More than any other pair of headphones we’ve tested, the Nuraphones are trying to do something entirely new with personal audio. They’ve got a pretty unique in-ear/over-ear hybrid design, some neat audio personalisation effects, and they also dispense with many of the additional buttons contained on normal headphones in favor of automatically switching on and off. While the fundamentals are there, occasionally the headphones are a bit too clever for their own good, resulting in a user-experience that can feel over-complicated.
- Rich, full sound
- Excellent passive noise isolation
- Some good EQ options
- Can be charged direct from phone
- Limited controls on headphones
- Form factor can be restricting
- Benefits of sound personalisation are subtle
Never before have we seen a pair of headphones try so many interesting things.
After having been successfully funded on KickStarter, Nura’s debut pair of headphones, the Nuraphones, are finally available to buy as a finished product.
To say that these are a pair of headphones that are trying something new would be an understatement. Not only do they have a unique in-ear/over-ear hybrid design, they also claim to be able to tailor their sound to the way you listen to music and feature a sleek design devoid of many of the buttons common on wireless headphones.
Ultimately they succeed with much that they attempt. The form-factor worked much better than we expected it to, the sound personalisation adds an interesting element, and overall the headphones offer a great level of sound quality.
But at a certain point these $399 (£349) headphones can start to feel a little over-engineered, and perhaps a little too clever for their own good. Having headphones that can sense when you’re using them and turn themselves on and off accordingly is certainly clever, but on the occasions that it doesn’t you’ll wish Nura had just included an ‘Off’ button.
So too does the sound personalisation mostly work, but isn’t quite the gamechanger that we’d have hoped.
Ultimately Nura should be commended for aiming high with their debut product, it’s just a shame that not every shot has paid off.
Design and features
There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to the design of the Nuraphones. After all, this is a pair of headphones that almost consciously distances itself from the conventional wisdom surrounding most of its competitors.
This mentality is first apparent with their form factor. Look at someone wearing them, and the Nuraphones appear to be a fairly standard pair of over-ear headphones. They’ve got a slightly featureless plastic matt black design that, while not exactly boring looking, would fail to stand out in a crowd.
But take a peek on the inside of the headphones and you’ll immediately notice a pair of earbuds suspended within the wider cup.
If you’re anything like us you’ll immediately become suspicious of this design choice. Every pair of ears is shaped slightly differently after all, and it seems impossible that these earbuds would be able to fit inside any pair of ears.
But after both trying out the headphones on ourselves and a number of our colleagues in the office it seems these fears were unfounded. The earbud portion of the headphones have just enough flex in them to bend to the needs of your ears, and the result is a surprisingly comfortable fit.
Ostensibly this form factor was a decision made to benefit sound quality since it allows both an in-ear and an over-ear acoustic driver to be used in parallel, but for us the bigger benefit was the boost it gives to sound isolation.
Their form factor means you’ve not only got an earbud sitting at the entrance of your ear canal, but also an over-ear cushion sitting over your entire ear. This effectively means you’ve got two physical barriers meaning that the noise from the outside world can’t get to your ears.
To be clear, the Nuraphones are not noise-cancelling headphones, but their form factor blocks out high-frequency sounds (such as office chatter) better than any other pair of headphones we’ve ever used.
Unfortunately, the lack of active noise-cancellation means that you’ll still hear a lot of low-frequency background noise when using the headphones, which includes train or plane noise.
Although the earbud sits nicely in your ear when you’re wearing the headphones properly, their presence does mean that the Nuraphones are pretty uncomfortable to wear any other way. Trust us when we say that you’re not going to want to wear these headphones with just one earcup on.
Setup and sound personalisation
A key selling point of the Nuraphones is their ability to measure the sensitivity of your ears and adjust their sound so that you hear the maximum amount of detail in your music.
The thinking goes that different people’s ears hear different frequencies at different volume levels. Some people’s ears might be very sensitive to lower frequencies and less sensitive to higher frequencies, or vice versa.
This sound profiling means that the setup of these headphones is a little more involved than usual, and makes the usually optional headphone app an essential part of the experience.
The setup feels a little surreal in practice. After telling the app that you want to set up a new profile it will first establish that the headphones are firmly fixed in your ears, before playing a variety of frequencies into your ears.
According to Nura this process works by measuring the faint sounds emitted by your ears when they hear audio using a process known as otoacoustic emission.
Once the test has been performed, you’ll have the option of listening to music both with, and without, the sound personalisation effect applied.
