Every now and then, I’ll stumble upon a product that tries too hard to be different to the point where it’s not worth taking a look at. However, this isn’t the case for the nuraphone headphones by nura.
Unboxing the nuraphone
The carrying case is super sturdy but is on the larger side. This is mostly because the nuraphone itself doesn’t fold upon itself. It’s by far the largest headphone carrying case I’ve ever seen. Despite this, I love the case because it’s all magnetic. To open the case you pull the magnetic strap up top, which reveals a latch you pull to open the case. The case’s hinge is also magnetic so you’ll never have to worry about it accidentally being open.
The same thing applies to the cable holder, it’s magnetic and straps to the center of the case, making it virtually impossible to lose. As mentioned earlier, it comes with a USB-A charging cable to charge your headphones. Being a Bluetooth headphone, this is pretty much all you need to get started.
The nuraphone is made primarily of aluminum and steel which gives it some weight. The ear cups are made of a silicone-like material, which is surprisingly breathable, lightweight and comfortable. But that’s not all, the ear cups feature a Tesla valve. In basic terms, this means that it has vents all alongside the side of the ear cups to take in cool air, and push warm air out, keeping your ears cool while listening to the nuraphone.
The headband is made of a single piece of metal and is fairly adjustable. Compared to other headphones, these have the same adjustability as most. For me, this means extending the headband to the max.
The only real downside aside other than not being collapsible for easier travel is nura’s decision to use a proprietary connector on the headphone end. It also lacks a physical 3.5mm jack as well, which means you’ll need to buy separate cables for 3.5mm, or any other connector you might want such as USB-C, Lightning or microUSB.
Being a proprietary cable, you’ll need to purchase your extra cables directly from nura. The 3.5mm, USB-C, and microUSB variations of the cable come in at $20, with the Lightning version coming in at a hefty $40.
Not a huge deal as it comes with a standard USB-A cable in the box for charging and most users will be using these paired with Bluetooth anyways.
The overall design of the headphone reminds me of more “retro” headphones with the cable coming from the headband to the ear cup, and the smooth headband adjustment is really nice.
There’s lot to unpack. If I could assign one word to the nuraphone, that’d be “features” because it packs a ton. My best comparison would be that they are AirPods but over-ear. But even then, they are more feature rich.
The nuraphone offers two touch sensitive buttons that can be mapped to either a single tap or a double tap gesture, which is configurable within the app. This also means that there’s no on/off switch, volume control, or dedicated button for active noise canceling (ANC). The nuraphone automatically powers on when it detects it on your head and will auto-pause when you remove them from your head (or take one ear off) and will automatically go into sleep/power off after some around 45-90 seconds in my testing. You’ll also get auto-play if you take nuraphone off your head for a couple of seconds and put them back on your head. While there is a 1-3 second lag for either task, it’s consistent unlike some other headphones where it’s hit or miss whether or not your audio will pause upon taking them off your head or resume when you put them back on.
They are rated to last 15-20 hours on a single charge, but I’ve been able to get 25-30 hours with my usage. There’s no fast charging but it does charge up to 80% in around 90 minutes. This isn’t a huge deal in my opinion because, unlike some other headphones I’ve reviewed in the past, you can charge and listen to the nuraphone at the same time, provided you have the proper cable. I had no issues charging my nuraphone and listening at the same time over a wired connection to my iPad Pro (USB-C).
But the headlining feature of the nuraphone by far is its auto-sensing personalization technology. Unsurprisingly called nurasound, the nuraphone monitors otoacoustic emissions in your ear. In laymen’s terms, whenever a sound is played in your ear, your ear drum emits a sound that is 100x quieter. The nuraphone uses this data to adjust its sound to your personal hearing.
As mentioned earlier, the nuraphone also includes support for active noise canceling. This also means it features something called “social mode” which ducks the volume a little bit and reverses the ANC microphones so that you can hear your outside world. By default, you need to launch the app to use this feature, however, you can assign it as a tap gesture.
