For all the changes in visual appearance, all the extra features and connections, what hasn’t changed much in headphones is how headphones work. That makes Nura, a product launching this week on Kickstarter, all the more interesting. Not only does it introduce a unique design for how the headphones physically deliver sound to your ears, but it’s also a pair of headphones that listens to your ears — even before you start listening to music.

One of the most fundamental things to know about human hearing is that all ears are different. You can give yourself some sense of this by playing with the flappy bits of your ears right now. (Don’t worry – I’m sure people around you won’t find it at all odd.) Move around your ears and you’ll notice sound changes – both your sense of the color and spatial location of what you hear will seem to change. That’s because your physical ear, from exterior to deep in the inner ear, produces a series of attenuations in frequency that impact what you hear.

In the world of analog sound, that meant that sound listening devices had to be made as generically as possible. From the sound produced itself to the physical form of devices like headphones, then, “personal” listening is really just a rough, lowest-common denominator approximation.

But we’re no longer in the world of exclusively analog sound. Thanks to computational technology, it’s possible to make “smarter” listening devices – headphones that automatically calibrate to your particular ears.


Headphones that listen

The Nura headphones do just that. Using an app on the smartphone to do the analysis, they automatically calibrate frequency range to your particular hearing. The headphones measure your hearing – on their own in conjunction with the app, with no intervention from you – in about half a minute.

This is possible because your inner ear, in addition to “listening” to sound, also actually emits very low-intensity sounds (explained in this medical article), both on its own and (essential here) in response to particular sounds as stimuli. What the Nura headphones are able to do is measure those emissions as a way of detecting the way your particular ear hears. That’s been used in medical applications before, but this is the first time the same technique was used to produce better headphones as a consumer product.

So, you plug these in, hear some sweeping tones for 30 seconds, and then your headphones “know” how to make your music sound better – really.

Nura Animation from Nura on Vimeo.

Once the half-minute sensing process is complete, your personal profile is then stored with the headphones for the most accurate sound reproduction in your listening. It’s even specific, as it must be, to each ear. If you share your pair of Nura headphones with someone else and don’t re-calibrate, in other words, you should realize something akin to trading prescription eyeglasses with someone else – you’ll recognize that they don’t hear/see the way you do.

There are some unique applications for this. First off, by default, Nura headphones should sound better than other headphones do. (That explains at least in part why pros do monitor on both cans and studio monitors, or why no one entirely agrees on their favorite headphones.)

I was curious how professional engineers responded, too. That will require a more extensive test and review, but so far the makers of Nura say musicians and engineers have responded positively, and that they’ll continue to collaborate with them as they refine the design – which can include both the software/analysis side as well as the cans themselves.

This also means data collection on hearing directly from your listening device. That could eventually I imagine have implications for hearing health, adjusting to changes in hearing over time, and other applications.

Oh, one weird and interesting possibility: you could actually download a profile for the person who engineered a record, and hear through their ears.

The unique physical design combines in-ear and over-ear designs into a single form factor.

The unique physical design combines in-ear and over-ear designs into a single form factor.

Physical design

The self-calibration routine isn’t the only innovation of the Nura headphones. Physical design is also new. For the first time, the makers say (and the first time I’ve ever seen), the headphones use a dual driver design.

Basically, imagine that this is a combination of earbuds and over-ear headphones. There’s a driver that sticks into your ear for high and mid frequencies and the over-ear for lows. And that solves some familiar problems. In-ear and over-ear designs normally each have unique benefits, both in terms of the outside sounds they block and the sounds that you hear most clearly. Hear, you get both at once.

Since that also means more passive noise cancellation (like covering and plugging your ears at the same time), you should hear less outside noise, which means you can listen at lower volumes, which means less hearing damage from headphone listening.

There are some nice physical features, too, including gel-filled tips that the makers say conform to your ears. And they look fairly nice.

Connections are entirely digital – Lightning (for iOS) and USB (for Android and computers). There’s no analog connector; those digital connectors also provide the power necessary for the headphones to operate. I think a lot of us in the pro market would like an analog option (with some other power solution); I’ve asked about that.

