NuraTrue Pro review: Lossless earbuds for uncompromising audiophiles
Personalized audio pioneer Nura has released a "no compromises" flagship to top its true wireless earphones range. NuraTrue Pro introduces a host of high-end enhancements including lossless audio and multipoint connectivity – but it comes at a price.
A quick Nura primer
If you've not yet experienced Nura's remarkable adaptive audio technology, you owe it to yourself to find a set of the company's paradigm-busting headphones and give it a shot. These things upended my entire understanding of hearing and personal audio by demonstrating a simple fact: your hearing is very, very different to mine. It's physiological – look at how different people's noses are. The entire human audio capture and processing chain is just as diverse, and the results – in terms of how loudly we perceive certain frequency bands – are just as varied.
Nura's brilliant, disruptive idea was to level the playing field. The company took an early childhood test used to screen children for hearing difficulties, and repurposed it into a simple, quick headphone setup routine that plays a series of weird sounds into your ears, listens back for the tiny "otoacoustic emission" your brain sends back as a response to perceived sound, and uses it to build a hearing profile that boosts the frequencies you perceive less strongly and reduces the ones you're particularly sensitive to.
There are many headphones that give you the option to run an EQ profile over the sound, and even some that attempt to adjust to your hearing – but Nura's otoacoustic tuning system is the only one to do so automatically, quickly and objectively. The result was a slam dunk of a first product – Nuraphones – which still rank as the best headphones any of us at the New Atlas office have ever experienced. And when you listen to other people's Nura profiles, you understand why; your own hearing profile sounds amazing, and everyone else's sounds like complete garbage. It's a heck of a magic trick.
When Nura rolled the same tech into a set of wireless earbuds, it worked nearly as well. The NuraTrue earbuds I tested last August instantly sounded better than anything else I'd ever tested, and they became my go-to earbuds until they tragically went through the washing machine about a month ago and met their doom. Even without the over-ear headphones' extraordinary skin-conduction bass boost, they delivered a full and powerful sound with a clarity and detail nothing else I've tested could match.
Now, the company has gone all-out with a new set of earbuds designed to be the absolute best wireless earbuds the company can make, price be damned. Thus, NuraTrue Pro debuts as the first headset available that incorporates Qualcomm's brand spanking new QCC5171 audio system-on-a-chip, a beefed-up high-bandwidth Bluetooth 5.3 beast with quad-core processing and on-chip buffer RAM, designed for premium-quality audio and extremely low-power performance.
So what's new compared to the original NuraTrue earbuds?
Firstly, lossless audio. This is one of the first headsets in the world to support Snapdragon Sound, and to receive Bluetooth audio at full CD quality rather than compressing it into lighter-weight formats. This is some high-grade audiophile business; a lot of folk couldn't hear the difference, and there's certainly diminishing returns comparing it against high-bitrate compression. But if you've got the ears for it, and access to lossless streaming, and indeed access to devices that can send audio at full quality, NuraTrue Pro can receive and deliver it.
The last point is key – this technology is currently so new that there are actually no phones on the market that support it as yet. Nura CEO and former trainee ENT surgeon Luke Campbell, who kindly dropped around for dinner and to talk me through the new buds, says the first half-dozen lossless-capable phones will probably start shipping within the next few months. "From our perspective, this is 2022," he told me. "Every streaming music provider except Spotify has announced lossless. The technology is there now to send lossless, so we do. Some people can tell the difference in exceptional detail, others won't notice at all. To me, I can't quite put my finger on it, but it just sounds a bit cleaner, particularly in the onset and offset of sounds, reverb tails, things are a bit sharper and more defined."
"Qualcomm's done a great job on these chips," he continues. "They transmit more data, and they can actually do twice as much on the audio processing side as well, and they still use less power than the previous chips. It's all gravy, everything's better. So we went looking for ways to legitimately make things sound better."
And so to point two: Nura teamed up with Swedish company Dirac to implement spatial audio processing. "We're all about delivering music the way it's meant to be heard and music is rarely mixed on headphones," said Campbell. "It's mixed on monitor speakers. So the right channel goes to my right ear, yes, but you also hear it in your left ear, with a slight time delay, and the head shadow changes the frequency response, and it also bounces around the room a bit and comes back to your ears. We went to several different companies that specialize in this stuff, and Dirac's processing, we felt, was noticeably better than the others. They love these new chips too, because they can use a high-resolution version of their algorithm."
Spatial audio is switched on by default, and its effect is subtle but sweet, presenting the stereo image in a way that feels wider and seems to move beyond the space between your ears – but not in a way that's intrusive or annoying. Indeed, as somebody who can get reasonably finnicky about audio, I prefer leaving it on. The only exception to this would be for content that's recorded using binaural microphones and specifically mixed for headphones, like, say, Yosi Horikawa's Bubbles. In this case, the effect is better with spatial audio switched off.
