Headphones with active noise cancelling (ANC) are nothing new. They include microphones that sample the ambient noise around you and then reproduce that sound after shifting its phase by 180 degrees and mixing it with the original. The two out-of-phase sounds cancel each other out, reducing the level that reaches your ears. This works best on steady-state, low-frequency sounds, such as the constant din of engines inside an airplane.
The Audeara A-01 is just such a headphone, and it offers a very interesting additional benefit—custom equalization tailored to your specific hearing profile. It’s a brilliant idea, and it works fairly well, at least with ANC turned on.
The Audeara A-01 is a circumaural (over-ear) headphone that features active noise cancelling. In addition, the built-in microphone used for ANC also lets you talk on a connected phone via the headphones.
Each closed-back earcup includes a 40mm Mylar driver, and the specified frequency response extends from 20Hz to 20kHz (no tolerance given). The 3.5mm audio input presents an impedance of 32 ohms.
The primary input, however, is Bluetooth—in this case, version 4.2. It supports the SBC, aptX, and cVc codecs and the A2DP, AVRCP, HFP, and HSP profiles. Audeara is working on adding the aptX LL and HD codecs (low latency and high definition respectively), which will be rolled out in a firmware update.
All of that is fairly standard fare for ANC Bluetooth headphones. But the A-01 also offers one unique feature. The companion Audeara app, which is freely available for Android and iOS devices, measures your individual hearing profile and uses it to program the headphones with an equalization curve tailored to that profile. Theoretically, this lets you hear more of the music without having to turn it up. You can even store multiple profiles for your family and friends. How cool is that?
The A-01 is powered by a rechargeable 1000mAh battery. Happily, the main power and ANC can be turned on and off independently, letting you maximize battery life. With ANC only—and using the 3.5mm input—the battery is specified to last up to 65 hours. If you also activate Bluetooth and the Audeara EQ by turning on the main power, the battery should last up to 35 hours. Turning off ANC while keeping the main power on increases the battery life up to 45 hours.
The included charging cable plugs into a microUSB port at the bottom of the right earcup. It takes about six hours to fully charge the battery from a completely drained state.
Another cool feature is Audeara’s optional BT-01 Bluetooth transceiver ($99, or $40 if you buy it with the A-01). This little gizmo accepts audio from an optical TosLink cable or analog 3.5mm cable and transmits the signal to the A-01 via Bluetooth. It also comes with an adaptor with two RCA plugs on one end and a 3.5mm connector on the other end for devices with RCA outputs. It’s great for people who want to listen to their TV or older stereo wirelessly on the headphones.
In addition, the BT-01 can work in the opposite direction—it can accept audio via Bluetooth and send it to non-Bluetooth gear via digital-optical or analog cables from its outputs. Very cool!
The headphone feels very sturdy and substantial, though the extenders that pull out of the headband feel somewhat rough in their movement. In addition, it’s a bit small for my admittedly large head. I had to use the maximum extension of the headband, and the earcups felt pretty tightly squeezed against my head. On the plus side, this makes for a good seal, which is important for sound quality, noise isolation, and obtaining a good result from the app’s hearing test.
User interface and hearing test
The onboard controls include a main power switch at the bottom of the left earcup and an ANC on/off switch on the bottom of the right earcup, each with a tiny LED to indicate its status. The only other controls are three small buttons on the back of the left earcup. The central button is multifunction: play/pause music and answer/hang up phone call with a single tap, skip forward with a double tap, skip back with a triple tap, enter Bluetooth pairing mode with a long hold. The flanking buttons increase and decrease the volume.
After pairing the A-01 with my iPhone XS, I downloaded the Audeara app and ran the hearing test. There are three tests to choose from: Standard (eight frequencies), High Detail (16 frequencies), and Ultimate Precision (32 frequencies). Standard and High Detail test frequencies from 100Hz to 16kHz, while Ultimate Precision extends from 100Hz to 20kHz. The process begins with a short tutorial on how to perform the test, which is simple yet informative.
Once the test begins, the app plays repeating beeps in each ear at different frequencies, and you adjust the volume of the beeps at each frequency until you can just barely hear them. This requires a quiet environment so that extraneous noise does not interfere with the test.
