REVIEW: NURA NURAPHONE HEADPHONES
Most headphones deliver a sound signature that remains consistent to each listener that tries them out. But here's the thing - not all listeners are the same. Nuraphone attempts to solve that problem and we take a close look to see just how well.
Wireless Bluetooth Over Ear Headphones
AUD $499 RRP
In early 2016, Dr Dragan Petrovic and Dr Luke Campbell came together in leafy Brunswick, Melbourne to create a brand that would potentially change the way we think about personal music listening forever. It was called ... Nura.
The first project from this startup was the 'Nuraphone', which, according to Nura, was an over-ear “Self-learning headphone that adapts to match to your hearing”.
The product was soon born and tried to find its feet on the crowdfunding service Kickstarter. When the project was listed, it had a humble ambition of raising $100,000 to get it off the ground. In the end, it surprisingly raised just over $1.8 million and the highest amount of any Australian Kickstarter campaign.
Otoacoustic emissions, dual-driver over-ear configurations, personalised profiles. These are just some of the words you'll read when looking up these unusual, and untraditional headphones. As both a headphone lover and tech enthusiast, I've been wanting to try these out since I first spotted the Kickstarter campaign, so you can imagine my excitement when I finally received a review pair.
While these are priced competitively against other Bluetooth over-ears such as the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC 900BT (AUD $449), the B&W PX (AUD $549) and the Sony WH-1000XM3 (AUD $549), after spending a few weeks with the Nuraphone, I can safely assure you these are a different beast entirely.
But what exactly are we looking at here?
How it works
Otoacoustic emissions are very minor sounds that are generated by the inner ear. Through various means, there are ways of measuring these emissions to determine one's ear-health.
By measuring these emissions (and adjusting the sound signature accordingly), the Nuraphone sets itself apart from the competition and raises the bar of what the public can expect from a smart headphone.
From the Nuraphone Kickstarter campaign:
The nuraphone plays a range of tones into the ear, and then measures a very faint sound that your ear generates in response to these tones called the Otoacoustic Emission (OAE). This tiny signal originates in the cochlea and vibrates the eardrum, turning it into a speaker and playing the sound back out of your ear. Yes, our ears make sound! This sound is about 10,000 times smaller than the sound that went in.
Encoded in the returning sound wave is information about how well you heard the sound that went in. The nuraphone uses an extremely sensitive microphone to detect this returning sound wave, and a self-learning engine built into the nuraphone to create your profile. No buttons or knobs. It all happens automatically and in about 60 seconds. It is a little bit magic.
Your individual listening profile is then stored via the Nura app and is exclusively catered for you. Up to three profiles can be stored at one time in the headphones.
From the outside, the Nuraphone looks like a simple but effective over-ear design, featuring a solid metal headband, plastic cups, soft rubber insides, and an overall stealthy black styling.
Taking a close look at this headphone, however, reveals that it isn't quite an entirely traditional over-ear design. Mounted inside the ear cups are flexible inner ear monitors (IEMs). There are three different sized tips to fit onto these, and they can be gently manipulated around depending on your ear size.
Weighing in at 329 grams, the Nuraphones feels solid and hefty, but not terribly bulky (despite the enormous amount of tech that has been crammed inside).
The headband is entirely rigid with no moving parts, and adjustments to fit and size are made by sliding the cups up and down the sides of the headband. The downside is that the Nuraphone doesn't fold for storage, but is supplied with a neat black case.
The case is a mix of smooth black soft plastics, rubber, metal, classy logo placement and clever use of magnets (one to hold the clasp shut, and another to somehow keep the accessory packet firmly in place). It won't eat up any more space in your bag then the ATH-ANC 900BT but will take up slightly more room compared to the Bose QC35 II.
Compared to a regular set of Bluetooth headphones, the Nuraphones contains a dizzying array of tech as you would expect.
For starters, there are two sets of drivers per ear comprising a single 15mm dynamic for the inner-ear component and a 40mm dynamic for the outer ear.
To prevent overheating, the cups feature a “Tesla valve” which is designed to keep cool air flowing through the cups, while pushing warm air out.
Deep inside the inner-ear component of the headphones are tiny microphones, which according to Dragan Petrović, CEO of Nura, use similar technology to what NASA will be using on the 2020 Mars mission!
These microphones can be used not only for taking your ear measurements, but also for taking calls, “social mode”, and noise cancelling. The latter of which was added in later. Interestingly, Nura is apparently the only company in the world to later add active noise cancelling to headphones via a software update. Cool!
The Bluetooth 4.0 connection is handled via Qualcomm aptX, SBC, AAC, and the very welcome aptX HD.
Or if you prefer a cabled option, there is one cable port on the headphone, which is a proprietary port. This port has several cable options available, such as Micro USB, USB type C, or even an analogue 3.5mm cable.
Putting on the Nuraphone for the first time is a very odd experience. Trying to line up the IEM component inside the cups with your earholes feels like an impossible task at first, but after a few successful attempts, muscle memory takes over, making a decent fit an easier task.
The Nuraphone is comfortable for listening for several hours at once, but longer listening sessions will require a few comfort breaks in between.
