New York City is never quiet, but most of the city’s residents prefer to walk around with their own private soundtrack blaring in their ears. Nearly everyone you see on the street is perpetually in an aural bubble, separate from the outside world.
Wireless headphones make those bubbles even more pronounced without tethers to a separate device, and I think I’ve found the best pair for city life: Nuheara’s IQbuds, a set of “true” wireless buds with solid sound, touch controls, massive battery life, and augmented hearing features that put them in a class above just about anything else I’ve ever put in my ears.
I haven’t always been so comfortable wearing headphones at all times, though. Their ubiquity in public spaces shocked me when I first moved to the city a few years ago, accustomed as I was to the Midwestern niceties of Ohio where we typically place a constant burden upon ourselves to be outwardly friendly in public.
Even then, I remember thinking the surly earbud-wearing teens I saw were a troubling sign of millennial disengagement from the real world, isolating themselves with technology even when they were forced to break away from a screen.
Then I moved to the city. Merely existing in public in New York is a particularly lonely endeavor, even though it feels to me there are roughly more people going about their business on one typical NYC block than the entire city of Cleveland. Keeping sane within the bustle with your favorite album or podcast isn’t rude or weird — it’s almost a necessity, providing some small measure of identity among the masses, giving one small factor of control in a world filled with subway delays and traffic jams.
I soon found myself popping in my basic Apple EarPods more often than not when I hit the streets. Slowly but surely, I was morphing into a headphone person — but I wasn’t quite ready to spend every waking moment out and about with them in my ears. While it was easy enough to just keep the corded buds in my pocket at all times, something held me back. I still felt uncomfortable at times in my bubble, wanting to be more available to the public at large.
My time wearing the IQbuds has helped me solve that problem. The buds have a killer feature that’s particularly valuable in the city — you can choose to turn the world on and off. The augmented hearing functions, activated via a simple tap, can be used to tune into the scene around you just as well as its noise-cancelling setting shuts sound out. Speech amplification can home in on someone’s voice to help you make out exactly what they’re saying over the constant noise in the background.
I first experienced this on a crowded subway, totally by accident. I set the buds to their “Street” setting in their companion app (other modes include Home, Office, Workout, and Plane) and paused my music for a moment. I was able to hear the conversation going on four people away from me as clearly as if they were speaking directly to me. (Serial eavesdroppers, these are definitely the headphones for you.)
I’ve also used the setting to pick up friends’ voices better on a busy street. Instead of asking them to speak up, I was able to tap my right ear to help boost their voices above the din.
The sound from the IQbuds isn’t quite as rich as other wireless headphones I’ve tried, like Fitbit’s surprisingly competent Flyer, but Nuheara did a passable job here with solid bass and customizable settings for a tailored sound. I compared the IQbuds to Apple’s mega-popular AirPods, the current king of true wireless headphones, for a better sense of what they brought to the table. The layered guitars of Brand New’s “Can’t Get It Out” were more distinct on the IQbuds, and the ability to adjust the treble and bass made the listening experience much more enjoyable.
The IQbuds’ carrying case isn’t as small as AirPods’ compact case, but it fits in my back pocket and provide a recharge when the buds are stowed away. Nuheara claims the whole rig provides 16 hours of Bluetooth streaming on one charge. I didn’t estimate my exact hourly usage, but I’ve been able to go for over a week without needing to recharge, which is great for an everyday carry earphone.
IQbuds aren’t perfect, though. Sometimes when I put them back in the case, a piercing squeal of feedback eeks out, and the Bluetooth connection has cut out a few times. Then there’s the cost. The buds will set you back $300 — you can almost buy two pairs of the $160 AirPods at that price. The augmented hearing features are really cool, but many won’t be able to justify that much of an extra cost.
New York is a headphone town, and even with their flaws, IQbuds might be the best earbuds for the city. They have helped to finally turn me, completely and unreservedly, onto wearing headphones in public at every moment because I can tune the world out or welcome it in.
Good sound • Great battery life • Truly useful augmented hearing features
Expensive • Ear-splitting feedback quirks • Some dropped Bluetooth connections
The Bottom Line
IQbuds are more expensive than AirPods, but they make up the difference with killer augmented hearing features and an impressive battery life. These could be your new favorite headphones.
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