior sound isolation? It’s impossible to say. Campbell was happy to discuss proven science and explain something called “spatial masking” to me. Frustratingly, though, he wouldn’t tell me just how granular the Nuraphone’s personalised sound is. Does it adjust the bass, mids and highs in three huge blocks? Or are there 100 stops, each one up for change? Given that studio equalisers have 15–30 frequency bands, my guess is somewhere around there.
Another editor at Broadsheet, one who’s been playing in bands for 20 years, set up his own listening profile. He didn’t warm to the Nuraphone at all. “So much time, money, expensive equipment and artistic expression goes into what records sound like,” he said. “To have your headphones meddle with it is really annoying. Like if you’re turning down the bass on Burial or winding off all the tone on Eddy Current so it isn’t as sharp or hoping for a ‘fuller’ experience with a ’60s Beatles record, you’re completely missing the point.”
Perhaps he’s right, but unless you have drastic hearing issues, the Nuraphone’s subtle adjustments aren’t in line with the cheap, muddy, mega-boosted bass you hear in a pair of Beats by Dre or the average car stereo. And even the most expensive, neutral-as-possible headphones out there – Grado’s $2,000 PS1000e, say – have a particular “sound” that people gravitate towards or away from.
Only two parts of the experience feel gimmicky, actually. First is the cool, Siri-like voice that says, “welcome back Nick” every time I put the headphones back on, even after just 30 seconds away from them. It gets tedious hearing it ten or more times a day. Second is the built-in haptic drivers (speakers which create tactile vibrations rather than actual sound), which are controlled via the app’s “immersion mode”. 100 per cent power is called “front row”, and it genuinely feels like standing in the front row of a concert, albeit with much more detailed mid and high frequencies. It’s fun, but only in short bursts. For long listening sessions, my sweet spot is about 15 per cent.
Speaking of which, the cups and buds are made of a soft silicone, which warms up nicely and feels comfortable against the skin for extended periods. The silicone spring that gently pushes the buds inside your ears was one of those tricky components that took 150 iterations to perfect. The springs are non-linear, meaning they offer a lot of resistance initially but relax the more they’re compressed. In other words, once they’re inside your ears, they stop pushing so hard. This works well.
Another component, a Tesla valve, took at least 30 iterations to get right. The tricky hook-shaped passage has no moving parts but uses some clever aerodynamics to let outside air into the cups, while siphoning hot air out. Apparently, listening to bass-heavy music ramps up the pumping effect. Campbell claims a Nuraphone can reduce the temperature of your ears by up to two degrees. I’d have to reserve judgment until summer, but the science seems solid once again.
Heat isn’t a problem, but for some people, weight might be. At 140 grams, my Sennheisers are relatively light, and even they put a strain on my neck after a particularly long day. Directly competing models from Klipsch, AIAIAI and other headphone brands weigh in at up to 250 grams. Really high-end studio or hi-fi headphones often weigh up to 500 grams. The Nuraphone is 329 grams and initially pretty grippy on the head, meaning you start to feel it after an hour or so. But as with any headphones, it would no doubt relax the longer you wore it.
I found myself switching back and forth between my old, familiar Sennheisers and the Nuraphone every hour or so, alternately frustrated by the lack of musical detail in the Sennheisers, and the lack of comfort with the Nuraphone. Ultimately, this might be what makes or breaks the product for many people, depending on whether they’re brief commuters or frequent long-haul fliers.
The Nuraphone retails for $499.
This article was updated on November 19, 2018.