Each to their own

Audeara’s app gives you a hearing test, then programs the A-01 headphones to compensate for your personal profile. Is it a miracle experience?

The Audeara website quotes a customer as saying “I’ve just spent the whole day, relistening to my entire music library!” But why take the word of someone who only has 20-30 albums? We decided to have a listen ourselves, intrigued by Audeara’s Kickstarted idea of corrective audio.
These are noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones which make use of an app-based hearing test. By creating a personally tailored response, Audeara hopes to deliver the minor miracle of music as it was intended to be heard, replenishing the missing parts of music.

Or as Audeara puts it, “Audeara measures each ear — and knows what it hears well and not so well…” then “modulates the playback to match each ear’s audiogram”, with the result that “you hear and feel so much more without having to add volume”. That last part is important, because if the Audeara system can prevent you turning your music up, it’s potentially protecting your ears against further abuse.

Let us pause to wave an Australian flag here — Audeara is 100% Australian owned and designed, with the app side of things originating with two Brisbane doctors who were aiming to make medical-grade audiograms more accessible using just this kind of app. The brand has now launched internationally, though they are not alone in this corrective audio space; we have encountered the German Mimi Defined system, and another brand with an Australian connection, nura (review in the April-May 2019 Sound+Image). But this is the first working corrective headphone we have had in for extended review.

The A-01 headphones
The headphones themselves follow a fairly Bose-like design, sturdy with anodised aluminium yokes and soft-fitting faux-leather cushions, the Audeara logo subtley etched onto the outside of the closed hard plastic ear-cups. They fold flat for neat storage, though don’t pivot inwards into a foetal ball. The left shell has a slider for power on, which will automatically re-pair to your last Bluetooth connection (e.g. your phone) if it’s available, while three tiny stud buttons handle volume/track up/down, call answering and Bluetooth pairing (hold the centre stud until the LED flashes blue and red). There’s also a socket for the provided cable, which has a control lozenge at one end, but if you’re going wireless with Bluetooth you can store this cable in the nice solid carrying case provided.

On the right earcup is a second slider, this one activating active noise-cancellation, alongside a micro-USB socket for charging. They take about six hours to charge, with promises of between 35 hours (Bluetooth with Audeara correction) and 65 hours (cabled, NC on) of operation.

An extra — if your TV doesn’t do Bluetooth out, Audeara has a $50 Transceiver unit ($20 if bought as a bundle) which will take the digital or analogue output from your TV and send it to the headphones. The BT-01 Transceiver usefully supports aptX Low Latency, as well as the basic SBC and Apple-friendly AAC Bluetooth codecs, so we might suppose the A-01 headphones to do the same, though the codec specifications aren’t listed.

We decided to listen to the A-01 headphones first without the hearing test and correction, to get the feel of them in the raw, as it were, and for various reasons including the Christmas break, we ended up doing so for several months. Our preferred modes were cabled, with the A-01 offering rather different responses depending on whether the power and/or noise-cancelling were engaged. Using power slightly enclosed the more open unpowered sound, while the noise-cancelling was certainly handy when on the bus commute to reduce the underlying rumble (the NC adequate if not up with class-leaders Bose, Sony and PSB), but it also off-loaded some of the depth of sound, thinning things so that male voices lacked depth, and music could get a little boxy.

But most people will use Bluetooth, which is also required to use the app. Bluetooth sound without noise-cancelling was oddly thick (odd because the thickness in the low-mids seemed biased a bit to the left) but this bass push was no bad thing when on the bus commute. The noise-cancelling again slightly boxed in the sound, but did even out the frequency response quite well, so that this too was a balance into which we could settle enjoyably for long periods. Now then, could Audeara’s processing improve on things?

The hearing test
We had expected the hearing test to be made with the cable attached, rather than wirelessly, which might face the criticism that a hearing test transmitted by Bluetooth is limited by the vagaries and codecs of Bluetooth. But Audeara cleverly has the tones generated inside the headphones themselves, merely under the control of the app, rather than playing audio files over the wireless connection. A clever solution.

We chose the longest and most detailed of the hearing tests, with 32 frequency points for each ear to check, a process which involves tapping buttons left and right to say “Can hear” or “Can’t hear” to drop or raise the volume accordingly. Once you find the point at which you can barely hear it, you press the central ‘Barely audible’ (see right).

It’s a simple process, though the tone generators seemed distressed three or four notches from the highest end — one tone sounded like distressed morse code, we heard little cracks and once a strange fizzing noise, so that we suspect our responses from those top four bands (see right) were not correctly measured. Sometimes we thought the tones were ebbing and flowing unfairly, but after such long listening to tones intently, we might have been hearing the effect of blood pressure in our ears or heaven knows what other bodily effects.

