Review: Nuraloop brings personalized audio to people on the go
Let me start out by saying I'm an unapologetic Nuraphone fanboy. The original over-ear Nuraphones introduced me to the concept of personalized audio and remain the greatest set of headphones I've ever experienced.
We explained the personalized audio idea in great detail the first time we spoke with Nura, but in a nutshell, everyone's hearing has its own EQ chart that can differ from yours or mine by as much as 20 dB at any point on the audio spectrum. You might be as much as eight clicks on an iPhone slider more or less sensitive to a particular frequency than I am, and the upshot is this: audio equipment that sounds perfect to me may well sound tinny, or woofy, or muddy, or harsh, to you.
As a result, there is no such thing as an excellent-sounding set of headphones. There are only headphones that suit a particular listener's peculiar hearing tendencies.
Australian company Nura set out to solve this problem by developing headphones that literally give you an automated otoacoustic hearing test when you first put them on, so they can tune themselves to suit any ears and sound amazing for anyone who wears them.
Nuraloop is the long-awaited earphone version of the technology, something you can throw in your pocket or wear down the street without having to lug a full set of headphones around. It packs almost all of the functionality of the Nuraphones – including the tiny in-ear microphones that enable the hearing test magic trick – into a set of earbuds hardly any larger than your average set of in-ears.
The Nuraloop earbuds are joined with a cable, which Nura CEO Dragan Petrovic tells us carries no fewer than 18 wires to enable their many functions. There's no charging case; you won't need one. Battery life is an astonishing sixteen-plus hours of listening, so instead you get a little zip-up pouch made of wetsuit-like material. In the center of the loop cable is a round magnetic connector that connects to a proprietary USB charging cable, as well as to a proprietary AUX cable, both of which are included.
Yes, an AUX cable, a 3.5-mm jack. There's not a lot of other Bluetooth wireless earbuds around that can plug into the headphones jack of an airplane in-flight entertainment system or a musician's in-ear monitor receiver. Neat touch in a world where not everything is wireless.
Apart from personalized audio, their feature list includes active noise cancellation, social mode so you can dial in the outside world if you like, touch-sensitive dial and button controls on each ear, multiple ear tips for fitting, sweat-resistant materials, Bluetooth 5/aptX connectivity, automatic on/off switch, voice call microphones and a slideable "Immersion mode" bass boost.
Putting them on, you hook them over and into your ears using "malleable ear hooks" you can bend into shape to hold them firmly on. If you don't bend these things to shape, the loop will stick up at the back and poke into your clothes, pushing the earphones out. Even with them bent, the cable sometimes runs into high shirt collars or drags against hoodies as you turn your head; fairly standard for corded earphones but annoying nonetheless. Wearing them with glasses and a face mask means you've got quite a lot of traffic going over your ear.
"That's a tradeoff for having that cable in between," says Petrovic. "It happens with others that are wired as well. With true wireless, you don't have that issue. But what you give up by going to true wireless is that AUX connection, and also battery life. The Nuraloop gives you sixteen-plus hours of battery life. True wireless earphones typically top out around five. There's always these tradeoffs in the design."
They turn on by themselves once they're in, and the first time you put them on, you tune them in with a one-minute hearing test that plays a series of weird digital tones into your ear. It's best done in total silence, and you'll notice your hearing profile will change if you take the test in a noisy room.
As you create your profile (up to three can be stored on a single headset), you have the opportunity to name it. This time, I called one of my profiles "You Saucy Trouser Ferret," and now every time I put them on, a friendly voice tells me "welcome back, you saucy trouser ferret," so I start every listening session with a big, stupid grin.
From there, you get to have the terrific experience of going from a flat EQ profile (which sounds pretty good itself) into your personalized hearing profile. The difference is amazing; in my case, the sound gains a crystal crispness up top and becomes warmer in the low end. Flicking back to the flat profile sounds like listening to music over the phone.
My missus' ears are totally different, and if I switch into her profile the bass becomes overwhelming and the top end sounds thin and tacky. I'm sure mine sounds just as bad to her. You really only need to pull the curtain back on your personal sound once, but it's a pretty incredible (and occasionally quite emotional) experience to hear a sound tailored just for you.