The test display looks like a graphic EQ. You can drag the slider for each frequency up and down, but the volume doesn’t change until you take your finger off the slider. You can also tap a button labeled “Can Hear” if you can hear the beeps, which lowers the volume of the selected frequency. If you can’t hear the beeps, you tap the button labeled “Can’t Hear,” which raises the volume. When you can barely hear the beeps at a particular frequency, you tap the button labeled “Barely Audible,” which moves on to the next frequency. You can also select the frequency to adjust by tapping on its slider.
I was concerned that the phone’s volume setting would affect the test, but it doesn’t. The volume control is disabled during the test, so the levels you hear are completely consistent.
I found a few quirks in this process. For one thing, the change in volume as you tap the Can Hear and Can’t Hear buttons isn’t instantaneous; it takes a moment to catch up, which was confusing at first. Also, holding those buttons does not cause the slider to scroll as I expected.
As I was playing with the test, I brought some sliders all the way to the bottom and top of their range. When I tried to push a slider below its minimum value, it simply stayed there. But when I tried to push a slider above its maximum value, the slider disappeared and the app jumped to the next frequency. An “X” appeared over the missing frequency, and tapping that brought the slider back to its maximum value. That seems like very odd behavior; I wish it would simply stop at the top and not respond to attempts to increase it further, just as it does at the low end of the slider’s range.
When I asked Audeara about this, they replied, “The X represents ‘can’t hear’ at that particular frequency within the testing range of the headphones. This alters the way that particular frequency response is incorporated into the algorithm and ultimate sound profile.”
Once the test is finished for both ears, the app offers the opportunity to go back and adjust the results. This worked fine, except that the app unexpectedly played a tone very loud once in a while, which was startling. Once I was satisfied, it let me name and save the profile. I could perform and save the test with different names as many times as I wanted, and they are all associated with me as a user. Others could do the same and associate the results with them separately.
Once a test is complete and saved, it cannot be modified further. If you want to adjust the results, you must perform the whole test again. According to Audeara, this allows you to track your hearing over time.
When the test is complete, the app will show you the hearing profile of your left and right ears; this graph is called an audiogram. You can tap on “More Info,” which first reminds you that this is not a medical diagnosis, it then takes you to the World Health Organization’s webpage about hearing impairment.
I performed the Standard test twice and the High Detail test once, with similar results each time. Those results follow a roughly similar contour as the professional audiogram of my hearing that was performed only a few months ago, but there were a couple of discrepancies. For example, the Audeara results indicate that my right ear is slightly worse than my left below 1kHz, but the pro audiogram shows the opposite.
Back on the hearing-profile page, the next step is to tap the button labeled “Experience Audeara.” This uploads the EQ derived from the selected profile to the headphones. Then, you specify the strength of the program to apply, from 0 to 100 percent in 25-percent increments; 0 percent is described as having no effect. Once the music starts playing, you can go back to the Audeara app and change the strength of the program, which let me compare different strengths on the fly.
Using the High Detail profile established by the hearing test I performed, I started my listening with “Night by Night” from Steely Dan’s classic Pretzel Logic. As I listened, I tried different strengths of effect. At 0 percent, the sound was very dull with virtually no highs at all. Moving up to 25 percent improved the sound somewhat, while 50 percent sounded much better, with reasonably balanced highs. At 75 and 100 percent, the sound was way too bright and brittle, with overblown highs that shrieked uncomfortably in my ears.
Returning to 50 percent, the frequency ranges were fairly well balanced. The vocals sounded good, but the bass was a bit tubby and loose.
Next up was “Good Lava” from Esperanza Spaulding’s excellent album Emily’s D+Evolution. The vocals, guitar, and cymbals all sounded good, but again, the bass was somewhat loose and muddy. The same was true on “Ladies’ Choice” by Joanna Cazden from her album Living Through History, which I engineered. As before, the bass was a bit bloated, but in this case, the vocals were somewhat veiled with overemphasized sibilants.
For some large-ensemble tracks, I played “Thunder and Blazes” as performed by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under Frederick Fennell on the album Screamers, as well as an arrangement of Frank Zappa’s “The Dog Breath Variations” performed by the Cincinnati Wind Symphony under Eugene Migliaro Corporon on their album Songs and Dances. In both cases, the tubas were tubby (not in a cute way!) and slightly overbearing, while the higher parts sounded slightly veiled.
