Just as with vision, no two people have the same hearing, so why should headphones be one size fits all?
Off the back of a successful Kickstarter that has so far earned A$1.2 million ($875,395), Melbourne-based startup Nura has created a unique pair of headphones that aim to adapt sound exactly for your ears. On Monday, Nura cofounders Luke Campbell and Kyle Slater dropped by the Mashable Australia office to give a demonstration of the product and talk us through the technology.
Starting in 2015, Campbell and Slater, along with cofounder Dragan Petrovic, decided to try and build a genuinely adaptive pair of headphones. “We all hear differently,” Campbell pointed out. “If we both stand in front of a speaker, we both hear different versions of the same song.”
The science behind the technology is based on the fact your ears don’t just listen to sound, they also produce it. The team have adapted an otoacoustic emissions test, which measures the sounds created by the inner ear when the cochlea responds to sound, and put it inside the headphones.
A sensitive microphone is built-in to pick up and analyse which sounds you hear well and which you don’t, allowing the headset to automatically be retuned to fill in any musical black spots.
The headphones have an in-ear and over-ear design, much like having earbuds inside a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. The in-ear piece measures hearing and plays mostly mid and high tones, Campbell said, while the bass plays predominantly though the over-ear component.
According to Slater, adaptive headphones could also help protect our hearing. “One of the reasons people listen to music so loud at the moment is because the headphones don’t match their hearing very well,” Slater said. “People turn it up because they want their earbuds to play better bass, and of course, at the same time, play really loud high frequency sounds that damage your ears.”
As a bonus, the team have tried to account for that fact that feeling a song’s beat is often a tactile sensation. The headphones have a special “Kick It” mode that increases the bass to powerful levels in contact with your skin. “It will feel like you’re right in front of the speaker, but you’ll have crystal clear, safe sound,” Campbell explained.
The headphones, which will come with wired and wireless versions, should be ready for market in April 2017. A pair will cost $399 (A$533) direct from Nura’s website.
Trying out personalised sound
To give Nura’s prototype headphones a rigorous test, I called in our Watercooler reporter Johnny Lieu, who is a DJ after hours, to also give them a try.
The prototype we trialled currently has the signal processing technology as a separate component, but it will eventually be built into the ear cup.
Nura’s hearing test, which measures your relative sensitivity to 11 different frequencies, takes 30 seconds to a minute through a smartphone app. It’s a little uncomfortable to listen to higher and higher frequencies, but they don’t last long, and once set up, you can listen to music on any app.
According to Slater, the calibration process should be repeated every six months to account for hearing changes.
Trialling the headphones on two songs, Björk’s “Venus as a Boy” and J. Cole’s “G.O.M.D.,” it was clear the Nura headphones offered a much richer sound. Compared to my basic Samsung earbuds, the J. Cole track, for example, had much more detail and was more balanced. The Nura product also gave Björk’s song a much broader soundstage and let me hear more of the instrumentation.
For my taste, the earbuds felt a little claustrophobic because of how far they protruded into the ear. Slater suggested the final product would be less invasive, however, as the trial unit relies on commercially available ear tips that will be customised in the for-market version.
While Lieu was skeptical at first, he was left convinced. “Listening to Bjork’s ‘Venus As A Boy’ the Nura’s brought exceptionally bright but not harsh highs and pleasantly warm mids,” he said.
“Perhaps the proof the technology works is through listening to different sound profiles in the app. Ariel’s profile had noticeably duller highs and mids, thanks to her ear’s supposed sensitivity to higher frequencies. It fares much better compared to the similarly priced Bose’s QuietComfort 25, which has noticeably dismal sound quality.
“My MEElectronics M6 PRO in-ear headphones fared better with the mids and lows, but it’s the highs where the Nura smokes the rest of the competition.”
In his view, the “Kick It” function added a a significant amount of bass in the outer cups and a touch in the in-ear drivers. “Kick It was admittedly awesome in the few minutes I tried it, but it could be fatiguing after an extended period of time,” he added.
Ultimately, this is a promising product that will leave you wondering why you used lacklustre earbuds for so long. Nevertheless, while the Nura headphones feel perfect for sitting in a dark room and getting lost in an album, they feel a little inappropriate for street wear. The sound is so immersive it could honestly be disorientating for newcomers to audiophilia.