Unsurprisingly, the personalised sound profile sounds a lot better than the ‘generic’ profile, but it’s a little odd just how bad the generic profile sounds.
After all, every other pair of headphones we’ve ever used has essentially been using a non-personalised ‘generic’ profile, and every single one of them sounds better than the generic profile setting on the Nuraphones.
So it’s a little difficult to work out if the sound personalisation technology is worth it at this stage, but thankfully the headphones allow you to set up a maximum of three different profiles for different listeners.
In theory then, your own sound profile should sound superior to anyone else’s. In practice this seemed to bear out, though it didn’t quite happen 100% of the time.
We tested this out by having various members of the TechRadar office go through the setup process to create a sound profile. We then had them listen to a song of their choosing, while we switched between different sound profiles.
Without telling them which two profiles they were listening to, we then asked which they preferred.
Overall, people tended to prefer the sound of their own profile, but this didn’t happen 100% of the time, suggesting that the differences in profiles between two people can be very slight.
So it seems the sound profiling broadly does create a better sound for individual listeners, but depending on how average your hearing is, the difference might be difficult to perceive.
Thankfully, putting aside any qualms about the acoustic personalisation elements, the sound quality of the headphones is excellent.
The quality of sound separation is a particular highlight. Start playing a complex track like Supermoon by 65daysofstatic and every instrument in the song is clearly audible. The bassline rolls along, uninterrupted beneath the layers of music, while pianos drums and synths have their own space to breath.
Similarly, the headphones deal well with Aom by Mouse on the Keys. The drums have punch and rhythm to them, while both piano lines are spacious and full.
Finally, F.C.P.R.E.M.I.X by The Fall of Troy shows off just how neutral the headphones can be across different frequencies. No undue focus is given to any one part of the track. It’s all here, and it all shares equally in the soundstage.
Overall we were very impressed by the sound quality on offer here, although the same couldn’t be said for the user interface that surrounds it.
It’s not often in these reviews that we dedicate an entire section to the control scheme of a pair of headphones. Most companies have settled on a pretty standard selection of buttons to play, pause, skip tracks, and control the volume.
The Nuraphones are a little different. They limit the amount of buttons to just two touch-sensitive pads on the outside of the earcups. There’s no on/off button, and although you can change the functions these buttons perform, you’re limited to a combination of pausing, answering calls, and switching between different sound modes.
There’s no option to assign one of them as a track skip button, and volume controls are also annoyingly absent. Nura indicated to me that this functionality could be included in a later patch, but for now it’s an unfortunate omission.
The lack of a power button can also irritate. In theory the headphones should turn on and off automatically when you put them on and take them off accordingly, but in practice we found it a little unreliable. We’d have to jump into the Bluetooth settings to get them to connect, and they’d occasionally continue playing after we’d taken them off.
On one particularly annoying occasion we took off the headphones to take a phonecall, only to discover that there was no obvious way to quickly disconnect the headphones in order to disconnect them and allow us to answer on the phone itself. Our only option was to manually turn off Bluetooth on the phone.
Nura should be applauded for their ambition, but at a certain point we’d prefer one or two more buttons on a pair of headphones to give us more direct control. Functionality trumps a sleek design any day of the week.
All of this adds up to make the Nuraphones feel a little over-engineered, and this has both strengths and weaknesses.
The core concept of a pair of headphones that include both in-ear and over-ear drivers is a solid one. The sound quality is exceptional, and we were impressed with how comfortable Nura has managed to make this odd form-factor feel.
Little design touches like the fact that the headphones can be charged from your phone are also impressive, and we’re surprised that more people haven’t had the idea before.
But opting to go with a largely buttonless design is annoying, and feels like a step backwards. Other headphones might look less sleek with their numerous buttons, but we’d prefer to have more control options any day of the week.
It’s hard to know exactly how much of a benefit Nura’s much-hyped sound personalisation technology makes. Certainly, if you ears deviate a lot from the average person’s then you might find it makes a huge difference, but in our tests it only seemed to make a subtle difference for most people.
They’re packed full of technology and their high price of $399 (£349) reflects that, but the question is whether these technologies warrant the price premium over headphones that have less cutting edge, but arguably more useful, technologies like noise-cancellation like the Sony MDR-1000X or Bose QC35.
If you want to try something a little different, then the Nuraphones are incredibly interesting, but this novel design comes at a price premium that we’d argue doesn’t make sense for anyone other than those that want to stay at the cutting edge of headphone tech.