Review: Nuraphones are the best headphones any of us have ever heard
After a record-breaking Kickstarter campaign and more than a year of painstaking design, testing and production work, Nura has finally gone into production with its first consumer headphones, and I've had my hands on a set for the last month. These are not press freebies, either - after playing with the prototypes last year, I immediately slapped down my own money for a set. That's a first for me.
But these are not like any other headphones you've ever used, because they sound totally different when you wear them to when I do. The first thing Nura headphones do is give you a minute-long hearing test over 12 points on the audio spectrum, to work out exactly which frequencies you're more or less sensitive to, and then they adjust themselves to give you more of what you need and less of what you don't.
Every ear is different, in anatomy as well as in accumulated hearing damage. And the difference is absolutely massive, as we discovered when we first passed these things around the New Atlas office. These headphones sound incredible to everyone on the team who's tried them – it's like a magic trick that pulls amazing detail and fullness out of music you've heard a thousand times before. But if you try to listen with somebody else's hearing profile turned on, they sound awful. Too tinny, to middy, too bassy, too muddy.
The Nura team has reconfigured the visualization of each hearing profile into a weird colorful blob, a kind of radial graph of your hearing sensitivity. Unfortunately, the left and right ear sensitivity charts from the prototype devices are gone – the Nura team tells us that the graphs were visually confusing people, and individual hearing profiles for left and right ears were sonically confusing them. The final profile now runs across both ears. Here's what my blob looks like:
Don't mind the name there, I just like it when I put these things on and a lady's voice tells me "welcome back, you complete bellend."
In a market where headphones are now sold so commonly as fashion items, the effectiveness of these hearing curves really makes you wonder just how many people are going around wearing expensive cans that sound awful, or at least less than optimal to them, because they're out of tune with the ears they're sitting on.
The Nura hearing test is not a subjective one. It's an otoacoustic emission test commonly used to detect deafness in babies. The principles behind it are fascinating, and we covered them extensively in our initial interview with inventor Kyle Slater.
The technology is revolutionary, the idea is extraordinary, and the sound is transcendent. But that was the prototype; now it's time to see whether the fledgeling Nura team has managed to build a solid product that people will want to put on their heads day after day.
After a month of daily use, sometimes for up to 5 or 6 hours at a time, I can heartily say yes, these things are the real deal, with a little room for improvement.
In a word, extraordinary. My brother and I A/B tested the Nura headphones against our personal workhorse Bluetooth rigs – in my case, a set of Koss BT540i, in his case, Bose QuietComfort 35 noise cancellers.
Both of us have some experience in music production, and pretty decent ears as a result. The level of detail in the Nura headphones, when tuned to each of our ears, is stunning. The experience of listening to music in these things reminds me of the first time I ever tried a good set of headphones; you're noticing instruments and effects all over the place that you've never heard before. The in ear/over ear design makes for effective isolation from outside sounds, letting the sound shine wherever you wear them.
And where the other cans can deliver similar amounts of detail, the Nura headphones give you an extra push through the Immersion bass system that puts you right in the room with the performers. It's a skin-conduction system built into the silicone ear cups that simulates the physical feeling of a lot of air moving in a performance space – and it's flat-out amazing.
As creator Kyle Slater decribes it, "We have a separate driver in the outside of the in-ear section that's basically tuned to vibrations that you feel. So when you increase the Immersion level, you're actually delivering information to the brain through the sense of touch. It's the sound that goes in, plus the sensation of touch around it. Your brain integrates that information as if you're in a live concert. The thing that makes you so present in a live concert environment is that you're feeling as well as hearing. That's what this tries to emulate. You're feeling the vibrations around you."
The last month has thus been a real musical journey for me. With my eyes closed, I can picture what Whitney Houston is doing with her body to get her unique vocal sound. I can see the shape and depth of Simon Phillips' giant set of rack toms as he six-arms his way through a drum fill, the whole kit reverberating in sympathy with each hit. I can identify Steve Vai's reverb settings on each guitar part as they echo and bounce around the stereo space. A powerful bass voice like on Club For Five's "Brothers in Arms" cover feels like it's shaking your very chest. The spaciousness of the sound and stereo imaging make it incredibly rewarding to seek out great recordings and dive in with the lights off.
Binaurally recorded music like Yosi Horikawa's crazy "Wandering" record is wildly visual, putting you in 3-dimensional audio environments that feel so real it's a genuine surprise when you open your eyes and you're still in your room.
With the Nura app, you can switch back and forth between up to three separate hearing profiles, and that's a fascinating thing to do because each person's hearing is generally very, very different from your own, and it's very clear that none of them sound as good as the one designed just for you.
Suffice to say, I have put these cans on a couple of dozen heads over the last month, and every single person has been amazed by the sound quality. Except one guy, Kenny, who said he could hear a whole lot of stuff he'd never noticed in his favorite music, and it made him like the songs less. On the other end of the scale, one friend was moved to tears by the experience.
For me, as a minor-league audiophile and musician, the Nura headphones have been an emotional and wonderful sonic experience. The better the recording, the more rewarding the listen. The bigger the personality of the performer, the more it feels like you're there with them. It's been beautiful.
