We’re taking a detour from our normal audio reviews to look at a headphone that, uniquely, is less focused on listening than it is on hearing. Launched after a wildly successful Indiegogo campaign, Nuheara’s IQbuds are “true wireless” earbuds that promise to enhance your hearing ability, boosting the sounds you want to hear and letting you customize your hearing to your environment. After hearing through the IQbuds for a few weeks, we find that their “Dynamic Noise Control” can be impressive at times, but they’re something short of magical.
At first glance, the IQbuds look like many other earbuds in this form factor. They’re small, light IEMs with rounded housings that nestle comfortably into the outer ear. The IQbuds ship with a clamshell case that doubles as a storage and charging case — a necessary accessory to battery life. Like all “true wireless” earbuds, the IQbuds’s size necessarily limits their battery capacity — only 120mAh batteries fit — but the charging case can extend the effective battery life of the IQbuds to over 20 hours through subsequent charges. An array of ear tips in different shapes and sizes make them easy to fit, though some foam tips would probably be useful given the intended use of this product. The IQbuds use a single balanced-armature dynamic driver per ear, and support only the SBC Bluetooth codec — their sound signature is balanced and they sound fine — but that’s not what these buds are about.
What sets the IQbuds apart from similar headphones in this form factor is the companion iOS app. Available for free, the app grants access to the IQbuds’ hearing enhancement features. Setup begins with the familiar two-step pairing process — once for Bluetooth, and a second time for Bluetooth Low-Energy. Once paired, the user is presented with options to customize and tune the IQbuds’ hearing enhancements — World, WorldEQ, Location Presets, a “Personal Profile” and NuHeara’s proprietary Super Intelligent Noise Control, or “SINC”. Each is essentially a variation on the “ambient awareness” function that some other headphones have, tweaked with NuHeara’s tech. There is also a “World Off” mode that does not apply active noise canceling, but simply mutes the external microphones — this turns the IQbuds into normal “true wireless” headphones.
The World screen offers three major options — Locations selection, World On / World Off toggle, and a “More World” / “Less World” slider that regulates the volume of external sounds. Locations include Workout, Street, Home, Office, Restaurant, Driving, and Plane. Each allows a different amount of sound in through the external microphones, boosting certain frequencies (voice) and reducing others (engines, background noise) depending on the type of ambient noise expected in the scenario. Tapping an icon at the top-right of the screen allows the user to further tweak sound for each location, with a slider allowing you to adjust the volume of general ambient noise as opposed to the specific frequencies targeted by the location. For example, the “Restaurant” aims to isolate the user from the low rumble of background conversation and boost vocal frequencies of the others at your table. Location sound can be even further tweaked in the WorldEQ tab — a slider can either reduce bass or treble to taste. The IQbuds app’s “Personal Profile” screen takes things a step further, allowing more granular adjustment of volumes of certain frequencies for each ear independently.
The effect of the IQbuds’ location modes, in general, is to amplify the higher frequencies of speech. Of course, all of the functionality of the IQbuds depends on the quality of the buds’ seal in the ear — external sounds can’t be enhanced or reduced if they’re leaking in around the silicone tips. At their best, the IQbuds add a sharpness and clarity to speech and other sounds in a certain range, making them easier to discern in noisy environments. Female-voiced subway announcements became more audible against background noise, though mumblers and low-talkers didn’t get much of a boost. In some cases, it seemed as though voices were stripped of their lower tones, leaving behind an amplified, tinny version of their former selves. The IQbuds sharpened all the sounds around us, sometimes for better (sometimes amplifying a car horn is preferable), and sometimes for worse (jangling keys can be jarring). The IQbuds work, and many of those who tried our review sample were impressed, but expectations should be set within reason — they’re not magical. Though we heard the effect of enhanced voice, we never quite got the experience that we could make a crowd disappear while isolating a friend’s speech.
In our testing, there was one significant detractor from our experience with the IQbuds’ hearing enhancement functions. We tested the IQbuds in streets, offices, and restaurants in New York City, an area with every type of background noise possible. It’s a general cacophony that you don’t notice until you use ANC headphones; disable ANC, and you realize that the entire city seems to be saturated by a low-frequency rumble. The IQbuds don’t have ANC, but rather attempt to process external noise. When we used the IQbuds outdoors in this area in any mode except “World Off”, we heard a quiet but persistent noise like a distant swarm of bees. We tried adjusting all the settings, but couldn’t get the noise to disappear completely. The sound of this background noise seemed to change when we played with the “World EQ” screen, which would seem to indicate that it’s something being done actively by the IQbuds, even if not intentionally. The noise would stop briefly after a gust of wind — the IQbuds seem to have some wind compensation where the microphone input is cut moments after buffeting from wind — which leads us to believe that the noise is the result of the external microphones filtering out the low frequencies of the city’s background hum, leaving only a higher-frequency buzz behind. This was not a problem indoors, it may not be a problem where you live, and might be fixable via software updates, but once we noticed it, it was hard to ignore.
We also bumped into some quirks inherent in the IQbuds’ design. The IQbuds cannot be held in the same hand or in a pocket together — their sensitive microphones almost always get caught in a feedback loop, emitting a surprisingly loud and jarring high-pitched tone. They also can’t be turned off, so we had to be careful to keep them apart and store them only in their charging case. The IQbuds range from the iPhone is relatively short — about 15-20 feet — but in honesty we’re rarely that far from our phones anyway. With the charging case, the IQbuds lasted through the day, and their touch controls are sensitive enough that only a light touch is required. However, like the Bragi Dash we reviewed some time ago, it’s easy to accidentally tap the microphone inputs when trying to operate, the touch controls, resulting in a jarring sound into the ear.
If you’ve ever been in a loud bar, had difficulty understanding the person standing next to you, and been suddenly terrified that you were losing your hearing, Nuheara might just have something for you. If you’ve got normal hearing, but want to try enhancing and customizing the sound of the world around you, Nuheara’s IQbuds might just make you feel like you have super powers. Though our use of the IQbuds was not quite the revelatory experience we were hoping for, it is without a doubt interesting to see a company putting real effort into improving day-to-day hearing without a prescription or overly expensive hardware. With some tweaks to firmware and sound profiles, we think the IQbuds could be very good.
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