We liked that you could switch at any point from left ear to right and vice versa, a change being as good as a rest, and you could back up and check points you’d already signed off. We’re not entirely sure that showing the graph as you go is wise; there’s a tendency to compete against your previous result, or to re-test points that seem off the curve. An engineering lecturer once gave us a stern chastisement for spending longer on suspicious results than expected ones — not good science, he said!

Be careful not to raise the test tone to its max just to get a handle on it — if you go right to the top it scores you a fail, with a mean ‘×’ marked instead of a graph point. ‘Deaf bugger’, it seems to be saying.

But eventually we finished, saved the profile and uploaded the audiogram into the headphones. You get a choice of applying the Audeara experience at 0%, 25% 50%, 75% or 100%. Playing first via Bluetooth with noise-cancellation off (which, as already noted, sounded rather pushed at the bottom), we played Leonard Cohen’s Going Home, on which his voice contains both depth which can easily get bloomy, and midrange which requires clarity. Here that lumpy Bluetooth balance made Leonard’s voice not such much bloomy as well over-dominant. But adding 50% of the Audeara experience to that lifted the midrange to deliver much higher clarity, while also taming the bass, and we’d guess this is the effect that makes people’s eyes open wide in the advertisement videos. But 50% proved the limit — up at 100% things turned both peaky and hollow, and we had to turn it down.

This pattern was repeated with kd lang’s The Air That I Breathe — the vocal purest but a bit overwhelmed with 0% correction, 100% making things hideously processed, but a Goldilocks level at 50% where the added edge significantly improved things.

But this is correction of a slightly duff original sound, not a miracle improvement to an already enjoyable balance. From the better inherent balance delivered with noise-cancelling engaged, we couldn’t apply more than 25% of the correction without the result sounding artificial. On top of the nice NC balance, Audeara at 100% made a quite horrible change, turning Leonard’s voice inside-out with an eyeball-sucking hollowness, and all the depth hollowed out, too.
Going back to 0% certainly made things sound dull for a moment, but after settling in this was clearly the easier long-term listen, as things didn’t sound so processed.

At one point we accidentally powered down the headphones — we repowered them immediately, they connected automatically to the iPad Pro by Bluetooth and carried on playing. The app, however, announced it had lost its connection, and couldn’t find them for quite a while (even though they were at that moment connected and playing). When it did reconnect it went through the personalisation upload again, and it seemed to do this whenever we started using the app, even though your applied percentage is supposedly burned in. If you want to mess around, you’ll be loading things across a fair deal, but that’s quite quick, certainly compared to the firmware update that came through in the New Year, which required an overnight connection for an iOS device (it’s worth borrowing an Android phone, as they do it far quicker). The update contained a number of fixes, including taking the headphone’s own volume control out of circuit when using the wired connection, very sensible. All our listening comments were made after this update.

Conclusion
So for us, the effect of the correction appeared to change the sound of the headphones, rather than alleviating the condition of our hearing. There is the possibility that our hearing is not much defective, so that the effect of the Audeara correction would be less significant, and we might not be the target for this product. But then the correction wasn’t insignificant, it was very substantial; we just didn’t like its effect. We could perhaps fine-tune the hearing test carefully to get results we like more, and indeed we tried a bit of that, but then we were using the app more as a long-winded EQ control, rather than a hearing correction app. And sadly we don’t have any audio reviewers in the team who do have significantly defective hearing, for fairly obvious reasons.

Ultimately, we’d like to experience Audeara through a better, more neutral, headphone. But with the tones generated internally by the A-01 headphones, and the personal profile stored there also, this is an app/hardware combo that can’t be broken. We like the idea of corrective headphones, we like the implementation here by Audeara, but we didn’t find the results to be worthwhile — remembering that this is the result for us, and of course the whole point of this product is that it will be different for everyone. Still, we thought the A-01 headphones to be enjoyable enough without correction, and to have one of their best balanced sounds via Bluetooth with noise-cancelling engaged, which is an unusual and praiseworthy achievement for which most headphone manufacturers would be very happy.

But since Audeara is selling the A-01s on their corrective abilities, we must report that we found these redundant — at least for us. 

Audeara A-01 wireless noise-cancelling headphones
Price: $349

Type: over-ear, closed, dynamic
Driver: 40mm Mylar
Impedance: 32 ohms (cabled)
Quoted frequency response: 20Hz-22kHz
Weight: 256g
Contact: Audeara
Telephone: 1300 251 539
Web: au.audeara.com