For a real torture test, I listened to “The Happy Soul” as arranged for tuba quartet by my father, Robert Wilkinson, and played by the Dutch Tuba Quartet on their album Escape From Oom-Pah Land. As expected by now, the tubas sounded a bit loose and tubby.
Moving to small ensembles, I played “Lester Leaps In” from an unreleased recording by trombonist Steve Wilson and featuring guitar legend Mundell Lowe. The guitar, piano, and cymbals were good, though the acoustic bass was muddy, and the trombone was a bit veiled. I also listened to “The Fairie Round” from A Festival of Renaissance Dances by the Southern California Early Music Consort. I played bass sackbut (renaissance trombone) on that album, and it sounded a bit bloated and loose, though the cornett, shawms, and tamborine sounded much better.
Just for grins, I created a completely flat EQ—I left all sliders at their default position, leading to a completely flat audiogram. Interestingly, different strength settings changed the sound; 0 percent was still dull and lifeless, while 100 percent was very overemphasized in the highs. A setting of 50 percent sounded best, though still a bit tubby in the bass. It seems to me that a flat EQ should sound the same at any strength setting, but it definitely doesn’t, and I have no idea why.
I listened to each of the tracks with active noise cancellation off and on. As I’ve experienced with several other ANC headphones, the A-01 actually sounded better with ANC on. The bass was tighter and the overall sound was cleaner with less veiling. With no music playing, however, I could hear some noise that disappeared when I turned ANC off. That shouldn’t be a problem in a noisy environment.
Speaking of noisy environments, I took the A-01 to a freeway underpass as well as a spot right next to the freeway to test the noise cancellation. The ANC worked very well, reducing the level of low frequencies quite effectively.
Comparison to PSB M4U 8
After hearing how dull the sound was at 0 percent, I wondered if my hearing was really that bad. So, I brought out the PSB M4U 8 Bluetooth ANC headphone, which became my reference product in this category after I reviewed it for TechHive. I breathed a sigh of relief when I compared the M4U 8 to the A-01 set to 0 percent—the PSB sounded way better!
In particular, the PSB’s bass was much tighter on all tracks, and the overall sound was more natural, even when the Audeara was set to 50 percent. By comparison, the sound of the A-01 had a slightly artificial quality.
As I noted in my review of the M4U 8, I prefer its sound with ANC off, whereas I prefer the sound of the A-01 with its ANC on. Still, I give the nod to the PSB under this condition, though the difference is much smaller than with ANC off in both headphones. As far as noise cancellation is concerned, I thought the two models were roughly equal in lowering the level of low-frequency noise.
I found the M4U 8 more comfortable to wear, especially for long periods. As I mentioned earlier, the A-01 is pretty tight on my head, which is not a problem with the PSB.
The idea behind the Audeara A-01 is excellent—measure the user’s hearing profile and adjust the headphone’s EQ to compensate for any deficits. In its current iteration, however, it falls a little short. In particular, the audiogram I obtained did not match my professionally administered audiogram in some areas, though it did follow a roughly similar curve.
Still, the sound quality was certainly better with the results applied to the headphone, but that is partly due to how dull it sounds with no EQ. I found myself wondering if Audeara voiced the headphone’s native response to be so deficient in the highs. I don’t know, but in any case, I would much prefer having a more neutral response if no EQ is applied.
Setting the strength to 100 percent resulted in a buzz saw with screeching highs, while 50 percent with ANC on provided the best sound. Of course, that will drain the battery the fastest, but Audeara rates the battery life at up to 35 hours with all electronics on, which is much more than needed to last an intercontinental flight.
By comparison, the PSB M4U 8 sounded better, with tighter bass and a more natural balance. Plus, it’s more comfortable to wear for long listening sessions. On the other hand, the M4U 8 carries a list price of $399, which is $100 more than the A-01. And the Audeara sounds pretty darn good at 50-percent strength with ANC on.
I applaud Audeara for coming up with an ingenious product, which I hope will get more people interested in learning about their hearing profile. The A-01 has great potential to help those with hearing deficits to more fully enjoy music, and it goes a long way toward fulfilling that potential. If the company can refine the app to produce a more accurate audiogram and reduce the slight tubbiness of the bass, it will be a slam dunk.