Imagine a pair of completely wireless earbuds that can block out the ambient noise of crowds or busy offices or loud restaurants, but that still let you have a perfectly audible — amplified, in fact — conversation with the person in front of you. Think of a hearing aid, but that connects to your phone via Bluetooth, with dynamically adjustable noise cancellation and boosting. Think of Apple’s AirPods, but on steroids.
On paper, Nuheara’s IQbuds aren’t hugely different to other Bluetooth earbuds like the Apple AirPods or Jabra’s Elite Sport — they don’t have any wires, and live in a charging case when not being worn. Nuheara claims 16 hours of Bluetooth streaming on one charge, though, and 32 hours of ambient noise cancellation and speech amplification.
The hook, though, is multiple microphones on each earbud that pick up audio from different directions. Using an algorithm rather than more basic frequency-level noise cancelling, the IQbuds can block out ambient noise while simultaneously amplifying speech from a person close by and directly in front of the wearer. And it works.
I tried the IQbuds for the first time at CES and came away impressed. In a large room filled with hundreds of loud conversations, Nuheara’s wireless in-ear buds blocked out the background noise. Different silicon ear-tips can seal the IQbuds into the wearer’s ear canal — important, since any leakage removes most of the digital noise cancellation going on.
The hardware is solid, but it’s also backed by a smartphone app that can be used to adjust the IQbuds’ noise cancellation. Each earbud can be adjusted independently to compensate for more or less deafness in one ear, or different frequencies or levels of speech amplification can be set. It’s not necessary — there are five default settings for restaurants, outdoors and so on — but the option to dig deeper is there.
You can also tap each of the IQbuds’ left and right buds to either switch between different amplification/cancellation settings, and to play/pause/skip any music or audio that might be playing simultaneously as the ambient audio adjustment element of the headphones. It’s easy to forget that alongside the hearing amplification, these are also regular noise cancelling Bluetooth earbuds and can just be used to entirely block out outside noise while listening to music.
Nuheara is already shipping production-ready IQbuds to the nearly 4000 customers that backed the company’s Indiegogo campaign, where it raised just over $1 million to develop and produce the gadget. There are plenty of different ‘hearables’ at the show, but Nuheara’s Australian story — the company is based in Perth, and is listed on the ASX — is unique. The algorithm that the IQbuds use to block and amplify different ambient elements was developed in collaboration with Curtin University.
When they’re released to the general public in March, Nuheara’s IQbuds will cost $399 in Australia. The company will sell directly through its website, but it’s also actively searching for retail stockistd throughout the country and around the world. [Nuheara]