Headphones are probably the most personal and subjective of all consumer electronic purchases. When you’re looking for a new pair, you want a set that sounds good to you.
The search for new headphone can be frustrating. Ever try to test out some new units at an Apple store with all that noise going on around you? What about the source material? Do you get to choose the audition music or are you stuck with some sneakily optimized program material that makes the headphones sound better than they actually do?
Are you the kind of person who buys online without having a chance to check them out first? Or do you buy a set of Beats or Bose just because everyone else seems to have them?
Finally, what are you using them for? MP3s or your phone? Streams from Spotify? Spoken word? Music as it’s being recorded?
All these things make a difference because everyone’s ears are different. Everyone’s hearing profile is different. Everyone’s level of hearing damage is different. Therefore, all the reviews and specs and price points and marketing hype be damned: if the ‘phones don’t sound good to your ears–and your ears alone–they’re not worth the money.
Since I work in some kind of audio studio ever day, I’m very, very picky about what I put over my ears. For years, the best ‘phones for me were from the Sony MDX line. They were tough, provided good sound isolation, were efficient (i.e. could be driven VERY loud, something helpful in a club DJ environment) and generally sounded pleasant and true to my ears.
But in my quest to find something even better, I’ve acquired many other models. Bose noise-cancelling models. A set of PSB noise-cancellers (better than Bose, if you ask me). A set of Sennheisers or two. Various nichey audiophile brands. They all sound different but within acceptable parameters. The only thing I can do to alter their sound is to change the processing on the source material through EQ and basic tone controls.
My pair came in a nice box that hints and what lurks inside.
The Audearas come in a hardshell case…
…which contains all the connections one might need, save a Lightning adapter for later headphone jack-less Apple devices. A silk bag stores all the wires and there’s a quick start guide.
You’ll never wonder which channel is which. This is very helpful for anyone who’s struggled with getting L+R correct.
After downloading the Audeara app and pairing the headphones with my iPhone X, it was time for the hearing test. The app has several choices available, ranging from a quick setup to one that takes close to half an hour in order to provide a really granular profile your hearing. I chose the latter.
The hearing test, which should be administered in a very quiet room with no background noise, starts with the left ear. Using three buttons, Can Hear, Can’t Hear, and Barely Audible, you adjust the volume of a series of tones up and down the spectrum. This is how Audeara learns what you can and cannot hear and also identifies possible spikes in sensitivity at specific frequencies.
After going through at least 32 points for each ear, I ended up with this hearing profile.
Funny, but I didn’t expect to be deficient in the bass department. And it’s interesting that there’s that one spot around 5000 Hz where I’ve got a gap. Then around 10K, my left ear gives up. By the time we’re in the 15k range, most of my high-frequency perception is gone.
Once this profile is created, Audeara goes to work.
After a minute or so, my new Audeara headphones were calibrated for my ears and my ears alone. So would I be able to tell the difference?
The app recommends starting out slow, applying a 25 or 50% correction first just to get used to what you’ll be hearing. From there, you can elect to up the correction to 75% or the full 100%.
Because I was connected to my iPhone’s library, the only music available was the MP3s and AAC files, all encoded at 320 kbps. (Note: Before you see what Audeara has done to your music, go into Settings>Music>EQ and turn everything off. You don’t want any secondary EQ messing up what you’re about to hear.)
So was there was a difference? Most certainly. In fact, it was a bit jarring at times. Here are some real-time notesThe Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (50% correction)
1. The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” ripped from Who’s Next remastered edition (50% correction)
Upper bass sounds a bit muddy when John Entwhistle’s parts kid in. Might have to rejig my sound test more carefully since mid- and upper-bass are the first things tested. Roger’s voice sounds…more sharp, clear. Same with Pete’s slashing guitar chords. There’s definitely more definition in Keith’s cymbal work, Even though I’ve heard this song thousands of times, I’ve never heard a couple double hits on the same cymbal, something that’s been lost in the overlapping decay of the first hit. I can hear his hi-hats more clearly than ever before. And in the synth breakdown before the final chorus, it’s ultra-clear how Pete has the return of the organ pulse potted over to the left channel while the pulse itself is in the right channel. I always knew that, but the definition on the reverb return is now spectacular.
Wow rating: 7 out of 10.
2. Led Zeppelin, “Hey Hey My My,” ripped from Mothership box set (50% correction)
Lots of Pageian guitar antics on both acoustic and electric. The steel strings on Page’s guitar somehow seem more….steel. Bonzo’s snare, already compressed to deliver the most famous crack in
Wow rating: 7 out of 10.
3. Television, “Marquee Moon,” ripped from a 90s-era CD reissue of Marquee Moon (75% correction)
Drums sharper all around. You can actually hear the slight play in the drumheads, resulting in a much more live sound. Best moment comes at at 9:20 with the drums/bass interplay before the final verse.
Wow rating: 6 out of 10.
4. Peter Murphy, “Cuts You Up,” ripped from 1990 release of Cut (100%) correction.
Too much. I know the software is compensating for my ears’ shortcomings, but the recording sounds too dry with an unnecessary amount of emphasis in the midrange. Dialing it back to 25% feels like the right thing to do.
Wow rating: 3 out of 10.
5. Beastie Boys, “Sabotage,” ripped from
90s-era release of Ill Communication (50% correction.
Listening with 0% is not an option: bassy and muddy. Everything works better at 25% or 50%. Interesting to hear some finger fretboard noise I hadn’t noticed before.
Wow rating: 5 out of 10.
6. Steely Dan, “Hey Nineteen,” streamed from Apple Music (50% correction)
This is more like it. Stunning definition throughout the soundstage with the Fender Rhodes now in a place where it’s not obscuring any of the overtones found in the bassline. I’m going to have to go back and really listen to this one to see what I’ve been missing.
Wow rating 8 out of 10.
7. Peter Gabriel, “Sledgehammer,” streaming from Apple Music (50% correction)
Tony Levin’s bass playing really pops. The tambourine hits that come simultaneously with the snare is more jangly. Another song I’ll have to revisit. What else has been lurking in the mix?
Wow rating: 8 out of 10
8. Talking Heads, “Psycho Killer,” streaming from Apple Music (50% correction)
Be careful not to turn up the correction too high because some of that old tape hiss starts to crop up during the quieter parts. Tina Weymouth’s basslines are much more up front in the mix, making for a more pleasant and thrilling.
Wow rating: 7 out of 10.
9. Nine Inch Nails, “Closer,” streamed from Apple Music (100% correction)
A different listening experience. I suddenly began to hear sounds deep in the mix that I didn’t know were there. In fact, the keyboard lines revealed all kinds of new mysteries to my stupid ears. I don’t know if I’ll listen to this on 100% correction forever, but for exploring such a deep and complex mix, it’s pretty amazing.
Wow rating: 9 out of 10.
10. Avicii, “Wake Me Up,” streamed from Apple Music (50% correction)
Wow, The most revealing experience of all. So much going on here that had previously escaped me. Everything just sounded…better. I might even learn to like this song now.
Wow rating: 10 out of 10.
Conclusion: If you’re looking to tweak your listening experience, you can go wrong with the Audeara system. I do, however, wonder about the quality of the drivers in the earpieces. Are they technically capable of actually generating the frequencies required? If they can’t, then all the hearing tests in the world aren’t going to be worth anything.
What if Audeara were to partner with a high-end company like Grado and license its technology to people who know how to make excellent headphone speakers? What would the effect be then?