I’ve been wearing the Oticon OPN 1 since November 2016 (almost a year now). Recently I had an opportunity to review the OPN 3 courtesy of Audiometrix. They sent me a pair of OPN 3 on loan and asked me to try them out and write an honest review on this forum, because they know that I’m an OPN 1 owner and I’m active on OPN discussions on the forum. They want to get my honest opinion about it, with respect to the OPN 1 experience that I’ve had. I don’t get paid by Audiometrix for the review, nor do I get to keep the OPN 3 afterward. It’s a completely voluntary offer, but I was still very excited at the prospect of being able to try out the OPN 3, because I’ve always been super curious myself on how the OPN 3 sounds. I’m curious whether I’d be able to tell any difference between my OPN 1 and the OPN 3 if I ever had a chance to try it out. Then lo and behold the opportunity presents itself!
This is not a review of the OPN in general. I’ll assume that the reader already has some basic knowledge of the OPN “open” paradigm, the concept of BrainHearing as promoted by Oticon, and the signal processing strategy of the OpenSound Navigator. So I’m not going to rehash any of this stuff as to not turn this review into a novel. The focus will be limited to the differences between the OPN 1 and the OPN 3 and my actual hands-on experience of both.
It would make sense to start out by showing a comparison table between the 3 OPN levels, as seen below, and discuss these differences to some details. The top section is for the OpenSound Navigator, which is the core of the OPN signal processing flow that has a key effect on speech understanding. There are 3 modules in OSN, the Analyze, Balance and Noise Removal modules. The Analyze module prepares the soundscape that feeds into the Balance module, which uses directionality to help reduce the level of well placed noise sources, then in turn feeds into the Noise Removal module which acts as a secondary cleaner to remove remaining diffused noises or noise placed behind the target speaker.
Without getting into any further details than this as promised originally, you can see that the OPN 3 has only 50% performance compared to the 100% performance by the OPN 1 in the Balancing module. Then in the Noise Removal module, the OPN 1 can attenuate any noise as much as 9db, while the OPN 3 can only attenuate the noise as much as 3dB maximum. On top of that, the effectiveness of Speech Guard LX (the adaptive fast compression engine) and Spatial Sound LX (the binaural spatial awareness engine), both of which also helps promotes better speech understanding, is also compromised in the OPN 3 to be less effective than the OPN 1. Binaural noise management is another feature that exists in the OPN 1 but not in the OPN 3. It recognizes uneven sound environments and reduces noise on the affected side but optimizes amplification on the better side for a more comfortable listening.
Another parameter on the table that affects sound quality, but not necessarily speech understanding, is the Clear Dynamics feature, which exists in the OPN 1 but not the 3. Clear Dynamics expands the input range up to 113 dB SPL to allow sound quality without distortion or artifacts at loud sound levels. This is the kind of thing that would help make a difference in live music listening, where loud levels or transient attacks of instruments like drums or string instruments like piano/guitar can be handled better with Clear Dynamics, and would not sound as well without it.
There are more differences between the OPN 3 and 1 on paper, but I’ll draw the line and stop here because I think these are some of the most significant differences worth mentioning because they may carry themselves from paper to practice. The rest of the differences are more in the fine tuning, and you can read through the table for them if interested. I think overall, the rest of the differences may make an intangible difference, which I’ll talk about later on in the review.
Now, so much for reviewing the differences on paper. What about in practice? Can one tell the difference between the two simply by listening? I think this is a hot contention that’s been up for debate. Some say no, others say yes. Potential buyers definitely want to know because it makes a difference of at least $800 to a few thousand dollars for a pair between the OPN 1 and 3, depending on whom you’re buying the OPN from.
Well… Before I come to my own conclusion, let me explain what I did for my review of the OPN 3. I’ve kept it for 3 weeks so far, and I’ve made it a point to wear it exclusively 99% of the times during these 3 weeks. I loaned my OPN 1 out to somebody else so I wouldn’t have access to it even if I wanted to. I’ve worn the OPN 3 at home, used it with the TV Streamer, with the iPhone, I’ve worn it to the mall (a pretty noisy one, 2 story, lots of reverb) and their associated stores, stand-alone stores like Home Depot, Petco, restaurants like Red Lobster (a couple of times, once during a weekday lunch, once on a busy Saturday night), in a noisy minivan on a long trip worth 4 hour drive each way, walking around outdoors in a park, playing tennis with it, even riding my motorcycle with it on under a half helmet, etc.
