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Apple rivals add tricks and treats to compete in noisy earbud space

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Another curious feature is that when taking calls you can remove the right earbud and hold it to your mouth, so you can talk very quietly or pretend you’re using a candlestick telephone from the 1890s, which seems very much like a function Apple could nick for AirPods.

Preparing audio for the metaverse

Sony has its eyes a little further ahead, starting work on problems that nobody’s really encountered yet. Namely, how will audio devices work in the future when our devices tether us constantly to a persistent digital world? The implications of the metaverse are that information may present itself to us at any time and, alongside augmented reality headsets, audio will likely play a big role in that. This means, at least as far as Sony imagines, that we’ll want buds we can wear all the time without annoyance.

Audio from Sony’s LinkBuds is pumped out of a ring that lets air flow into your ear.

The $300 LinkBuds are not the company’s first attempt at that paradigm, but they’re the most convincing yet. The very light buds attach to the inside of your ears but don’t poke into the canal. Instead, sound is played through a donut-shaped speaker that sits above the canal, letting outside air (and noise) through the middle. You can interact with the buds by tapping on your jaw.

The result is that you can hear normally with nothing blocking your ears, and noises from your phone sound as though they’re somewhere close nearby. Right now these make a lot of sense for things like AR apps and games — you can see the digital world and material worlds at the same time, and the LinkBuds expand that to sound — and they’re also good in an office scenario for phone calls and voice assistants.

But like the metaverse itself — which features prominently in Sony’s ads — the LinkBuds aren’t really ready yet. They’re not comfortable enough for a full workday of wear, and the batteries only last five hours or so before they have to go back in their case for a top-up.

Customisation kings

Most premium buds offer some manner of customisation, whether it’s an audio equaliser, a choice of smart assistants or buttons and gestures that can be programmed for different tasks. But the leader in sound customisation is Australia’s Nura, which launched headphones in 2017 that could measure an individual’s hearing capability in detail and adjust sound to suit. Last year it miniaturised the technology into the NuraTrue earbuds.

The NuraTrue earbuds have the same capabilities of the larger Nuraphones.

The NuraTrue earbuds have the same capabilities of the larger Nuraphones.

Like the larger headphones, these buds have sensitive microphones built in that can be used to analyse a person’s cochlea. When you first put them on, the buds emit a series of bleeps and bloops over a few minutes and record the “otoacoustic emissions” the ear makes in response, building a profile of how you hear. In extreme cases this could allow people to hear parts of the music they completely miss with standard earbuds, but for most people it’s like an automatic equaliser that accounts for their individual hearing.

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Outside of that tech, the NuraTrue pull in features offered by other premium earbuds, including water resistance and noise-cancelling, even if they don’t perform quite as well. They do have a legitimate focus on sound quality though, with big drivers and support for the kind of high-end Bluetooth codecs you usually only find on more expensive buds.

One other audio trick that Nura has up its sleeve is what it calls “immersion mode”, which uses psychoacoustic trickery in an attempt to widen the soundstage. The goal is to replicate the sound of live music, and it’s successful to some extent, although can fill your head with too much noise and bass to be comfortable at higher levels.

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