Support for Bluetooth codecs is excellent. It features all of the major codecs including SBC, AAC, aptX, and aptX-HD. Notably missing from the bunch is aptX-LL and LDAC. (Learn more about Bluetooth codecs here.) However, those are fairly uncommon with ANC headphones due to the large amount of post processing for the ANC itself. The nuraphone is also sporting Bluetooth 4.0, rather than 4.1, 4.2 or 5.0. This doesn’t matter much in terms of audio quality, but using a newer version of Bluetooth could’ve potentially improved battery life just a tad.
Setting up nuraphone and measuring my ears
After I put them on, I was greeted by a semi-robotic voice in my ears asking me to download the free nura app on my phone and to go into Bluetooth settings to pair with nuraphone.
After downloading the app, the nuraphone walked me through set up, which involves sitting still, in a silent environment for around 90 seconds. By silent, it really means silent. Any slight movement, talking, or even gulping can cause an issue in your nurasound signature. I learned that after my 3rd or 4th nurasound test. Not only does nurasound test your hearing and how sensitive you are to certain sounds, it does this on a per-ear basis. So, if your left ear is more sensitive to loud noises, it will adjust accordingly. I noticed this when listening with my wife’s profile as the sound not only sounded really strange, but it also sounded uneven, with one ear cup playing louder than the other.
It also prompts you to adjust the immersion mode, which is essentially a bass boost slider. At 0% it’s as if you’ve lost all of the sub bass, and at 100% it’s as if you strapped 8 pairs of Beats to your ears. Nobody should have the immersion mode at 100% for more than 3 seconds at a time.
You’ll also be promoted to set up the tap gestures as well as try out the social mode. While the social mode is fantastic and I believe that all over ear headphones should feature such an option, the tap gestures are a non-starter. The double tap is highly unreliable and the single tap is overly sensitive. Brushing your hand up against them, or even trying to adjust the headband and touching the button will trigger your single tap gesture. It’s ultra annoying and in this case, I would’ve preferred something like the Surface Headphone, or Sony 1000XM3’s touchpad.
Another issue with the gestures is you have to pick and choose your position. You have up to four gestures you can assign.
The last part of the on-boarding process is it’ll play a sample track in “neutral” mode and allow you to switch back and forth between neutral and your personalized mode. From what I’ve gathered, and nura will likely never admit this, but the neutral sound is more than likely designed to sound like hot garbage to make the personalized mode sound really good. The neutral mode sounds like they got rid of all the dynamic range, boosted the bass and reduced everything else. It’s quite odd phenomenon.
With nuraphone, you’ll need to have the app to make any adjustments to the headphone outside of your already programmed tap gestures. This means that if you don’t have volume or skip forward/back mapped on your headphone, hope you have those controls on your device end. Basically, if it were possible, you’d need the app to charge the headphone (thankfully, this isn’t the case).
Aside from on-boarding, you’ll have a handful of options within the app including adding up to two additional hearing profiles (total of 3). You’ll also have a social mode button front and center, a toggle to switch between neutral and your personalized mode, and an immersion mode.
Tapping on the hamburger menu on top you can gain access to more information such as your account, being able to sign out of the app, and a ”nuraphone Settings” menu. Within here, you can configure your touch buttons, upgrade your software, change the robotic voice’s language, enable or disable ANC, and enter discovery mode.
Yep, you’ll need to go into the app to enter discovery mode to pair to a new device. Fortunately, pairing to existing devices is the best I’ve seen in quite some time, rivaling Apple’s W1 chip for pairing. If you’ve paired with a device in the past, you’ll simply need to go into your next device’s Bluetooth settings, tap on nuraphone and wait a few moments. Your nuraphones will simply switch over to the new device and you’ll hear a “device switched” prompt in the headphone itself. It sounds like a small deal, but this is much better than other Bluetooth headphones on the market which force you to unpair from your current device and then go into your next device’s Bluetooth settings to pair.
Some may argue having multi-device pairing (pairing to two devices simultaneously) would be better. I’d have to respectfully disagree here as I’ve had headphones that pair to two devices. If you’re paired to two Apple devices (an iPhone, and Mac for example), and you get a phone call, more often than not the headphone gets super confused and craps out as it can’t figure out which device is “active”. I would take having to go into the app to go into pairing mode (which is a one and done deal, you don’t have to to go into the app after your device has paired with the nuraphone in the past), over having multi-device simultaneous pairing.