My initial impression of the OPN 3? VERY respectable. The streaming experience with the TV streamer and the iPhone is no different than the OPN 1, which is to be expected though. At the mall, at stores, outdoors, at restaurants, VERY similar experience to the OPN 1. Can’t really tell a difference.
So where/when do I expect to be able to tell a difference? At a very, very noisy restaurant, perhaps? But even at a Red Lobster on a Saturday night where all tables are full, I don’t have a problem understanding people in my party talking at all with the OPN 3. But then the way Red Lobsters are laid out, with low hanging ceilings and lots of sound blocking booths (we sat in a booth), it’s not necessarily the noisiest restaurant to be in. My sister-in-law commented that if I wanted a more noisy restaurant, I should try some place like the Cheese Cake Factories. That place has a very high ceiling, inducing a lot of reverbs in the room and carry sounds all over the place to create the perfect cacophony I’d want to be in. Oh well, maybe next time, for another review perhaps…
So does that mean that there’s no difference at all between the OPN 1 and OPN 3? Not so fast… There are differences.
On my long distance trip, in a noisy van with the AC blasting at road noise level going at 70 mph, sitting in the front of the minivan, I used to be able to carry a conversation with people in the third row in the back OK using my OPN 1 before (I may have to turn up the volume a notch or two). But with the OPN 3, while I can understand people right behind me in the second row, I can’t really understand people talking from the third row in the back anymore. Trying to increase the volume doesn’t help in this situation. I think that’s attributable to the 9dB attenuation in the OPN 1 where it helps me understand speech better, but the 3dB attenuation of the OPN 3 simply wasn’t enough to cut down the noise for me.
Because of the lack of the Clear Dynamics functionality, when there’s a sudden loud sound (like slamming the glove compartment in my enclosed van), I can hear the OPN 3 trying to compress and cut down on the sound, with a momentary “cut out” before amplification is restored. My OPN 1 lets the sound through without a wink. You may not think that this is a big deal, but I got a nagging feeling that if I had been in a live music concert where loudness levels are significant, the difference between the 1 and 3 might have been night and day. I experience a similar thing when riding my motorcycle with my half helmet on. Even though the Wind Noise Management feature is available on both the 1 and the 3, I can hear more fluttering/compression cutting out of the wind on the 3 than on the 1, which I attribute to the lack of the Clear Dynamics functionality. The OPN 3 also only has Medium Transient Noise Management (TNM) setting while the OPN 1 has Low/Medium/High TNM values. TNM protects against sudden loud sounds with fast recovery to protect audibility. This difference is definitely observable through the example above.
I mentioned that I made it a point not to put back on the OPN 1 during my entire experience with the OPN 3, as to not confuse my sense of hearing, and so I can get used to whatever it is that the OPN 3 has to offer. But after 3 weeks, when I put the OPN 1 back on, I immediately could tell a more refined sharpness in the OPN 1 compared to the 3. It didn’t make the OPN 3 sound bad or anything, just made an immediate recognition that the OPN 1 sounds a little bit sharper, although still just as natural. I attribute it to the more intangible differences between the two models, like the 16 fitting bands on the 1 vs 12 fitting bands on the 3, 64 channels on the 1 vs 48 channels on the 3, etc.
I brought along both the OPN 1 and the OPN 3 on the Saturday night that I visited the Red Lobster restaurant. During the whole dinner, I constantly switched back and forth between the 1 and the 3. Probably did that at least half a dozen times if not more. While the OPN 3 performs up to par and I was able to hear everything OK and understand people at my table talking just fine with the OPN 3, every single time I put the OPN 1 on, the sounds became more balanced, more natural, everything seems easier to hear. Don’t get me wrong, the OPN 3 didn’t sound bad at all. If I didn’t have the OPN 1 and didn’t know any better, I would have been just as happy with the OPN 3. But every time the OPN 1 goes on, the sounds just feel more “luxurious”, for lack of a better word. It’s just one of those “je ne sais quoi” things. I think it’s a combination of everything, the best in spatial sound balance, the availability of binaural noise management, the best adaptive fast compression, best sound balancing, most noise reduction, etc. that made for a finer sounding experience (the OPN 1) from a very good sound experience (the OPN 3).
