Review: Hearing augmentation IQbuds turn background noise down and conversations up
They're not just Bluetooth earbuds. With microphones in each ear and an adjustable intelligent noise control feature, Nuheara's IQbuds let you experience the world around you with a kind of bionic hearing. In noisy environments, they let you separate a conversation out of the background noise, boosting voices to make hearing easier.
Australian company Nuheara has just posted sales figures around AU$4.5 million for its first 12 months of sales, based on a single product that's barely been in stores for 4 months. IQbuds are fully wireless Bluetooth earbuds that lodge fairly firmly in your ears using your choice from a wide range of specially shaped tips. They act kind of like foam earplugs, passively blocking out a lot of outside noise.
They play media from your smartphone or laptop perfectly nicely, and do a decent enough job of letting you talk on your phone hands-free as well, despite the fact that the microphones are on your ears.
Where they differentiate themselves from Apple AirPods and the like is that they block sound out passively as earplugs, but then let you bring the outside world back into your listening experience in a bunch of different and interesting ways.
Some modes are focused on situational awareness, making sure you can hear what the traffic's doing as you listen to your podcast, for example, or being able to listen to music in your office without completely cutting off communication with your colleagues.
We found them super useful and intuitive in Street mode. Walking along with a podcast on and the world off sounds great, but then when we want to cross the street,we just tap the right ear to bring the world back in. Situational awareness is restored, we can hear where cars and bikes are coming from, although in a strange and artificial way, and if we need to talk to somebody, a tap on the left ear stops the media stream and lets us have an easy conversation without taking the earbuds out.
One issue outdoors is that if it's a gusty day, you're going to get a fair bit of wind noise, which isn't just unpleasant for you as the wearer, it also interferes with phone calls. In strong winds, you're sometimes better off pulling the buds off and picking up the phone.
But other modes have a higher purpose in mind, which takes some very clever processing to achieve. Nuheara wants you to be able to walk into a noisy environment like a bar, cafe, subway, airplane or sports arena, and turn down the background noise while boosting the speech of people you're having conversations with.
"We want to give you the ability to tune out useless, confusing noise, and turn up the conversation you're having, and that's really difficult to do," Nuheara CEO Justin Miller told us over the phone. "It's mathematics and algorithms. That's our secret sauce, so to speak. There's a lot that goes into it. In a noisy bar, as an example, if you purely just work on emphasizing the frequencies of human voices, the frequency of the conversation I'm having is exactly the same as the frequencies of the background, which is the murmurs of other people. So it's not solely based on frequency, there's a lot of smarts that goes into it.
"We put the computer on the ear. We process it on the ear in real time, which none of the other wireless earbuds do. With multiple microphones on each ear, everything comes in, we process and compute based on our algorithms, determining which things hit which microphones at different times, and building the sound you want to pay attention to out of that. And you've got the ability to turn the rest of the world up and down, to control how you hear it all. It's very intelligent, and a big point of difference."
This is a big deal. We all accumulate hearing damage to some degree as we get older, and at some point in our thirties or so, many of us stop going to noisy nightclubs, bars and even concrete-floored cafes and restaurants because it gets too hard hearing what the hell our companions are saying. It's not that you can't hear it if you try, it's more that the effort of picking things out from the noise just gets tiring and it's hard to relax.
Wearing a pair of IQbuds in this kind of environment takes a bit of getting used to. You've got to spend some time adjusting the overall EQ to suit your particular hearing preferences, or else every time somebody clanks a plate or drops a fork, you get sonically stabbed in the ear. Then you need to tune the EQ of the specific environment you're in, using a simple dial to find the general frequencies you want to kill the most in the background noise.
And next, you choose how much voice separation you want; do you want to kill as much background noise as possible and only have proximal voices, or are you happy to mix a bit more of the room back in? And what's the overall level of world plus voice you need?
In some circumstances, the experience is pretty odd. It sounds a little like everyone's talking to you over the phone on a slightly wobbly, slightly underwater audio connection. In others, the effect is absolutely terrific, muting the background down and boosting your companion's voice in a really natural-sounding way. But in all situations, the IQbuds' built-in brains seem to do an impressive job of ignoring voices that come from further away and prioritizing people on your table. So the "secret sauce" is working.
