'Personalised audio' seems to be the latest hot headphone trend. It's where software is used to to determine your personal hearing profile, then EQ your music so that you can 'hear better'. We've already had a look at the Melbourne-developed nuraphone, so now it's time to test out its Brisbane competitor, the $499 Audeara A-01s.
Excellent functional design makes the A-01 feel weirdly generic, but in a good way. Photo: Angharad Yeo
The A-01s claim to be "designed by doctors and engineers to deliver perfect sound, always." To tune the headphones, you need to conduct a hearing test on yourself via the app. You then upload your profile to the headphones so the relevant adjustments can be applied.
To do the test you can choose between a Standard, High Detail, or Ultimate Precision test - each of which has an increasing number of frequency points to examine and adjust. Wanting the full experience, I naturally opted for the 32 beep, 10 minute Ultimate Precision test.
The test involves sliding various frequency points to increase or decrease its volume. The idea is that you leave it once you can just barely hear the beep, creating a profile of your individual hearing sensitivity. The A-01 then uses that to tweak the sound it delivers to compensate for any hearing loss.
They suggest that you begin with the volume all the way down, then slowly bring raise it until you hear the beep. Yet the test starts with each point at a reasonable volume, drilling the frequency into your head before you manually bring it down. This makes the process much harder, and when you're doing 32 points on each ear it feels like a slog.
Hearing tests are not fun. They are boring and you have to sit in a quiet room and ponder about whether you're hearing a beep or you're imagining you're hearing a beep. Yet you have to do this before you're allowed to have any fun with your new headphones.
However, it does feel precise and weirdly medical. As such, I felt confident that this method would properly assess my hearing. But by putting me in charge of my own hearing test I felt a pang of anxiety about how human error was going to affect my results.
Was I imagining the beep? How loud did it need to be before it counted as me hearing it? What if I wasn't consistent with the volume I was requiring for the point to count? What if the gentle hum of the aircon in my room skewed the results? What volume should my phone, and the headphones themselves, be at?
Technology is supposed to make my life easier, not send me into a spiral of self-doubt.
Once you've gotten over the hurdle of creating your profile, Audeara suggest that you slowly mix it in increments of 25% with the standard profile. They suggest that going the full 100% straight away can be overwhelming.
However, I found the experience to be lacklustre. I redid my profile a few times, and no matter how I sliced it I found that the headphones sounded less-pleasing than when they were on the standard setting.
They ended up sound brash, like music being played out of a tin can. All warmth was stripped from the music, and the end result felt mildly honky. It reminded me of hearing someone listening to music through their phone speaker in the bathroom while you're sitting in the loungeroom.
The soundstage feels rather small, and there's little separation for individual instruments to breathe. I couldn't find the detail I usually look for in high quality headphones.
Songs and tone that usually elicit a deep emotional response from me were just sounds through the A-01. They didn't sparkle like they do out of other quality sound sources I've used.
I desperately wanted all the promises to be true - to enjoy my music more deeply because I was hearing something I hadn't before. Instead, the sound I was delivered bothered me.
I tried introducing my profile extremely slowly, and just leaving it on 100% for long enough that I could just grow to love it. But any time I listened critically I just did not like what I was being given.
50% mix was the sweeter spot for me, because it added a bit more bite to the standard profile's very warm sound, but dampened my profile's honkiness.
Despite this, the A-01 is extremely comfortable to wear. It's not particularly sexy, instead opting for functional design. For some reason they reminded me a bit of airline-issued headphones - lightweight and lacking frills.
This isn't to say they feel cheap or undesirable. They're soft and flexible, and I daresay are the most comfortable pair of headphones I've enjoyed. I wore them on two 14+ hour flights and never felt uncomfortable.
The band is thin, but comfortably distributes weight. The curve on the back of the cans feels amazing - rounded and inoffensive.
Buttons and switches are unobtrusive and solid. You have two switches - one for power, and applying your personal listening profile, and one for active noise cancelling. Then you have buttons for volume up/down, and a multifunction button that can play/pause, answer calls, and initiate Bluetooth pairing. They all feel sturdy and easy to find while the headphones are on your head.
There's also a micro USB charging port, and while I', still salty that USB-C isn't the proper standard yet, I'm willing to let that go. There's also a 3.5mm jack for versatility.
The A-01 comes with a slew of great accessories - certainly above average in quality and variety than most headphones. You get a 3.5mm cable with built in microphone, a micro USB charging cable, a 3.5mm to 1/4" adapter, a banana plug adapter (for use on planes), a hard case, and a carabiner.
It feels generous, if not a bit excessive. I never thought I would use the carabiner but clipping my headphones to the outside of my bag was actually great when I ran out of room in my tiny backpack. It makes you think, "Damn, Audeara. You've thought of everything."
Well, everything except the app. Every time you open up to change the mix percentage of your profile a rather long loading bar comes up. This is fine if you're going to set it and forget it, but it also baffles me why it should take this long every single time.
So far I've applied one software update, which took several hours. Granted, I don't think it went for the 20 hours the progress bar told me it was going to take, but it was still too long.
I also had Bluetooth dropouts while my phone was in my back pocket and I was wearing a backpack, which was any time I was out and about.
All up, I was really taken by the comfort and build quality of the A-01, but disappointed with the software — which is the drawcard of these headphones. I am still desperately waiting to be sold on personalised audio, but so far it just feels like an attempt to make cheaper headphones sound better, but still charge $499. I'd rather a pair of high quality headphones any day.
- Self-administered hearing test creates a personal listening profile
- Personalised audio still less impressive than high quality headphones
- Excellent offering of accessories
- Design isn't flashy, but is highly comfortable and well-built
- Bluetooth connection was feathery when obstructed by a backpack