The nuraphone headphones are a sci-fi sounding piece of tech - a pair of $499 headphones that claim to tune themselves to your ears. The idea is that they compensate for how sensitive your ears are to particular frequencies, personalising your music to you.
However, after giving them a whirl, I'm not convinced this delivers the best listening experience.
The nuraphone comes in a beautiful, durable case with magnets elegantly keeping it sealed. I always like a good case, even though in reality I'll put it in a cupboard and shove the headphones into my bag most days of the week.
Upon taking the nuraphone out of its case I was confused. There's no buttons to be seen - how was I supposed to turn them on and put them into pairing mode?
There I was told to put the headphones on, ensuring the ear tips go into my ear canal. Putting headphones with no promise of incoming sound feels wrong, especially when ear tips are involved, but OK - I'll bite.
To my surprise a smooth voice told me that the Bluetooth was on. Immediately I felt like I'd been catapulted into the future - these cheeky headphones had turned themselves on AND gotten ready to pair with my phone just by me putting them on my head.
Bluetooth pairing can be finicky at the best of times, but this felt particularly seamless. No holding down a button for 3 seconds to enter pairing mode, just an instant connection and a clear voice telling me that pairing had been successful.
Next the app took me through several calibration steps to ensure a good fit, including the headphones playing a tone to assess whether the seal is good.
This feels weird, and intimate. It's scoping out my ear to decide whether I've pushed the tip into my ear canal sufficiently. The app is very clear in telling you whether or not you've got it right, and it feels very comforting to not have to figure it out yourself. This feels about as idiot proof as very fancy technology can get.
The nura app walks you step-by-step to get create your personalised listening profile.
After the fitting the nuraphones correctly, it's time to create a profile.
A series of different tones play, lasting about a minute. Towards the end it starts to feel really trippy, but it soon leaves you with a pretty circle that represents your personal hearing profile.
Low frequencies start at 12 o'clock, moving towards high frequencies as you go clockwise. The pattern moves closer to the centre to represent a lack of sensitivity, whilst outward movement means higher sensitivity.
With a fully fledged profile a voice prompt greets me each time I put the headphones on - "Welcome back, Angharad."
I am Joaquin Phoenix and this is my Her.
To demonstrate the technology at work, the app starts playing a song for you using the generic profile, giving you the opportunity to flick over to your personal profile whenever you're ready to feel the magic. My palms were heavy, knees weak, mum's spaghetti, as I switched over.
The music immediately felt more detailed with richer bass and a more open, inviting sound. So on first impression it feels like the technology works. (Note: You can only set up and change this profile feature through a Bluetooth connection).
But after spending a lot of time listening to the nuraphones, I don't feel like they truly are the amazing sounding headphones I wanted them to be.
I wasn't hearing detail in my music that I've previously missed through other quality sound sources, and they don't have any sexy aspects that catch my attention.
They do sound noticeably better through a corded connection than Bluetooth, but that's to be expected (I was also pleased to find that the personalised setting continues working via aux, once set through the app via Bluetooth).
At their best they do sound lovely and open, with tight bass that doesn't seek to overwhelm in lieu of performing well (as so many headphones do) - although it isn't quite as rich or detailed as I would have hoped. The mids and highs are airy and open, although occasionally a little brash.
I do think it's highly possible that my expectations are too high. In my mind I'm comparing them to headphones that cost five times as much - but when you make bold claims that I'm going to hear my music for the first time… well I expect you to deliver.
That's not to say they're not a good sounding pair of headphones, because once personalised they are. They're just not mind blowing.
The headset itself is largely made of metal and a soft rubber material, and feels very premium with its sleek, streamlined design.
The cups accommodate my ears well, providing a dual layer of noise isolation. The "inova architecture" (which is nura's patented "in and over" design) works much like having earphones pushed in with ear protection muffs over the top (something I commonly do when playing drums).
It's a more comfortable, quiet isolation than active noise cancelling headphones, and works effectively to block out external sound, but it robs you of the pleasure of having your little ear canals untouched.
I wear earphones when I want to do away with bulk, and headphones when I want comfort. At times it feels like this design does away with the reason I like those individual designs, and gives me a compromise that I'm not sure I want.
As comfortable as they've managed to make these, having anything pushed into your ear still doesn't feel great, and after a few hours my ears did start to get sore. I absolutely couldn't recommend these for a long flight, unless you have Herculean ear canals.
It also takes a lot of fiddling and adjusting to get the fit just right, and as the headphones automatically turn off when not in use they disconnect when you take them off to scratch your ear holes. It doesn't take long to reconnect, but it's still an inconvenience.
The nubs which attach the cups to the headband also double as programmable touch controls. However, you also need to touch them to adjust the placement of the headphones - which you'll do a lot, because an ear tip that you control with an outer cup is a lot to contend with, especially when wearing glasses.
I found this irritating enough that I ended up turning off the controls - which is a shame because the touch controls are something I really like about my Beoplay H9 headphones.
The battery life is impressive - I've used them on my commute and occasionally through the day for about two weeks now and they've not yet died. You can only see the battery level through the app, and charge through the single proprietary "nura" connector - which can also be used for lightning, USB-C, micro USB and 3.5mm connections, given the right cable (which cost $30-50 each).
All in all, the nuraphones are a premium bit of kit for a lot less than some premium headphones. If you think you can get over the discomfort of the "inova" design, they do take the spot as my current favourite Bluetooth headphones for commuting - even with the quality drop they do sound better than most wireless headphones.
However, they're far from perfect, and I yearn for a second or third iteration that cleans up some of the issues (mostly fit and the finicky touch controls). I mostly can't wait to see the next few products nura comes up with - they're on a very good path to bring us some fantastic audio gear.
- Nuraphones automatically listen to your ear and tune your music for you personally.
- Easy to use, well built, premium materials.
- Over ear cups with in-ear tips isolate sound well, but may be uncomfortable.
- Sound better cabled compared to wireless, but wireless connection needed to set up headphones.