One thing I did notice, in terms of pairing, is that the nuraphone would occasionally be in pairing mode despite already being paired to a device (checked with other devices that was never paired to nuraphone). Not a huge deal, but a potential security flaw especially in crowded areas such as on a bus, or at an airport. Users can potentially pair to the nuraphone and take over.
Active Noise Cancelation (ANC) and Sound Quality
The ANC on the nuraphone is excellent. Unlike traditional ANC headphones that uses software for the majority of its ANC algorithm plus some passive isolation, the nuraphone is majority passive isolation with some software-based ANC built-in. This means that the nuraphone is able to block out a ton of noise without enabling the active noise cancelation feature, which will likely boost battery life in some measurement.
In my testing, the ANC is equal to or better than the XM3s, which are the current leader in Active Noise Cancelation technology. Its biggest strongpoint is with blocking out higher pitched, random noises such as voices due to its INOVA (in ear, over ear) design. The nuraphone goes head-to-head with the Sony 1000XM3s.
While I haven’t been able to test the Nuraphones on a flight (where ANC is most useful) I have been able to test them while on the bus, train, and walking outside in a fairly busy area of Seattle. With audio playing (either music, podcasts, or phone calls) at a decent volume, the ANC is excellent.
For volume, I found the nuraphone to be a disappointment. They don’t get nearly as loud enough as some other headphones I’ve tested in the past, often pushing the volume up to 90-95% and in some cases maxing them out to get a pleasing level of sound. And this is with ANC enabled so nuraphone is blocking out as much outside sound as it possibly can.
With social mode, the nuraphone uses the same four microphones it uses for ANC and reverses them so you can hear the outside world. While most other ANC headphones have a similar feature, the nuraphone is unrivaled in this area. From my testing with walking around a decently crowded mall with my wife, talking to a barista at Starbucks about my order, and using it to hear the next stop on the train, the nuraphone’s social mode is a 1:1 representation of how the world sounds around you. It doesn’t try to isolate certain frequencies so that you can hear voices better, or try to block out engine noise, it just works. Similar to the personalized sound signature nuraphone gives you for listening to audio, it seems like it uses the same techniques for its social mode as I never had an issue with hearing the outside world.
Same rules apply to ANC as it does with the social mode. You can turn the feature on or off in the app but you’ll need to assign a tap gesture to get to it without the app.
The sound quality is highly subjective and is based on how well the initial ear test results turned out. For me, it took half a dozen tries before it spat out a sound signature I liked. Like many who initially try out nuraphone, I didn’t really read into the whole “quiet environment” idea. After reading numerous tips and tricks online, I found a quiet space, and tried my best not to move or make a sound.
In terms of sound quality, they’re in their own class compared to wireless and wireless ANC headphones. The sound signature is neutral and the soundstage is wider than most wireless closed-back headphones, but not as wide as the Bowers & Wilkins PX, which have an unbelievably wide soundstage for a closed-back headphone. Instrument separation is excellent and it’s easy to pick out instruments and various layers of vocals.
Naturally, overall sound quality improves when wired (whether over USB or 3.5mm). However, using the nuraphone wired with any of the cable options will disable the tap gestures, the microphone, and also the Bluetooth radio.
The nuraphone by nura is a really, really good attempt for a startup that made its debut on Kickstarter. The ANC is better than most in its class, rivaling the king of ANC, the Sony 1000XM3, with unrivaled sound quality for an ANC headphone and truly innovative features such as the inova design, personalized listening, and Bluetooth fast switching.
Some may question whether or not $399 would be worth the price. If you strip away Bluetooth, the innovative sound adjustments, the ANC, and the rest of the tech, the price tag is absurd. However, considering the nuraphone is competing against the likes of Sony’s 1000XM3s, Bowers & Wilkins PX, and Bang & Olufsen’s H9i in the premium ANC space, the price is right where it should be. We reviewed Sony’s 1000XM3 a few months ago. The nuraphone and 1000XM3s are currently the best ANC headphones you can currently buy.
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