When we first started seeing true wireless earbuds, there were two kinds — buds like the Jabra Elite Sport built for fitness tracking and buds like the Apple AirPods made for everyday use. We might now be seeing a third — buds that use microphones and advanced audio processing to augment your natural hearing.
In the medical field, those are called hearing aids. The Nuheara IQbudsx are most certainly not hearing aids — they’re not a medical device — but if you’ve got marginal hearing loss from going to one too many concerts, you might have use for them. That could be true even for those who have perfect hearing! With some fine tuning, the IQbuds can help you hear friends easier in a crowded bar, keep you aware of street noises when running, or be ready to grab your coffee order without pausing your podcast. It’s a really cool idea, and it’s really only held back by a high price and social norms — or the extent to which you care about those.
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The Good: Will actually give you super hearing, responsive touch controls, good noise blocking for earbuds, decent battery life, secure fit, tons of customization options in the app
The Bad: Audio quality is middle of the road for true wireless earbuds, amplified background noise can be a little muddled, hard to get used to if you don’t feel comfortable talking to others while wearing earbuds
Who it’s for: Anyone who wants almost dangerously effective super hearing, anyone with very mild hearing loss
The IQbuds are on the bigger side for true wireless earbuds, although that’s understandable — not only do both buds have two microphones each, there are actually circuit boards in both buds that handle the audio processing. This isn’t a situation where an app and your smartphone actually do the heavy lifting, and the technology could in theory work with any buds — the IQbuds themselves have all that tech packed in.
That does make them a little heavy in the ear, especially if you’re not used to true wireless earbuds. Fit and comfort aren’t issues, though — the buds come with eight sizes of eartips, so you should be able to find something that fits tightly. They connect to your phone using Bluetooth, and that’s usually stable — I only had some problems on especially windy days. Range isn’t that great, with some skipping once you leave the room where your phone is.
If you want to just use the IQbuds as regular buds, you totally can! Background noise will still come through, but thanks to the tight fit, I got a lot less of it than expected. Audio quality is OK — bass isn’t strong and there’s a little distortion at higher volumes, but otherwise they’re clear enough. They aren’t the best sounding pair of true wireless earbuds I’ve used, but they’re serviceable, and if you’re buying true wireless earbuds at all you’re already taking a necessary hit to audio quality.
That’s all to say audio quality isn’t why you’d invest in a pair of IQbuds. One tap to the right earbud (the surface of both buds are touch sensitive), and you’ll turn the world on — background noise will start coming through, with the buds actively mixing in that noise with the music or podcast you’re listening to. We’ve kind of seen this feature before — some buds give you the option to pipe in background noise as a safety feature, especially those built for workouts. But, the IQbuds take it way further by actually augmenting your hearing.
What does that mean? Put it this way — when I had my first demo with the IQbuds before getting my review unit, I was actually able to hear a conversation that was taking place in the next room over. The mics and processing are that good, so do with that information what you will — just know that it’s not an exaggeration to say that these things will give you superhuman hearing.
But, assuming you’re not buying these to be a serial snoop, there are a lot of practical uses for the feature. I’m usually listening to podcasts when I’m out, which get paused when I’ve ordered food or coffee — I’ve got to listen for my name! With the IQbuds, I could keep it rolling and just turn on background noise. I was able to hear my name called clearly, and was able to communicate with the person behind the counter without talking super loud myself — turning on background noise also includes your own voice, so you can have that necessary level of self-consciousness.
What makes the IQbuds practical is how much you can fine tune them using the companion app. The balance between world volume and music volume can be adjusted on a sliding scale — you can turn world volume all the way up if you really need to be alert, or put it at an even balance if you just need to listen for your name or you’re having a conversation with someone in a crowded place.
You can also choose from different presets that adjust EQ settings — workout, street, home, office, restaurant, driving, and plane. Home will boost voices, while restaurant boosts voices and lowers other kinds of background noise. Street will turn down passing cars and trucks, while workout lets all the background noise in — especially handy for street runners. Up to four of those presets can be set as favorites and cycled through using touch controls on the earbuds, so there’s no need to dive into the app to make changes.
On top of that, each of those presets can be adjusted individually. For each preset, the balance between speech and background noise can be adjusted and can be tuned for emphasis on bass or treble. The cool part is that this is all based on processing software that can be upgraded and sent to the buds, so their performance should continue to improve.
Those touch controls (including play, pause, turning background noise on or off, and activating a digital assistant) can all be customized within the app, with six controls total (tap, double tap, and long press on each bud). I always found the touch controls to be accurate and responsive — it was pretty cool to turn on augmented hearing or shut down background noise with just a quick tap on one of the buds.
If you know that you struggle more hearing lower or higher tones, you can turn up bass or treble in the app as well. You can do that individually for each ear, as well as lowering or raising volume — the buds won’t tell you where you have hearing deficiencies, but if you already have a good idea of where you need help, you can use the IQbuds to great effect.
The IQbuds don’t work perfectly. With restaurant turned on, you’ll still get your fair share of clattering plates or the banging going on behind the espresso counter, although voices do indeed come through above all the din if you’ve tuned those presets to your liking. There’s also a low hiss when background noise is turned on, which can make everything sound a little muddled. Still, the tech is good enough to get the job done — letting you hear the people around you more clearly.
In theory, IQbuds are supposed to be augmentative buds suited for continuous use — you can adjust them to your needs throughout the day in any environment. I found two problems with that. One is obvious — battery life. While the IQbuds can last almost the whole day just as augmentative devices, using them to listen to music or take calls will take the battery life down to around three or four hours, about in line with other true wireless earbuds. They do come with a charging case that supplies five to six charges, but it takes over an hour to charge the buds using the case, so that’s a big stretch where you’ll be without your super hearing.
I actually think that problem isn’t as big of a deal as the other — your feelings about social norms and technology. When I entered a restaurant and was about to give someone my order, I always wanted to take the buds out (and after testing them for a week or so, I did start taking them out). I knew perfectly well I would be able to use the buds to hear the other person and respond without raising my voice, but I also knew that the person I was talking to didn’t know any of that. I couldn’t get over the feeling that leaving them in would feel rude or dismissive to someone else — the norms that make people understanding of hearing aids don’t apply to buds that clearly look like regular consumer gadgets.
I think there’s a wide range of feelings about this subject, especially in the city, so whether or not this matters depends on you. If you know you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in that situation, I think IQbuds are an awesome product. Even if you’re like me and would take them out when talking to others, I still found them to be plenty useful anytime I wasn’t talking to someone else, like while one the street.
For workouts, I think it depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a pair of buds specifically for workouts, there are a lot of other buds better suited to the task — the Jabra Elite Sport and the Bragi Dash have built-in fitness tracking, and many buds have soft inner ear hooks for stability. The IQbuds are sweat-resistant and fit securely even while running, but they’ll never be as well-suited to the task as other products on the market. But, if you’re looking for a pair of everyday buds that happen to also be useful during workouts, the IQbuds are a terrific choice.
The Nuheara IQbuds turned out to be genuinely impressive. They’re not being oversold when they’re called augmentative — they really will help you hear others more clearly in almost any situation. They’re not on the level of hearing aids (and make no claims to be), but for the average person who thinks they might have slight hearing loss, the IQbuds could be a worthwhile buy. They’re pricey at $260, but that’s only a $40 to $60 more than some other true wireless buds on the market — considering the augmentative features, it’s not an unreasonable price.