In the last couple of years there’s been a lot of talk about smart hearable devices that aren’t medically certified hearings aids but are designed to be hearing amplifiers. Last year Olive Union released a single Smart Ear earbud that helped people hear better, and now it’s following that up with a set of stereo true wireless earbuds. The Olive Pro combines sound-amplification features with noise canceling. It’s available now for $300, or about $100 more than Apple’s AirPods Pro. There’s no international pricing at this time, but the price converts to roughly £220 or AU$420.
While the Olive Pro buds look pretty similar to Apple’s AirPods, they’re meant to compete with a smattering of earbud-style “smart” hearing devices currently on the market or coming soon. Companies like Nuheara with its IQbuds2 Max ($500) and others are marketing hearing-enhancement buds. Bose recently released its user-friendly — and user adjustable — SoundControl Hearing Aids ($850) while Jabra unveiled its Jabra Enhance Plus earbuds that are medical-grade hearing aids (and thus, have no fixed price).
All that said, Apple is rolling out a Conversation Boost feature for the AirPods Pro that will be available with iOS 15 as soon as this month. The upcoming software upgrade marks Apple’s entry into the hearing-enhancement arena and it only seems a matter of time before we see even more Apple hearing-enhancement features that will likely become more advanced and adaptive. So the Olive Pro buds may soon find themselves in competitive territory.
Like with the Nuheara buds, the first thing you’re encouraged to do is take a 5-minute hearing test via the Olive companion app. You need to be in a quiet place and after you take the test, you apply your hearing profile to the buds. On one level, the buds are simple to use. On another, they’re a little complicated.
Read more: Best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds for 2021
They fit me comfortably, though not quite as comfortably as the AirPods Pro. Like with all of these types of noise-isolating buds, it’s essential to get a tight seal or both sound quality and noise canceling will suffer. One of the four urethane-coated foam tips should fit most people’s ears snugly — I went with the widest tip — and I used the buds on a three-mile run without a problem. They’re splash-proof with an IPX4 rating.
The touch controls were nicely responsive and they can be easily customized in the app (that’s simple). You can program for a single tap, double tap and tap-and-hold and assign the gestures to volume control, track control or toggling Hear-Thru on and off. With Hear-Thru on, Olive Union says the Clear mode is the most neutral equalizer setting and ideal for further personalizing hearing and sounds while the Quiet setting “provides the most comfortable and natural sound with the disturbance of surrounding noise.” That setting seems closest to Apple’s transparency mode with virtually no hiss.
For some people it may be confusing to explore all the settings. On top of customizable settings for the Hear-Thru mode (Hearing EQ), there are EQ settings for music listening. There’s a lot of tweaking you can do if you want, which some people will like, but the Bose Hearing Aids are simpler to use for hearing amplification with just two sliders for volume and bass-treble levels.
Sound quality was good, though not quite up to the level of the AirPods Pro and certainly not up to that of the Sony WF-1000XM4 buds, which sound richer with a bigger soundstage and more bass energy and better overall detail. I tested them with Spoon’s Knock Knock Knock, where the bass goes pretty deep, and the Olive Pro buds rolled off a bit at the low end, even after I engaged bass boost.
The noise canceling is also decent but not quite as good as the AirPods Pro’s noise canceling, even at the highest setting (there are three levels of noise canceling). Call quality was also a step behind the AirPods Pro. Though callers said they could hear me OK, the Olive Pro weren’t as good at reducing background noise in the noisy New York streets.
Olive Union says the Olive Pro “distinguishes and amplifies human voices from background noise using proprietary automatic noise background cancelation (Hear-Thru) AI, so speech is heard even in crowded environments.” Hearing amplification is tough because users want amplification that sounds natural, not artificial and overly digital processed. You can get there with the Olive Pro but it does take some tweaking. The amplification definitely works — too much so at times — so you have to refine it to the point where it sounds more natural.
One thing that seems to be missing is any sort of directional amplification. With some of these so-called “smart” hearables, you can choose to amplify sounds directly in front of you for “focused” hearing. This would be a mode you might use at a noisy restaurant while having a conversation with someone across the table from you. Also, there’s no dedicated TV watching mode, although the user guide says the Boost mode for Hear-Thru “provides the most powerful sound amplification, with emphasis on frequencies that are useful for human speech and TV watching.” A lot of hearing aids have these modes to simplify things, but hearing aids can’t deliver the audio quality for music playback that these can.
I have to use them a little longer to deliver a more definitive verdict, but there’s a lot going on with these buds and I think we’ll see some firmware and feature updates that improve them. Olive Union had better hope that Apple’s upcoming Conversation Boost feature isn’t as impressive as the AirPods Pro’s transparency mode, which is considered the gold standard for transparency modes.
“Through computational audio and beamforming microphones, Conversation Boost focuses your AirPods Pro on the person talking in front of you, making it easier to hear and follow along in a face-to-face conversation,” said Gagan Gupta, Apple senior engineering program manager, said when introducing the feature at WWDC 2021 in June. “And to help you hear the conversations even better, you can also reduce the amount of ambient noise.”
That sounds a lot like what Olive Union is doing.
Olive Pro key specs
- Bluetooth 5.1
- Auto pairing
- Customizable touch control
- Proximity sensor
- Low latency
- IPX 4 splash-proof
- Voice assistant support
- USB Type C fast charging
- Up to 7 hours battery life with an additional 13 hours in the charging case
- Mild to moderately severe hearing loss coverage
- $300 (£220 or AU$420 converted)
Source from www.cnet.com