And crucially, the overall noise level coming into your ears does feel lower. Once you've acclimatized, which takes a while, it does become a more relaxing experience. Over the course of an evening you'll come away less aurally exhausted. Honestly, it's taken us a few weeks to work out how to get the best out of them, but now we're very impressed.
There are caveats here. With IQbuds in your ears, your own voice sounds thunderous in your head, so you've got to train yourself to speak loudly enough that others can hear you. As a rule of thumb, you've got to be able to hear yourself clearly through the IQbuds themselves before you're talking loud enough.
And then there's chewing. Your own chewing noises are pretty overwhelming with what's essentially a pair of ear plugs in, so that can kill a conversation a bit. But heck, you can always pop them out when the food arrives.
So the tuning is critical, but you shouldn't have to do all that messing about every time you go somewhere new. We've found that our settings for noisy cafes and restaurants, for example, is pretty rock solid in most such situations. You can save your favorite environments and cycle through them easily.
IQbuds come in a flip-out charging case that fits decently in a pocket and gives you about 20 hours of Bluetooth streaming, or 40 hours of hearing processing, over the course of 3 or 4 charges of the earbuds themselves. We found battery life pretty terrific, even if a full charge of the case itself takes several hours.
They come with no less than 8 fitting options for the ear tips themselves, and sit snugly enough in my ears that they're terrific at the gym and never feel like they'll fall out.
They pair with and connect to smart devices quickly and easily. There's no power switch, they simply turn on when you take them out of the case, and turn off when you put them back in. Occasionally I've found myself putting them in a tad skewiff, resulting in a nasty feedback whine when I go to close the case, but that's quickly fixed.
The IQbuds app is a little fiddly for our tastes; a few too many tabs for things we'd prefer to have on a single page. But it's easy enough to get the hang of, and once you've set up your favorite environments to your tastes, you can more or less leave it alone.
The Bluetooth connection itself is notable; it's one of the strongest we've used, and your audio very rarely skips or drops out unless you cup your hand over the left earbud. Miller tells us that's down to the near-field magnetic induction technology used to create a link between the ears. "Bluetooth doesn't go through brain matter and all that stuff very well," he says. "Other earbuds tend to have connection issues between the ears for that particular reason. Near-field magnetic induction sort of creates a kind of halo around the head."
You can control these things using fully customizable tap touch controls, with a programmable single tap, long tap and double tap on each ear to play with, and the ability to launch Siri or Google Assistant, fiddle with volume, start/stop media, turn the world on and off, and switch between your favorite world environment setups without getting your phone out. We're not the biggest fans of the sound it makes when we touch the mics while the buds are in our ears, but that's a minor issue.
The only game in town
With the demise of Doppler Labs and its Here One and Here Two products, Nuheara's IQbuds are pretty much the only wireless earbuds on the market with hearing augmentation built in.
"Our uniqueness got us into retail throughout the world," says Miller. "We've turned some pretty good sales in a relatively short period of time. For a small Australian company to hit AU$5 million in sales in a short period of time is a pretty good thing. We're proud of that.
"We've done it cost-efficiently, as well. We've raised 20 million to date, and we've been able to deploy that capital very efficiently, in comparison to some competitors that ultimately went out of business, that raised 50-60 million US, but couldn't quite get there. I think we're showing some Australian efficiencies in getting to market." With two other new products launched at CES this year, things seem to be looking very positive for this small company.
IQbuds retail for US$299 in the USA or AU$399 in Australia, about twice the price of a set of Apple AirPods. To sum them up, we'd say they're an impressive set of Bluetooth earbuds with a unique and effective hearing augmentation system built in. They're not perfect, and you definitely need to spend significant time setting them up for your own preferences and frequently visited environments, but once you nail it they can open up locations and activities you might have written off as simply too noisy to enjoy.
They're a very cool piece of tech, and worth the price of admission in our view.