The only capacity you have to tailor that sound further is the Immersion Mode slider, which adds bass to the mix. Here, the Nuraloop diverges from the Nuraphones, which keep your hearing profile "pure" by adding additional bass through a separate skin conduction speaker around the ear. The Nuraloop doesn't have an extra audio route to use like this, and instead just adds extra low end to your hearing profile.
"We realized that bass is the most subjective part of the listening experience," says Petrovic, "it's a matter of preference. So for people that want more bass, we let them turn it up. On the Nuraloop, the bass boost comes through the same speaker, because we don't have a separate modality to deliver it. And yes, that will then influence how clearly your hearing system can perceive the other tones, so you will get some masking if you overdo it."
Indeed, the bass can get pretty huge when you push that slider all the way up, overwhelming the rest of the sound, so I've been running Immersion lower on the 'loop than the 'phones. Petrovic says a lot of musicians, including Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli (there's an impressive pair of unpaid endorsers if ever I've seen one), tend to prefer very low or no added bass on their Nura devices, which is interesting.
The controls are pretty simple; press right to play/pause; press left to turn social mode on and off; dial your finger one way or the other on the right earphone for volume; and on the left for the volume of social mode, which is separate. You can also customize these controls as well as double taps.
Noise cancellation works impressively well for such a small device, although not as well as on the full size Nuraphones, which are simply a bigger and more isolating design. Social mode is super handy, turning down whatever's in your ears and piping through stereo sound from the outside world so you can very quickly tap your left ear and jump into a conversation or hear your surroundings without having to pull the earbuds out. Weirdly, I've noticed that no matter what volume level I set social mode to, it merrily goes back to maximum when I turn it off and on.
Phone calls work less well in my experience; before this week's software update people on the other end told me I sounded distant, distorted and hard to understand, particularly outside walking in traffic. Even sitting at my desk on a Slack call, my colleagues asked me to turn them off. Since the software update, things seem to have improved and I've been able to have several conversations without people complaining.
Speaking softly inside seems to work best, but frankly, most earphones aren't great for calls since an ear-mounted microphone is a long way from your mouth as a sound source. Even Apple's Airpods Pro, with their dual beamforming microphones, sound pretty terrible to me on phone calls, and certainly not as good as just holding your phone up to your mouth like a caveman.
As for the AUX cord, it works well and delivers sound at a higher quality than Bluetooth can, although you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference. It'll be very handy on a plane trip, if we're ever allowed to take those again.
Latency was initially an issue for me when I tried to use the AUX cord with my electronic drum kit; there was just enough to throw off my groove. Again, the software update has done a good job in this regard. They still deliver the beat a tiny hair later than my regular corded 'phones, but the gap is negligible now and as such musicians should find them usable as stage monitors and practice aids.
I had another complaint before the software update came through too; like many wireless earphones, the Nuraloop didn't have a power switch, and like many wireless earphones without switches, they sometimes stay on when you're not expecting them to. With a powerful Bluetooth connection that maintains a connection through most of my house, that can be a problem. I missed a call or two with a silent phone, and at one point they connected themselves to the TV without my knowledge and we all thought it was on the blink.
Furthermore, they occasionally and inexplicably put themselves in a "deep sleep" mode, from which they could seemingly only be roused by connecting them to a charger. I'm happy to say, the software update has comprehensively solved this problem for me. They now do a much better job at deciding when they're meant to be on and off, and if it ever becomes a problem in the future, you can turn off the automatic feature altogether and set them so they only turn on or off with a long press of both buttons at once. Problem gone.
Most of what made the Nuraphones special has made its way through into the Nuraloop. The sound quality cannot be ignored, and while you may be lucky enough to find a cheaper set of buds that sound just as good to your own particular ears, these will satisfy a range of different people with a range of different sound profiles.
They're light, reasonably comfy if you don't mind the back loop, and once you bend the ear loops into shape they sit securely enough for jogging, cycling and a range of other exercise types, as you'd hope they would. For the ultimate listening experience I'll still be reaching for my Nuraphones, but despite a rocky launch the Nuraloop deserves a run against something like the Airpods Pro at a lower, but still premium, US$199 (AU$299) price point.