I haven’t gotten to test these yet; that’ll happen here in Berlin next week when the team arrive with prototypes at Music Tech Fest – itself a compelling place to find out about new gear. I’m looking forward to that, though. Let us know if you’ve got questions for the makers or something you want me to evaluate in the process.

I do think this is the future. Nura covers frequency attenuation; it’s still for stereo signal. But you can bet that other sensing capabilities in headphones will also become a major selling feature, from health (sensors that work with the ear, like temperature or pulse) to spatialization (self-calibration becomes even more essential if you want to deliver realistic 360-degree sound to the ears).

Nura is the first to bring that kind of functionality to market in a music device. And that’s big news. So stay tuned for more.

The Kickstarter reached its $100,000 goal on the first day and continues to plow forward as users buy up early-bird specials on the headphones.


Disclosure: Create Digital Media is engaged in a consulting collaboration with Float PR, who have Nura as a client.

  • lala

    unsure what is happening here. So it adjust some eq depending where leaks are?
    unsure if this works, if you don’t hear 18 kHz or 500 kHz there isn’t much you can do about that like this.

    Seams uncomfy, inears and cans in one, meh.

    For health? Who needs to take their temperature or pulse while listening to music?
    maybe for joggers, everybody else goes meh … featureitis much?

    • lala

      btw. what marketing calls your unique hearing signature, they are only talking about the physical hearing apparatus here – which is what they are messing with. What makes listening a truly unique experience is the funny thing between your ears called brain …

      • lala

        btw. the science behind this ( measuring the in ear response ) is about enhancing the quality of heard speech not music …

  • Brent Williams

    This is very interesting. I wonder if the calibration will account for hearing damage, as well as acoustic individualities of ear canals. Maybe it can send a phase-cancelled signal of my tinnitus frequencies…I’d pay a boatload of money to stop the damned ringing. Sigh.

    • lala

      there are 2 types of these phantom sounds
      1. is rare and seams to be some kind of body selfoscilation, this is measurable with this and could cancel with counter signal
      2. the common thing, phantom noise of unknown origin – nothing helps, good luck.

      • Brent Williams

        “2. the common thing, phantom noise of unknown origin – nothing helps, good luck.”
        Unfortunately the origin is known- playing and mixing music far too loudly…
        I hear a constant whine of around 6k (cymbals and blasted vocals, I guess). Thanks for the well-wishing!

        • lala

          “unknown origin” means can’t detect any listenable vibration that creates this “beep” your brain thinks it hears …

  • Michael M

    The science is dubious, but it might be amazing. One thing I know for sure, though, is that those look like the least comfortable headphones I can possibly imagine. In fact they give me a creepy, visceral feeling just from looking at the picture. I’m not letting those things anywhere near my ears.

  • Jared Kirk

    I personally use custom calibrated headphones from SonarWorks. They read the frequency response of the individual drivers and send a file that compensates for the drivers. So I am listening to very flat headphones. I’d personally rather have my ears checked by a doctor and then have the ability to put a file/preset into my DAW using some plugin. HOWEVER…My hearing is different from Fab Dupont’s and Dave Pensado’s, and that’s a good thing and not a bad thing. It’s what makes me unique. As a mix engineer, I’d rather have the ability to compensate for my hearing to check mixes, but I wouldn’t leave them on all the time.

  • Daniel E Black

    OK, so Im calling this one. I work with Otoacoustic Omissions on a daily basis. I understand the science behind them and the limitations of their use. There is absolutely no published “scientific” data that correlates OAEs with how a person prefers to hear sound in a HiFi environment. If they could be used for anything at all it would be to identify (and in a very gross way) if someone has a hearing loss in a certain frequency range. Then, the most you could do with that is maybe put a little extra gain in the appropriate range to compensate – but only if the person has hearing loss! Amongst normal hearing individuals, OAEs vary widely and it would be impossible to correlate them with user preferences in a sensible way. This just seems like a scam that sounds cool and is loosely based on real research. DB

  • Cathi Fitzpatrick

    That was a good read. With evolving technology, the headphones have evolved too, and one can select a headphone based on his specific requirements and budget. So many brands offering the product such as JBL, Sennheiser, or Beats, etc. we can easily find affordable quality headphones and get great deals on them. We can see a drastic rise in the headphone market.