OK, before I close off, I’d like to offer my opinion on the noise reduction difference a little bit more. The 9dB max noise attenuation of the OPN 1 may seem like a lot more than the 3dB max noise attenuation of the OPN 3. But, the question is when and how often do you really need more than 3dB noise attenuation available in the OPN 3 to help you out? Obviously in my example of listening to talkers in the third back row of a noisy moving minivan, it made a difference. But how often do you encounter that? After all, in the same minivan, the OPN 3 lets me hear people in the second row right behind me just fine. Apparently at the Red Lobster on a Saturday night, the OPN 3 performs just fine as well. OK, maybe at a Cheese Cake Factory the OPN 1 may outshine the 3 a little bit more, but you gotta ask yourself how often are you in the toughest of tough listening environments? I rarely dine at the Cheese Cake Factory myself. In fact I don’t even eat out that much.
Another factor to consider is your Brain Hearing acuity in the presence of the complex noise environments you’re in. Let’s say you’re in a complex noisy environment where the loudest noise can be removed with 5dB attenuation. The OPN 1 with 9dB attenuation has plenty of room to take out the 5dB of noise, with even 4 dB attenuation to spare. The OPN 2 with its max 5dB attenuation is perfect for the job and took out all the 5dB of noise. In this situation, the OPN 1 output doesn’t sound any clearer than the OPN 2 output because there’s only 5dB of noise to remove and both did remove it just the same. Now, the OPN 3 can only take out 3 of the 5dB of noise, and there’s 2dB of noise remains. But if your Brain Hearing acuity is sharp enough, it’s probably going to be able to lick this 2dB of remaining noise with no problem at all, and speech is still understood in the end, albeit with a little bit more effort on your brain hearing. So is the OPN 1 needed for this job? Not really, the OPN 2 will do just fine. And even the OPN 3 may be able to do just fine as well as long as your brain hearing is acute enough to make up for the OPN 3 shortcomings.
To close this off, I’d like to offer my following opinion: on paper, while there are a lot of differences between the OPN 1 and 3, I have found the OPN 3 to perform VERY respectably compared to the OPN 1 in my daily life. With my lifestyle of not being in very noisy complex environment that often, I would probably opt to save the $800 (or more) and go with an OPN 3 over the 1, because in 95% of my personal situation, I probably can’t tell much difference between the 3 and the 1. Even in very challenging environments, I believe that I’ve developed a good enough sense of acuity in my brain hearing to make up for situations when the OPN 3 shortcomings become more apparent in very noisy situations.
Having said that, there IS a difference between the two, and I CAN tell this difference, even when I’m not in the most challenging environment. This difference can be anywhere between a more luxurious sound experience when not in a very challenging environment, to a crucial difference in understanding speech when in a very challenging complex noisy environment. If you have a very active lifestyle that puts you in very, very noisy and complex environments all the times, or if the $800 (or more) difference in price is not a big deal for you, or if you simply want the best of the best, then your choice to go with the OPN 1 is not a bad choice at all either.
I know prices vary greatly depending on whom you buy the OPN from. I would propose this, but you can vary your criteria to your liking, of course. I personally think that if the OPN 1 is only 20% more expensive than the OPN 3, then it may be more justifiable to splurge on the OPN 1, since it’s only 20% more in price. But your criteria may be different and you may only be willing to pay a difference of 10%, while somebody else may be OK with paying 25% more for the difference. I just personally think that 20% is a good point to consider. Of course it can depend a lot on your economic situation and how you place values on things as well.
PS. Audiometrix loaned me an OPN 3 version with the tcoil option which has the rocker switch on each HA. I like the rocker switch much better than the non-tcoil single button because you’re not limiting yourself to have to use the right hand to change volume or program. As for the Tcoil functionality, I tried it a little bit for normal phone use and decided it’s much more preferable to use direct streaming on the iPhone. So I didn’t bother spending time testing the Tcoil option any further. Beside, this is not an OPN 3 review per se anyway where I care to evaluate the Tcoil usefulness. It’s a OPN 3 vs OPN 1 review first and foremost. But I may consider getting a Tcoil version if I were in the market just so that I can get the rocker switch design. It may be worth the money.