Two things could easily make the Nura phones an uncomfortable prospect over an extended listen: the weird earbud section that pushes into your ear underneath the over-ear cups, and the fact that the cups themselves are silicone, and thus could get nasty and sweaty. Nura has dealt with both very carefully.
The earbud probes' success rests on the design of its silicon springs, which need to press firmly enough into the ear to deliver a good seal, but not hard enough to become annoying. Over some 160 iterations, Nura came up with a 2-stage non-linear silicon spring that seems to strike a great balance. It certainly feels weirdly ... violatory the first time you put them on, but it's something you forget about pretty quickly.
As for the silicon design, Nura has built an active cooling air flow into the ear cup design. As Slater puts it: "Imagine there's a one-way valve at the bottom and the top, like in a lilo. As the outer speaker moves in and out, it acts almost like a slight pump, cycling fresh air through. Your ears don't get hot, they don't get sweaty. That was one of the challenges for a full silicone design; you don't wanna trap heat and let things get all wet and gross in there."
It works, and you don't notice a thing. I'm a sweat factory at the best of times, and I'm testing these things in the heat of the Australian summer, and they've been nothing but comfy, even as I've gone on six-hour music explorations.
For folks like me, who bought the Nura headphones on Kickstarter, the inclusion of Bluetooth is a happy surprise. "I think we realized that convenience, that wireless thing was becoming super important for people, and if we didn't do it, it'd make us non-competitive," says Slater, "So it was definitely more than what we promised on Kickstarter, but we've got a long-term view on the company."
Bluetooth is implemented through a nice Qualcomm AptX HD chip, and the sound quality is great. Range isn't bad either, working well across a room, and even a room or two away, and not being interrupted, for example, by covering up your phone when it's in your pocket. It's not entirely jitter-free, but it's as good as any I've used.
There's still cables for those who prefer a wired connection, and Nura lets you choose which you want (Lightning, USB-C, USB-A, micro USB, 3.5mm analog) when you're buying. These use a proprietary connector, unfortunately, so you've got buy the from Nura – but that's because it's one connector that needs to handle Apple, Android, plain ol' analog 3.5 mm and USB communications. It's a good solution.
Up to 20 hours, they say on the box. In practicality, that's an amazing amount of battery life. They're like old-school Nokia phones; you can charge them once a week if you're not using them all day.
On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be any way to work out how much charge they've got in them, or when they're fully charged once they're plugged in. That's something that could be addressed in an app update.
No on/off switch
Nura headphones turn themselves on and off automatically, using capacitive touch sensors to work out when they're on your head. That's a blessing; it extends battery life by not playing anything when they're off your head.
It's also a curse. If, let's say, you're in the office listening to dubious ASMR videos to drown out your equally dubious co-workers, and you take them off your head for some reason, the sound of a Russian lady talking you through how to fold towels will soon be coming out of your iMac speakers – so you've got to remember to hit pause before you take them off.
I'd like to see a setting in the Nura smartphone app to allow you to choose how long they wait before shutoff. I'd set it at five or 10 minutes. Battery life's just not an issue here.
One-touch buttons on the ears
The Nura phones have light-touch buttons on the ears that can be set to do a bunch of different tasks; play/pause, next track, previous track, immersion mode on/off, that sort of thing.
I don't actually find these very helpful, as I accidentally hit the buttons just about every time I reach up and touch the headphones. I've turned them off.
Another thing that was never promised in the Kickstarter campaign, the Nura phones have microphones built in so you can conduct phone calls through them. Without a boom mic, the sound quality is decent without being exceptionally good or bad; they're quite usable as a phone headset.
This is a short list. Sometimes, after three or four hours of listening, the Nuras seem to switch themselves off and on again, briefly interrupting your musical journey. It's happened enough times that it seems systemic, but I imagine it might disappear as a problem if they didn't turn themselves off so quickly after being taken off.
As mentioned above, I'd like to see some way of checking battery charge levels, and a way to set the sleep timeout longer, and if I'm really nit picking, the headband adjustment arms look a bit dorky, even if they're made out of top-grade Japanese steel that'll never lose its springiness …
And that's pretty much it. Nura has put an obsessive amount of work into making its first product extremely solid. I can see these things lasting many years without suffering the kind of wear you get on other headphones; they've got no fabric to tear. The cables feel as bulletproof as the rest of the design, with a solid docking space that makes it virtually impossible to bend the connectors out of shape. From the biodegradable shipping package, to the magnetic carry case, to the headphones themselves, these things reek of quality engineering.
At the end of the day, the ear tuning system is a neat party trick you can use to amaze your friends. Ideally, you'll only go through the process once or twice yourself, and the question is then, do you have yourself a set of Bluetooth headphones that are worth the US$399 / AU$499 price tag?
For me, that's a hell yes. These are the best headphones I've ever heard, and they make me want to listen to music; I mean, lie down, close my eyes, and really soak up every wonderful detail. I suspect they'll make strong inroads into the audiophile community, as well as being popular among audio engineers, musicians, and other serious listeners; the kinds of people who put top priority on sound quality, and who can understand the technical gymnastics these things go through to deliver such a terrific experience.