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Headphones Are Getting More Intimate

What if you could get a sound system personalized for your ears only?

March of Progress with everyone wearing headphones Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Each day, before we face our morning commutes, sit down in front of our office computers, or stroll through a grocery store’s aisles, we jam generic blobs into our ears and press play. This ritual has become such a normal part of our life that it’s easy to forget just how physically intimate it is. Medical implants, smart contact lenses, and sex toys aside, earbuds are one of the only gadgets that go inside our bodies on a daily basis with the explicit purpose of interacting with our organs. And, as is the case with most every other part of the human anatomy, those organs happen to vary in size and capability from person to person. Yet most earbuds on the market today are, in both size and sound, the equivalent of one of those auto-generated Gmail replies: tailored to be vague and acceptable enough so that they’re useful to as many people as possible.

This apparent lack of personalization has done little to stop people from buying and enjoying earbuds. But recently it has also inspired a small, audio-industry movement aiming to improve upon all ear-oriented gadgets and spread the word that not all cochleas are created equally. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show in January, a startup named Ossic showed off prototypes for immersive over-ear headphones that provide “3-D audio” by taking into account a person’s head size, ear shape, and position in space. (Just a month before, they raised $2.7 million on Kickstarter.) Last summer, the Israel-based company Even premiered a line of earbuds and headphones that, through its “proprietary process,” could detect and adapt to what it described as each individual customer’s “EarPrint.” But most unique in design and approach is the Melbourne-based Nura, another Kickstarter darling that managed to raise more than $1.8 million for adaptive headphones. Their first official iteration launches this Tuesday.

Nura headphones Nura

Like its competitors, Nura has a raison d’être rooted in the science of how how we hear. Each person’s ears produce faint little sounds called “otoacoustic emissions.” Those sounds occur when hairs on the inside of our cochlea—the spiral cavity of the inner ear—vibrate on their own or in response to noise. For years, experts have used medical-grade technology to pick up these emissions for hearing tests, specifically for newborns (who are not great at offering clear verbal feedback to sound). Nura CEO Kyle Slater, an engineer who had worked on various bionic ear implants, and his co-founder Luke Campbell, a surgeon who has specializes in ENT (ears, nose, throat), thought that if they could use that signal to map out 12 frequency points on a continuous spectrum, then they’d be able to create individual sound profiles for individual customers.

“I was saying that headphones should be adaptive,” Slater told me during a product demo. “They should learn how an individual hears. Can we put a hearing-measurement machine into a pair of headphones? And [Campbell’s] answer was: ‘I think we can.’ That was the magic moment when it actually happened.”

After closing their successful Kickstarter campaign last spring and subsequently securing some outside investment, Nura’s team joined a Chinese startup accelerator, moved to the manufacturing city of Shenzhen, and rented a house next to a factory they had chosen to develop custom parts for its product, which they decided to call Nuraphones. To ensure the best sound possible, Slater and Campbell settled on a design that combined elements of earbuds and over-ear headphones. (The end product looks like a pair of normal headphones whose insides have grown two mini silicone dildos.) Because of the novelty of their shape, the product required extensive prototypes and tests. For instance, it took about 150 iterations to perfect the spring inside the earbud portion of the company’s headphones.

“I remember the factory CEO just going: ‘This is crazy. How long are you going to be here?’” Slater said. “And we’re like: ‘Until we ship.’ And he’s like, ‘No, seriously. Two months? Three months?’”

Nura headphones Nura

In addition to featuring a very intimate sound-delivery system, Nuraphones contain a small, sensitive microphone designed to pick up your ear’s unique sounds. That microphone is put to work in conjunction with an accompanying smartphone app the first time you try the headphones. I have a distinct middle school memory of being removed from class with my peers and brought onto a smelly bus where we were asked to put on headphones and indicate if we heard a handful of low- and high-frequency beeps. The process you undergo to create a “hearing profile” via the Nura app is somewhat similar, but requires no feedback on your end. As you stare at a shifting blob on your screen, the headphones play a series of scattered R2-D2-esque sounds over the course of 30 seconds to discover your unique hearing needs. When I tried it, the subsequent frequency arrangement the headphones delivered sounded incredibly clear and bright compared with the generic one offered on the app. To see if there was a noticeable sound difference from person to person, I asked my friends to make profiles, too. When I listened to a song under their settings for comparison, the music sounded as if it was rattling through an aluminum trash can.

This clarity is thanks both in part to the proprietary software Nura uses to determine your sensitivity to a range of tones, and also the fact that those aforementioned mini dildos manage to wedge themselves pretty snuggly into your ear canals, while the over-ear covers create a noise-canceling seal. It’s a significant contrast with your typical audio accessories: Over-ear iterations tend to slide around a bit and remain decidedly outside the body. Earbuds trend toward a bulbous, plastic mold that only vaguely resembles the inside of your ear canal. But Nuraphones are the closest fit I’ve ever felt. This is, according to Slater, all part of the $400 product’s appeal.

“There aren’t that many products out there that can learn and adapt, truly, to the way that you are sensing something,” he told me. “Glasses can’t do that for vision. Imagine if they could just all out change the way that I was seeing. That’s what Nuraphones do for hearing. I think having that intimate connection is a nice reminder of that—it works, it’s comfortable, but it feels connected.”

As impressed as I was with Nuraphone’s ability to adjust to my ears, the gadget’s close proximity also made me intensely aware of what was happening within its machinery. I’d catch a popping sound from the gadget—a spring perhaps?—when I adjusted it on my head, or yawned. Every time I put the headphones on, a calm Siri-like voice would greet me, as if I were coming home. Maybe that’s part of the reason I felt as though I was consciously uncoupling my ears from the headphones anytime someone in the office tried to speak to me and I had to unhinge them from my ears. Along with this new level of customization comes a much more intimate ear-hole relationship than I anticipated. Still, it’s hardly surprising that in an era where everything from your Starbucks order to your weekly Spotify playlist is personalized, we expect more from the gadgets that go in our bodies.