Nura came to Kickstarter last year with the goal of funding a pair of headphones that would adapt to every listener and improve the way they heard music. The company was looking for $100,000. It ended up getting $1.8 million and then going on to raise much, much more from venture capitalists — an additional $7 million, according to Crunchbase. Now, a year and a half after the company’s debut, it’s finally preparing to ship that original product: the Nuraphones, a $399 pair of wireless, hearing-correcting headphones.
Kyle Slater, Nura’s CEO, compares what the Nuraphones do for your ears to what glasses do for your eyes. They’re supposed to figure out which frequencies of sound you’re good at and not so good at hearing, and then mess with the amplification so that you hear every song precisely how it was mixed. “We assume that we all hear the same,” Slater says. “Hearing offers no point of comparison like vision does.” Our hearing gradually degrades as we age (and listen to loud music...), so it’s reasonable to think a lot of people could use this.
The Nuraphones test your hearing by playing a pattern of high frequency tones into your ears when you first put them on. A microphone then measures how strongly the sounds bounce back, indicating whether or not you’re actually hearing them. Using that information, Nura creates a profile for you that’s built into the headphones and will automatically amplify sounds your ears aren’t great with, supposedly tweaking playback so that that those tones come across as loud as they’re supposed to.
It’s a really smart idea, and the science behind it makes sense. But it’s hard to say whether Nura actually accomplishes what it sets out to. I’ve been listening to a pair of Nuraphones for a few days now, and I think they sound really good. The headphones do a great job of separating instruments, and in some songs, they absolutely made certain instruments easier for me to hear. They tended to create a sort of 3D effect in some songs, making the instruments sound like they’re all around me.
But my initial impression is that the sound improvement isn’t night and day over other pricey headphones. Maybe the difference would be larger for someone who Nura detected more hearing issues with — though there’s no way of telling whether Nura is doing a little or a lot for me. (I tried listening to high-pitched sounds that I can’t or can barely hear, but Nura didn’t seem to help me hear them substantially better.) I like the effect the headphones create when playing music, but the end result isn’t as revolutionary as the general idea.
There are a few drawbacks here, too. For one, these are over-ear headphones with in-ear earbuds sticking out of them. They look like alien nipples, which, to be very clear, is not a good thing. And they don’t fit perfectly onto everyone’s head, which is important for Nura to reduce outside sound while testing your hearing.
The headphones also use a proprietary charging cable. Nura says this is so that buyers can have a choice of cable (USB, USB-C, Micro USB) for charging, but the end result is still a proprietary cord that you have to keep track of. I don’t think that’s worth it.
Nura’s headphones also need to stay charged, even if you’re using them over a headphone jack. This would be fine if there was a way to tell if the headphones had any power left, but there’s not. You can’t turn them on and off, either: they’re supposed to automatically turn on and off when you take them on and off your head, but in my experience, they often ended up powered on while sitting beside me, and powered off while on my head. Or maybe the battery was just dead. It was never really clear to me.
Another downside of using earbuds: it leads to some really strange sound transfer at times. If you’re sitting still, these headphones are fine. But while walking around, you hear this weird wobbling noise. It’s even present while music is playing, unless you crank it up to high volumes.
Those flaws aside, I’m still fascinated by the idea behind the Nuraphones. Though more than anything, it’s had me wondering: is there really any point in striving for perfect music playback? Even if Nura can precisely recreate the audio file I’m listening to, that file was still mastered by someone with their own hearing errors, listening on equipment that introduced its own color and flaws, and recorded by someone else with their own hearing profile.
“Our headphones and hearing have final say on what we perceive.”
There’s a part of me that thinks it’d be amazing to take this concept deeper and deeper — imagine not just normalizing your hearing profile, but being able to, say, listen to a song using Dr. Dre’s hearing profile so that you can hear it exactly as he did. But that seems implausible and impractical, and as it is, music is mastered to be listened to from all kinds of different places: over fuzzy radio signals, through Apple’s tiny earbuds, from gargantuan speakers, or through a pair of real headphones.
“[Headphones] all sound different,” Slater says. “So our headphones and hearing have final say on what we perceive.”
Nura strives to normalize those factors and give everyone the same experience. But ultimately, the way we hear music is going to be colored one way or another. You could buy these headphones to minimize some of that, or you could just buy a pair of headphones you already think sounds nice.
The Nuraphones will begin shipping to Kickstarter backers later this month. Starting today, they’ll be available for new customers to buy, although Slater warns there will be “only limited units to sell this year.”