First look: Nuheara IQbuds Boost for the hard of hearing

by John Davidson

Nuheara’s IQBuds now adjust their output based on hearing tests.

It turns out that my hearing is very good, which is surprising given I consider myself to be pub deaf.

It must be something else that stops me hearing people when they talk to me in a noisy environment. Lack of interest in what they have to say, perhaps?

I’m at the Nuheara booth here at CES in Las Vegas, and I’ve just taken the hearing test that forms the centrepiece of Nuheara’s soon-to-be-released Bluetooth earbuds-cum-hearing aids, the IQbuds Boost.

The IQbuds Boost are sort of a cross between the Australian start-up’s existing IQbuds, which are designed to amplify and clarify voices in noisy environments (just the thing for the pub deaf of the world), and the A-01 headphones that Audeara was supposed to deliver last year, that permanently customise their sound levels according to a clinical-grade hearing test.

The IQbuds app runs you through a hearing test then gives you the results in an Apple-like chart. John Davidson

(By “permanently” I mean that changes are made to the headphones, and to the IQbuds, that remain in place regardless of what phone or what app you’re using to play audio. The changes can be overridden if you take the hearing test again, so they’re not permanent in that sense.)

Different frequencies

In the new app that comes with the IQbuds Boost there’s a feature called Ear ID, that runs you through a hearing test and that, at the end, alters the equalisation of the earbuds, so that they’re louder at frequencies where you have hearing loss. The new EQ remains in place even if, say, you pair the earbuds with your TV instead of your phone and use them so you can understand WTF the cast of The Wire were talking about.

The test plays six different frequencies in each ear, one at a time, lowering the volume of each frequency until you stop pressing on the button that indicates you can hear it. The whole process is much like the process people undertake when they’re getting hearing aids, except that it can be done in the quiet comfort of your home (or, in my case, the hotel room), and except that the IQbuds Boost aren’t technically hearing aids.

They’re Bluetooth earbuds that you can use for playing music on, that if you have hearing loss theoretically should produce the best sound you’ve heard from a pair of earbuds because frequencies you can’t normally hear well will be boosted till the music sounds more like it was supposed to in the first place.

On top of that, they’re sophisticated audio processors that you can use to lift individual voices out of the cacophony. That aspect of the IQbuds Boost is, as far as I can tell, unchanged from the original IQbuds that we reviewed last year.

Unfortunately for everyone concerned, my hearing tests showed that I had very good hearing at all the tested frequencies except for the 4kHz frequency in my left ear.

It’s unfortunate in that it means I can’t really tell you how much difference the new Boost feature makes. The calibration process isn’t going to alter the EQ of the earbuds for me very much, apart from a slight tweak to the left earbud at 4kHz.

More profound

As you might expect, I couldn’t hear that tweak making much difference to the sound quality of the earbuds, which is already very good to my ears. For someone with more severe hearing loss, the difference between the uncalibrated sound and the calibrated should be more profound.

It’s also unfortunate because it leaves unanswered the question of why I can’t hear a word anyone says when there’s any sort of background noise.

Apparently there’s a common form of hearing loss known as “hidden hearing loss” that has to do with how the brain processes the signals it’s getting from the ears. The sound volumes are there, but they’re muddled together and foreground sounds are harder to distinguish from background sounds.

If that’s what I have, then the IQbuds Boost won’t be an improvement on the original IQbuds, which help with hidden hearing loss by sharpening foreground sounds (that’s the way I imagine it, anyway: the IQbuds feel to me like the audio equivalent of a Photoshop sharpening filter) and by suppressing out the background sounds.

If you know you’ve got hearing loss, then the IQbuds Boost will be worth a try. If the only thing you know is that you’re pub deaf, it may be worth figuring out whether it’s hidden or not.

God knows I try to hide my pub deafness. I nod and smile just like I can hear what’s going on, and pray no one asks me a question.

This article was originally published by the Australian Financial Review

January 10th, 2018