Perhaps it's something in the water. For whatever reason, Australia has become the center of personalized sound – audio which customises itself to your hearing. The latest product of this nature to emerge from the land Down Under is a pair of over-ear headphones called the A-01s, from a company known as Audeara. In this review, we break down the sound, design, packaging and accessories, specs and more of the A-01 headphones. To see alternatives, check out our list of the best headphones.
The idea behind the Audeara A-01 headphones is one we've seen before. You put them on and then use a dedicated app to perform a hearing test. We'll go into this in more detail below, but the idea is that, once the hearing test is complete, the headphones will be able to adjust their sound to compensate for any hearing loss you've had. Don't pretend you don't have hearing loss: if you're out of your teens, and have been exposed to loud noises even a few times, you won't have perfect hearing. We definitely don't.
The $250 A-01s claim to bring back the bits of the sound spectrum that you don't hear so well, essentially creating a personalized EQ to "optimize" the sound. If this sounds more medical than your average headphone tech, it's because it is. The A-01s were developed by two Brisbane-based doctors, James Fielding and Chris Jeffery, who wanted to make medical-grade audiograms available to those who were frustrated with the long waits in their country's public health system. That's all well and good, but as we explain below, a medical-grade audiogram is not necessarily what headphone users might be looking for.
Personalization and Hearing Test
Here's how it works. After connecting the A-01s via Bluetooth to your phone, you download the app and input your age. You then have a choice of three different hearing tests: standard, high detail, or ultimate precision. The more in-depth your test, the more segments of the sound spectrum are tested, and the result – in theory – will be better. You can read a little bit more about the process on Audeara's site.
The test involves listening to various tones, and adjusting the volume until you can no longer hear them clearly. It's very similar to the test that came with the Beyerdynamic Aventho Wireless (full review here). And that's not a compliment. One of the things we loathed most about the atrocious Aventhos was their dull hearing test. Fortunately, Audeara sidestep this by letting you choose how deep you want to go, and informing you of exactly how long each test will take. It's not especially fun, but it's relatively painless. At the end, what you will have – in theory – is a picture of your hearing, including the wonderful details of how bad it is, and how much of it has been lost. The headphones then make some adjustments, apply a filter to your music, and should theoretically deliver sound quality that makes your jaw drop, as the headphones give back what your ears have lost.
That's not quite what we experienced. While we have no doubt that the hearing test performed as advertised, we just weren't that impressed with the end result in the sound. It was fine, in that it was very clearly emphasising frequencies that our ears had trouble picking up, but it also showed that the A-01s miss the point of being proper headphones. In absolutely spectacular fashion. Because the problem was, we didn't like the sound signature that came out of our hearing test. We didn't like it on first listen, and we didn't like it after many, many hours of further listening. It felt dry, unpleasantly harsh, and quite needling. It had brittle treble and lack of any real excitement in either the mids or bass. Friends and colleagues tested it, and felt much the same way. It didn't feel like a return to perfect audio so much as a stern teacher, wagging his finger and telling us that this was how the world was supposed to sound.
If you want a medical-grade audiogram, that's what you'll get. You can spend the $250 cost of an average audiogram on the A-01s, and you'll have a pair of headphones at the end of the process, not just a doctor's report. Although, the app does point out that the results from the Audeara test are not the same as an assessment by a hearing doc. But is that, really and truly, what people buy headphones for? We believe it isn't. People buy headphones to enjoy their music, and it's difficult to see anybody getting serious enjoyment out of the desert-dry sound signature presented by the A-01s.
We don't want to oversell this point. The Audeara A-01s perform as advertised. Hearing is important, and hearing tests are important, and God knows it's important to understand any hearing loss you have. But these aren't being marketed as a medical device. Though they may have medical elements, the tagline is "Listen Vibrantly". And our listening was not vibrant. There are several other headphones in our wireless listening rack, and we would pick almost any of them over the A-01s.
Stereo Spread and Soundstage
One aspect of the A-01s, that many sound-personalizing headphones don't offer, is the ability to correct the imbalances in the left and the right ear. The reality is that ears aren't damaged equally, and a hearing loss in one ear might not be present in the other. This is something we found unique to the A-01s and believe it was a smart move. While we may prefer the sound of the EVEN H3s, which offer similar personalisation, they don't offer this level of detail.
