Electronics

Review: Living With the Nuheara IQBuds Boost

Almost everyone eventually suffers hearing loss. Even if you take great care of your ears, it typically happens with age. And for many of us who have spent more time than we should have in loud environments, we’ll probably pay for it in the long run. Of course, there are also millions who have always had some difficulty hearing. Until recently, the only recourse was to go whole hog into a physician-prescribed, extremely expensive, personally fitted pair of hearing aids.

But with some changes in the regulatory environment and advances in technology, a new product category called hearables has begun to come to market. Hearables combine the features of a typical consumer pair of earbuds with some hearing-augmentation functionality. I got some brief hands-on demos of several at CES, but it was hard in that noisy environment to tell how effective they’d be in the real world.

Recently, Nuheara has started shipping the Boost version of its IQBuds ($499), staking out territory as one of the first hearables in the market. I took a pair with me on an extended overseas trip and put it through its paces.

Description

Nuheara’s IQBuds are a high-end pair of wireless earbuds that come with a smartphone app to let you pick between a number of listening modes. As such, they are popular, but not entirely unique. However, the new Boost version adds some novel features. First, you can do an audio self-test, and have the IQBuds adjust their frequency response to accommodate your particular hearing using a feature called Ear ID. The test only takes about 10 minutes, and in my case the results were very consistent with other hearing tests I’ve done. Second, you can separately control the volume of ambient sound (referred to as World) to either make it easier to hear what is going on around you or block it out while you listen to music or just try to relax. Finally, you can bias the IQBuds, using Nuheara’s SINC technology, to favor listening to conversations or simply amplify all sounds.

Setting Up and Using IQBuds Boost

IQBuds come in a package with a variety of differently sized foam tips. For effectively blocking out the world, you’ll want to select a pair that really fills your ear canal so you can get sound isolation. Before you use them for the first time, you place the earbuds in the provided case and plug it into a USB charger. The case will charge itself and the earbuds. Then it is a pretty simple matter to download the app and pair the earbuds with your phone or tablet. After that, you can start playing with them, but at some point you’ll be well served to take the 10-minute hearing test. You’ll learn something about your hearing, and the earbuds can use the information to customize your experience.

One of my favorite features of IQBuds is that they don’t either have or need a power switch. Simply take them out of the case and place them in your ears and they turn on. You configure and control the settings through the companion app. Importantly, you can also configure what single, double, and long taps do for each ear. Configuring a short tap on one ear to turn world noise on and off is really helpful for when someone comes up to you and starts talking. I used it frequently on long airplane flights. I could have the noise of the airplane blocked out, but then turn the outside world back on when an announcement came over the PA or a flight attendant was serving our row.

The only small glitch I found when using the IQBuds was the need to restart the Android app once in a while after my phone had gone to sleep and been woken up. Even in that case, the IQBuds worked fine, but the app UI got stuck. In addition to turning world sounds on and off and setting the mode, you can configure taps to pause media or launch either Siri or Google’s Assistant. That makes is particularly easy to use the IQBuds to initiate phone calls.

I found the audio quality on the IQBuds as good or better than the other wireless earbuds I’ve evaluated, but I didn’t attempt an extensive comparison of them with alternatives for music listening. Battery life seems quite good. The company says the BOOST model of IQBuds is good for up to 20 hours of Bluetooth streaming and 32 hours of hearing processing. The charging case also can recharge the earbuds on its own.

IQBuds Are Hearables, Not Hearing Aids

While hearables like IQBuds Boost are beginning to bridge the gap between headphones and medical device hearing aids, they shouldn’t be confused with true hearing aids. The IQBuds have a limited ability for customization, and it’s based on a simple one-time test, not ongoing consultation with an audiologist. Top-of-the-line hearing aids also have much more sophisticated controls, including allowing the user to shape the audio field to reflect their environment. Then again, those hearing aids cost from $2,000 to $10,000. While the IQBuds Boost at $500 are expensive for earbuds, they’re a lot less than prescribed medical device alternatives. If you are on a tighter budget, you can get the original IQBuds for $300 without all the Boost customizations.

Surprise: Better Hearing Takes Work

As a long time glasses wearer, until I started testing hearing devices I’d assumed they were a lot like glasses: You put glasses on and you can see better. Right away. Hearing aids, and now hearables, aren’t that simple. Our brains have worked to adapt how we listen to whatever our ears can hear. They compensate for missing frequencies as much as they can. Suddenly restoring those frequencies to their proper levels can be confusing at first. Plus, the sound from a hearing device doesn’t enter the ear exactly the same way as it would coming directly from the outside. As a result, there’s a learning period to adapt to how things sound when using a hearing device. In my case, I noticed that while I could often hear sounds from quite a distance when I cranked up the World amplification on the IQBuds, it didn’t immediately translate into a better ability to understand speech.

Is an IQBuds Hearable in Your Future?

Frankly, I suspect that most people will wind up owning at least one “hearable” device over the next decade. It only makes sense that even the vendors of the most popular earbuds will begin to incorporate additional customization and hearing augmentation technology in their consumer earbuds. For now, though, buying into a hearable like Nuheara’s IQBuds Boost requires a sizable financial commitment. You can get more traditional models of similar wireless earbuds for under $200 if you don’t need the additional functionality. Personally, I spend enough time on planes alone that the extra money is probably worth it. But it takes some effort to take full advantage of the additional capabilities provided by the Boost technology.

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