The battery life has improved from 6 to 8 hours – that's the earbuds themselves; there's a further 24 hours waiting in the battery case if you need it. If you charge the case using the cable, it's twice as fast as it used to be. But it's also capable of wireless Qi charging, too.
The active noise cancellation is improved, using Qualcomm's adaptive ANC system and an array of three external mics on each ear. These mics, plus an additional bone-conduction mic in each ear, also deliver a notable and very impressive boost in voice quality and background noise cancellation on calls, particularly in noisy environments.
"With voice processing in noisy environments, the first thing you have to guess is when the person is actually speaking," said Campbell. "With the bone conduction mic, we get a really, really clean signal of the low and mid-frequency part of speech. Anything below 1 kHz, maybe 2 kHz at a stretch. We can use that in a couple of ways. We can use it to mute the signal when you're not talking. The three external mics are in a beamforming array, and they do a great job delivering really natural sound in relatively quiet or moderate noise environments. When a car goes past, or there's a lawnmower going beside you, we start to use some of the signal from the bone conduction mic to be the lower frequency part of the voice, and it's very clean. The louder the external noise, the more we'll blend that bone conduction signal in. And if you're standing on the tarmac next to a jet engine, we'll switch off the external mics altogether. It doesn't sound super great, but it's a hell of a lot better than if you don't do that! I've actually done that recently, and considering how loud it was, the voice signal was pretty damn good."
And then there's multipoint connectivity; the NuraTrue Pro will happily connect to two devices simultaneously, so you can listen to audio through your computer, but still receive calls and notification audio from your phone. That's a nice convenience.
The final addition is something Nura calls ProEQ. This is an equalizer override that lets you manually edit the sound Nura has designed for your ears if it doesn't suit you. It's hidden in the menus somewhat, Campbell tells me, to deliberately make it difficult to find, since the company has watched with horror what can happen when uneducated users gain access to equalizers. Still, that, and the "immersion mode" slider, which acts more or less like a bass booster, give you plenty of room to play with the sound.
Having said all this, my experience thus far with the NuraTrue Pro earbuds has been as follows: the ear-adaptive audio sounds brilliant as always, with the new spatial audio feature giving these an edge over the standard NuraTrue buds. Without a lossless transmission device, I can't tell you how much difference the full-resolution audio transmission makes.
The connection is rock-solid even over decent distances. Multipoint adds convenience, and voice call quality is notably improved. They look a touch cooler thanks to some shiny bits around the edges, and they're perfectly comfy, with a snug fit that never threatens to pop out. They're louder than I need them to be, and I don't use all the bass boost, either.
They're still a bit of a pain to get out of the case, although Campbell says that's easier if you push down in the middle. They're also a bit of a pain to get back into the case at night, too; I find myself rotating them endlessly in the dark like a dog trying to lie down on a cushion. Campbell says he doesn't bother. "I just stick them on the bedside table," he told me. "There's an infrared sensor, if it knows it's been out of an ear for more than two minutes it'll go to sleep. You won't get a charge, but at least they won't sit there going flat!"
Really my biggest personal complaint is that they no longer welcome you by name, which means I've gone and given myself a filthy name in the Nura app for nothing.
My second-biggest complaint is definitely the price. At US$329 (£299 GBP, €359 EUR, AU$499), they retail for twice the price you can find standard NuraTrues for on sale. "It's death by a thousand cuts," said Campbell. "The latest chips cost more. The plastic itself is better, that's real ceramic on the shiny bits, not pretend ceramic. The electronics are more expensive, the batteries are more expensive, shipping costs more now. Even the little things, the silicon at the top of the case. Then there's all the extra microphones, the improved drivers... So yeah, death by a thousand cuts, but each cut is giving you something that's better. NuraTrue is a great-sounding product at a reasonable price, but with NuraTrue Pro we wanted to make no compromises. We didn't back out of anything that we thought would be a better experience for the user just because of the cost of it."
Nura's doing $199 early bird pre-orders on Kickstarter if you're quick on the trigger, so there's a chance to get on board at a cheaper price. "We've got proper revenue now, we don't need to fundraise this on Kickstarter," said Campbell. "But on the other hand, our company wouldn't exist without Kickstarter. So we treat this as a way to give our most passionate users a way to get to the front of the nightclub queue."
So there you have it: a no-compromise set of low-latency wireless adaptive earbuds for the most discerning audiophiles. As I said at the beginning, if you're yet to experience Nura's personalized sound, it really is a liminal moment that'll change your view of audio forever. I'm a huge fan of this company's work, and while I'd still say the full-size headphones deliver the Nura experience in its purest form, these new Pro earbuds are a force to be reckoned with, in a much more portable form factor. And they set yet another new standard by which all other wireless earbuds must be judged.
Not everyone will find these things enough of a leap from the original NuraTrue buds to justify the cost increase, and the good news there is that they're still available, and probably 95 percent as transformative an experience for all but the most discerning ears. The video below has more.
Source: NuraTrue Pro Kickstarter