The small Nura company logos on the outside of the cup might seem like they are just there for aesthetics, but they are actually touch-sensitive panels that are entirely customisable. Any function of the Nuraphone can be mapped to a touch, double-tap or hold, on either ear. These mappings are also saved to your user profile so that everyone that uses your Nuraphones can have their own set of mappings for these buttons. The touch panels also have juicy haptic vibration feedback, so you can feel when your presses have been registered by the headphones. I wish more headphones did this.
When plugged in via 3.5mm jack, the last used profile/preset will be used via the app. The 3.5mm cable is my preferred method of listening as the Nuraphones are very easy to drive, and I can choose whatever amplifier I like (instead of relying on Bluetooth).
Nura rates the battery life to be around 20 hours or so, and this was roughly on par with my testing (when using Bluetooth).
Placing the Nuraphone on a table or into its pouch will activate its “deep sleep” setting, also pausing your music and switching off Bluetooth. Putting them back on your head will do the exact opposite; reconnecting to your source and resuming playback. My review pair eventually became a little confused whether they were meant to be on or off, however, I am reassured by the Nuraphone community online that this minor issue is very rare.
Despite being a feature that was later added in via software update, the noise-cancelling is surprisingly excellent and is perfect for flying or office use. The strength of the ANC absolutely holds a candle to the big boys (Audio-Technica, Bose and Sennheiser). There is also excellent isolation (due in part to the fact that you're basically wearing two headphones at once) and the ANC just pushes this boundary even further, to create a very solitary experience.
Trying to narrow down the sound signature and capabilities of the Nuraphone is no easy task. I've had so many different sound profiles stored to the Nuraphone from friends and family, all of which are drastically different.
When you fire up the app for the first time, you pop in your name and age. From there, you're guided through the fit process. Trying to balance a proper seal of the outer cups with a solid insertion of the inner ear component takes a little bit of finesse, but the Nura app can help you strike this balance.
Once Nuraphone ensures a perfect fit in-and-around your ears, it will play a series of pops, clicks and hums for around a minute. Then your personalised sound profile is visualised and appears on the app via your smartphone.
The next step is the real mind-blowing moment. The track View2 by Sasha starts playing through the headphones with the melodic, downtempo chill hop beats gently creeping, and eventually presented at full volume.
Cleverly, the app will wait just a moment, then reveal that you've actually been listening in the “neutral” profile this whole time, and then cheekily offer you the option to listen to your “personalised” signature instead.
Accepting this, the sound then becomes much fuller, the frequency response widens considerably at both ends, and you will find yourself grinning like an idiot. This is a very cleverly designed process by Nura and shows off what the Nuraphone is truly capable of. It makes me a little curious as to how they tuned the “neutral” profile, as it's nearly unlistenable after using your “personalised” profile for a few minutes!
This EQ is only adjustable via the ingenious microphone mechanism, and there are no options to alter the EQ manually. However, the option “front row immersion” presents a manual adjustment of the mid and sub-bass levels of the over-ear driver. This allows for a level of fun music listening that frankly should be illegal. The depth and slam of bass can be pushed so far that even a seasoned bass head like me wouldn't dare push this setting too high out of fear that my neighbours will call the police with noise complaints.
When the headphone found a signature that it felt best suited my needs, the tonality of the midrange felt accurate, but not overly clinical, especially for more gentle and detailed acoustic pieces. The upper mids presented generous hints of detail, and the soundstage was surprisingly wide-reaching, particularly for a closed-back Bluetooth headphone.
Does the hearing measurement function actually “work”?
To be honest, it's hard for me to say. Yes, it drastically tunes or optimises the headphones; almost to the point where it sounds like a different headphone entirely. Interestingly, when I store my own ear profile under a fake name, the Nuraphone will measure my hearing slightly differently each time.
If noise-cancelling headphones were cars, then the B&W PX would be the BMW M3. The Bose NC700 would be the AMG A45 Mercedes, and the Nuraphone would absolutely be the Tesla.
I say this as Nuraphone may not be for everyone, and the true petrolheads (purist audiophiles) may dismiss it as just another audio gadget. But there is no denying that the features and tech included with the Nuraphone are pushing the envelope beyond anything currently on the market, and no other headphones on the planet can offer the same level of sheer wizardry.
Being able to completely transform a sound signature from one person to the next, having fully adjustable bass drivers, mappable touch controls, sweat resistance, Tesla valve ear cooling technology, Aptx HD codecs ... the feature list is extensive. Some big brand headphones cost twice as much and would only dream of having a feature list such as this.
You may not necessarily rush out to sell your Sennheiser HD800s, but Nuraphone is a technical marvel and an absolute blast to use. If you're into gadgets and gear and want to try something unique to the rest of the pack, I recommend you give them a go.
- Wireless: Yes
- Colour: Black
- Transducer principle: Closed-back
- ANC, active noise cancellation: Yes
- Nominal Bluetooth range: 10 m
- Bluetooth codec: Qualcomm® aptX-HD*
- Frequency range: 20 Hz—20kHz
- Full-scale input signal level: 0.5 VRMS
- Driver size: inner ear: 15mm, outer ear: 40 mm
- Driver type: Dynamic
- THD, total harmonic distortion: <1%
- SNR, signal-to-noise ratio: >125 dB
For more information, visit Nura.
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.
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