We believe this also makes the soundstage and stereo spread of the A-01s above average. Again, hearing is subjective, and every listener will interpret this differently, but we genuinely enjoyed how open and airy the sound was. While the actual sound itself might have been lifeless, we could at least detail where things were in the mix.
The Audeara A-01s offer active noise cancelation, applied with the flick of a switch on the right ear cup. It's an effective solution and manages to block out the outside world without too much trouble. It's definitely not the main selling point here, and we don't think it beats dedicated noise-canceling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 35 II (full review here). Then again, those headphones cost around a hundred dollars more, so we definitely shouldn't expect the A-01s to beat them. Consider the noise-canceling feature as a bonus here.
Audeara vs. Nuraphone
You'll notice that, so far, we haven't mentioned the biggest competitor to the A-01s. That would be the Nuraphone headphones (full review here), developed by a company based in Melbourne, which also offer sound personalization technology. While they might be from the same lands and offer similar features, their tech approach comes from a completely different angle. As a result, they happen to produce a much better pair of headphones.
The Nuraphones definitely have their issues. They are horribly uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, thanks to their strange hybrid in-ear/over-ear design. The base sound – i.e. without personalization applied – is absolutely awful. But the one thing they get right, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is the processed sound. They don't measure how much hearing you may have lost, but they do measure the unique shape of your ear canal, and apply EQ to make the sound as enjoyable as humanly possible. Listening to a pair of A-01s is a chore, while listening to a pair of Nuraphones is an absolute delight. Yes, they are significantly more expensive – $399, versus $250 for the A-01s - but the sound, usability, and design are in a league of their own. This isn't even a question: if you have the money, get the Nuraphones.
Looks and Build Quality
Fittingly, for a device that claims to offer a medical-grade solution, the design of the A-01s is pretty industrial. We like the logo – a stylised A, embossed on the outside of the ear cups – but everything else made us a yawn. The design is all smooth plastic, available in exactly one color (black), and it's about as exciting as filing taxes. This, we have to say, is inexcusable. It's all very well to offer a dedicated hearing test – it might not be particularly exciting, but at least it's something different - but if you're going to package it in something that looks like the free headphones they give out on transatlantic flights, then you have failed. The design of the $250 A-01s is beaten into the ground by significantly cheaper models, like the stylish EVEN H3s, and they don't even fold up. At all.
One thing you can say for the A-01s is that they are suitably robust, with a good level of flex to the headband. It's difficult to see these getting broken, even after being dropped or jostled around in a bag. They'll last you a long time – although you may not be wild about that particular fact.
App and Controls
It must be said that the app that controls the headphones works very well. It paired with the A-01s quickly via Bluetooth and was intuitive and simple to navigate. Setting up different profiles for different users, and working through the various hearing tests, felt straightforward. It's not quite as good as the app produced for headphones like the Sony WH-1000XM3 (full review here), but it does a capable job. The app is available on both Android and iOS.
We also, surprisingly, found ourselves liking the controls for the A-01s. Once you've completed the hearing test, you don't need to use the app to connect to the headphones – you can pair them via Bluetooth as normal, and control them using the physical switches on the housing. While we were a bit worried by the amount of controls – a power switch, a noise-canceling switch, and three buttons for volume and track skipping – we found that using them wasn't a problem. The buttons felt intuitively-placed and easy-to-use, and they made navigating tracks a cinch. No problems here.
Here's another thing that the A-01s do impress with: their battery life. We got around 35 hours of playback at moderate volume and with noise-canceling turned on. That's impressive. The aforementioned Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones, only offer a mere 20 hours of battery life. While we'd still much rather use the Bose overall, we were seriously satisfied with how much juice the A-01s had.
The inner cups of the A-01s are made of synthetic leather and are nicely squashy. We didn't have any issue wearing these for long periods, comfort-wise. The A-01s felt comfortable, and we had no issues with either the clamping pressure of the headband or the size of the cups. Anybody should be able to use these without too much trouble, regardless of the size of your head or ears.
