After These Headphones, My Skull Will Never Be The Same
Sound is one of those delightful areas of physics we can appreciate in both the objective and subjective. Objectively, we can study decibels and frequencies and state, with confidence, that something is deafening or high-pitched, and rule it unpleasant. Subjectively, Nickelback is an abomination and you should feel bad for having ever listened to them.
So too can we judge the hardware we listen with; a crappy set of $10 inner-ears pales to, say, anything $300 or more with “Sennheiser” stamped on the side.
But you don’t have to resort to whatever’s on sale at Woolworths, nor eviscerate your wallet for the best in German engineering. There’s a middle ground, where the likes of Audio-Technica, Plantronics and even Apple reside, allowing you to buy headphones that suit your own tastes — or stick with the free set that came with your mobile.
Then, we get to those manufacturers that like to experiment, to turn the listening experience on its head, until it manages that elusive handstand, or passes out from the rush of blood.
Enter Razer, and its Nari Ultimate headphones.
If the image above looks like something out of a gamer’s fever dream, that’s because it is. Mice, keyboards, microphones and headphones, Razer covers the gamut of devices you can plug into your computer or gaming console in a vain attempt to suck less at the latest flavour of battle royale.
While the Naris are unlikely to make you better at Fortnite or PUBG, they will make you appreciate why going to live concerts is a sometimes food.
Not content with converting digital signals into stuff you can hear, the Naris transform soundwaves into a physical experience, the cups becoming portable earthquakes. Transform isn’t quite the right word — technically, sound is vibration. Amplify is better, with the Naris upgrading mid-to-low frequencies to the tactile range.
“HyperSense” is the name Razer has given to this technology, itself developed by the Berlin-based outfit Lofelt. In more general terms, HyperSense is a form of “haptics” — the melding of touch with interaction, and vice versa.
The cups are monstrous, devouring your ears in a leatheresque enclosure, complete with cooling gel “infusion” for those particularly sweaty sessions of… well, whatever you like to do with peripheral in hand. While not intrinsically noise-cancelling, the full-ear design and rumbling resonance will have outside noises fleeing from sheer inadequacy.
It would be easy to criticise these headphones for liquefying my brain into a grey porridge, ready to pour into a nearby bowl.
I gave the Naris a good go. Honestly. From shooting mimics in Prey, to dominating city-states in Civilization V, to the beautiful notes of Max Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed, to the bowel-trembling bass line in Metric’s Black Sheep, I gave the Naris a good go.
It would be easy to criticise these headphones for liquefying my brain into a grey porridge, ready to pour into a nearby bowl. But I can’t. The Naris are merely annoying, rather than outright bad. Which, arguably, is worse. You’re not reading this for some middling opinion, where I balance on the fence of tactfulness, equilibrium maintained out of concern for the feelings of Razer’s engineers. I’d rather offer something binary: to buy, or not to buy.
So..Are They Are Buy Or Not?
Sadly, I have to say it’s a no-buy. And, while the $350 price tag weighs heavily in this decision, it’s something much simpler that tipped the balance: the baffling lack of an off switch.
The Nari Ultimate’s biggest issue is not the inclusion of HyperSense — that-what-makes-it shake — but the absence of a way to disable it. Once your head has reached peak vibration, eyeballs oscillating of their own free will, you’ll search desperately for some button, some switch, to end the madness.
Alas, your only option is to reduce the volume, the pounding effect dissolving with every millimetre of dial. At around 50 percent, you’ll only fear the lowest of frequencies, but even then, you’ll get a jolt from the odd round of machinegun fire, or the pluck of a bass guitar.
It’s not all negative, though. Razer is to be applauded for trying something new, to mix with the formula when the status quo is a shoulder shrug of “that’ll do”. Given Razer’s gaming focus, you could point to that market and argue the Naris are not intended for the average listener, or even the average player.
Let’s go with this argument for a second. I doubt any competitive gamer, who depends on getting into — and staying — in the zone, would want their headphones to physically assault them. The perfect shot, ruined by an ill-considered and poorly-timed ear massage.
Which leads us to one conclusion: the Naris are well and truly in the domain of the gimmick, a novelty that’s kind of, sort of, nice to try, but something you would never curse yourself with for an extended period, and not for the sum of $350.
It should come as no surprise that the Ultimate is one of three headphones in the Nari line, and the only one to include the skull-shaking HyperSense. While the cost is less obnoxious the further down the line you go, the plain Nari going for $250 and the Essential (read: bargain) version for $170, the quality of sound doesn’t justify the expenditure when the likes of Audio-Technica’s M40x exist.
What hurts more is that I have no idea who the target market is. It’s not the average listener, nor the esports professional, looking for some mystical sonic edge. Our gaze, then, falls on the dedicated gamers who soak in everything visual, tactile and aural. Even then, the Naris are a hard sell, if only for the price.
On a positive note, they’re incredibly comfortable. You can go hours without realising they’re still on your head. But it is not the best of recommendations to say the headphones are at their best when silent.
Hopefully, the Nari Ultimate serves as a proof-of-concept Razer will refine in future models. I have no doubt there’s a market for headphones that let you feel every drop of bass, every blast of artillery, every shot from your rifle. Right now, they’re too bombastic, the subtleties discarded for the visceral, and that’s too big of a compromise to make.