However, we did encounter at least one minor annoyance. The cups hinge 90°, which is fairly standard for headphones in this price range, but they hinge the wrong way... If you want to hang these headphones around your neck, you will find that the cups face outwards, rather than inwards. Not only does it look ridiculous, but it exposes the drivers to the elements. We can't even remember a pair of headphones that we've tested that made this mistake – and we've tested plenty. It's the kind of thing that should have been caught at the design stage, and it became one of the more frustrating things about wearing these headphones. Still, at least there are clear Right and Left indicators inside the cups. They've got that going for them.
The A-01s come with a carry case that is adequate, but unexceptional. It has absolutely nothing to recommend it, beyond the fact that you can store your headphones it. What we do like is the range of accessories that are included. Along with the A-01 headphones, you get assorted cables, including an aux cable for wired listening, and a micro-USB cable for charging. There's a 6.3mm adaptor, an airline adapter, and even a carabiner if you want to anchor the case to a backpack or…well, actually, we don't know what else you'd want to anchor the case to, but it's nice to have the option. The accessories come in a smart cloth pouch, which makes us wonder why the larger case is so basic.
What We Like
- The Audeara A-01s provide an accurate way to measure your hearing at home, with as much detail as you like.
- The soundstage the A-01s offer is better than average, with a good sense of space.
- The app and controls are well-designed and easy-to-use.
What We Don't
- The personalized sound of the A-01s is lifeless and unexciting, with no sense of fun or enjoyment.
- The build quality of the A-01s is fine, but the design and accessories are dull.
- The cups hinge 90° in the wrong direction. This is deeply annoying.
|Audeara A-01||$250||Over-Ear||35 Hours||Yes||No||4.2|
|Nuraphone||$399||Over/In-Ear Hybrid||18 Hours||Yes||No||Unknown|
|EVEN H3||$216||Over-Ear||19 Hours||No||No||Unknown|
|B'dynamic Aventho Wireless||$450||On-Ear||25 Hours||No||No||aptX HD|
*Batt. = Battery Life
**Canc. = Noise Cancelation
We've already mentioned the $399 Nuraphone headphones, which are such a direct competitor that we actually devoted an entire section to them, above. If you skipped that part, what you need to know is that they offer a unique hybrid design of in-ear and over-ear headphones, their sound personalisation is far more fun than the A-01s, and the design is terrific. In our review, we said "These are very good, but they are not quite the quantum leap forward that the manufacturers want you to believe they are…" Given that Nura have since put out a firmware update giving all models noise canceling, maybe it's time to revisit these headphones.
Then there's the EVEN H3. If the Audeara A-01s are the stuffy obstetrician with diplomas on his wall and a grey BMW in the hospital parking lot, then the EVEN H3s are rough and ready medical student, smoked on Redbull and bouncing off the surgery walls at the end of a double shift. They are great fun, with splendid design and audio quality. That audio quality is nowhere near as precise as the A-01s, or as dramatic as the Nuraphone, but it definitely gets the job done. And for $150, you're getting an awful lot of bang for your buck here.
One pair of headphones you can avoid is the Beyerdynamic Aventho Wireless. There are very few headphones we hate, but these definitely make the list. An atrocious app, deadly boring hearing test that seemed to go on for hours, and touch controls that made us want to scream…it was all there. We'd pick the A-01s over these, any time. Readers have told us that we need to go back and re-evaluate the Aventho Wireless – that the app has improved, and that the new touch controls are a little less finicky than they used to be. We'll get to it eventually, but we can't promise we won't want to hurl them into traffic.
There are surprisingly few sound-personalization headphones on the market – so few, in fact, that we can say that at least half the available models come from Australia. So instead, let's explore an option for making your existing headphones personalized. If that sounds interesting, then we recommend trying out the Aumeo. It's a cute little headphone amp, retailing for $199, that will personalize your sound for your own unique hearing pattern. It works fine, but the major downside is that there's no wireless functionality. If you want Bluetooth, stick with the Nuraphone or the A-01s.