I’m more than a little embarrassed by the things I did in my youth that could have seriously damaged my hearing, especially considering my 30-year career in high-end audio and home theater. One idiotic example I will never forget is my 25th birthday: my buddies took me out to this super-cool Hollywood music club called Goldfinger’s. You entered into the place through what’s called a “Junior Market,” like a mini-mart or someplace where one could buy smokes, a 40 of malt liquor, and some Twinkies. It was the only way in and out of said cooler-than-you nightclub. We walked in, ordered some drinks, and made friends with some of the folks at the bar. It turned out that it was the widow of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, his daughter, as well as the members of the ’80s goth-rock band The Cult.
I got to ask more than my fair share of Led Zeppelin questions as well as tell The Cult something very important. You see, my first concert ever was to see Metallica at the Philadelphia Spectrum on the …And Justice For All Tour in the late 1980s. The Cult opened for them and they were the single loudest band that I have ever heard in my biologic life, even to this day. I told them this to their faces 25 years ago and they just lit up. I said, “guys, it was dangerously loud. I had to go in the second level mezzanine,” and they loved it even more. The Cult is a solid band from that era and I like a lot of their songs to this day, but they weren’t picking up what I was laying down in terms of just how loud they were. I mean, when you blow 1980s Metallica off the stage in terms of volume, you should know you’re playing around in dangerous territory.
My early audiophile listening was done mostly at high volumes as compared to today. I sold car audio in the early 1990s, which was very profitable, but the systems we installed (including into my 1992 VW GTI) were capable of SPLs that were simply too much and had tons of bass for such a small listening environment. The truth is: I should be deaf right now like one quarter of the Millennials who damaged their hearing using headphones like Apple’s iconic ear buds. Somehow, I got lucky.
How lucky, though? To find out, I recently went to see an audiologist, as I felt like I might need a professional ear cleaning, specifically in my left ear. Personally, I have a lot of gross habits (like picking my nose at stop lights and don’t tell me you don’t), but my ability to create massive volumes of ear wax is one that my wife never lets me forget. When I pull my Ultimate Ear Capitol Records in-ear monitors out of my ears, the custom ear molds are often covered with pumpkin-colored vulgarity that makes me a little queasy. With a little discomfort in my left ear, I went to see the pros to have them carefully pluck the gunk out of my ears, which I assumed would be quite a bit.
I called around to talk to some of the most highly recommended audiologists in West Los Angeles and ended up going to see Mark Partain in Santa Monica, who is both an FAAA and a working drummer. He agreed to book out enough time with the testing equipment so that we could do some hearing tests pre and post ear cleanings, as my hypothesis was that cleaning my filthy ears could very possibly be the ultimate audiophile upgrade.
When I arrived at their offices, Mark quickly took a look into my ears and said, “there isn’t much to clean out,” which wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. We did some testing with in-ear-canal headphones at very low volumes and Mark recorded the results. He then went digging for gold with specific tools designed to go down into your ear canal and pull out some serious ear-funk.
When he was done, he did clear out a little bit of fluid on my left ear, but the amount of ear wax in both of my ears sitting on the tissues in front of me was really minuscule – far less than what would come out from normal use of my Ultimate Ears or even when using a Q-Tip (not recommended). Mark suggested that your ears aren’t supposed to need professional cleaning like this (ears are self-cleaning supposedly) and unless we were working on our informal experiment, he wouldn’t have suggested that we clean my ears.
I went back into the highly acoustically treated booth in Mark’s office and he re-installed the in-ear-canal headphones and re-tested my hearing. For good measure, he did an additional test using “bone conducting” headphones. We stopped for a minute as he printed out his results, which were done to the standards for the equipment that nearly all audiologists use, which tracks hearing to about 8 kHz.
To audiophiles and music lovers alike, that is a pretty low cut-off, but as Mark explains, there aren’t a lot of agreed-upon standards for measuring people’s hearing above 8 kHz and that most audiologist are more worried about people who can’t hear polite conversations, on the phone, the TV across the room, and more midrange issues that hearing aids might solve. They don’t test audiophiles versus their Golden Retrievers, but that is what I wanted. Mark broke out some new parameters and slapped a pair of over-the-ear monitors on my head, and we did another round of tests in both ears to see how high I could hear before needing more than 25 dB of added gain, which is the standard for “normal” hearing and before getting into four more levels of hearing loss. I knew this wasn’t a perfect test by lab standards, but it was going to work in conjunction with the hearing test that I do in my yearly physical at Cedars Sinai every spring, which the last time I did it demonstrated I could hear very well to 14 kHz according to my main physician, who has far, far less sophisticated measurement equipment.
The results that I got were very encouraging. The delta between the pre and post ear cleaning was tiny. Up to 8K, I barely needed 5 dB of attenuation to hear the test tones, whereas the test allowed for upwards of 25 dB of volume before getting into troubled areas. The bone conduction test yielded very similar test results, which all matched what I heard from my doctor at Cedars last we discussed the topic. The big issue from an audiophile standpoint is how high can a 45-year-old, metal-loving, lousy musician who never played his guitar with ear plugs for years and years can hear in the highest of frequencies. The charts showed (once again with the caveat that above 8 kHz isn’t what these guys measure for most of the time) was rock-solid well through the 14 kHz range.
These results were a relief, and Mark’s compliments on my hearing were well received. He printed my results and I headed home to write about what I had learned.
The moral of the story is, first off, protect your hearing today more now than ever. Much like head injuries with kids playing sports today, we know a lot more about hearing loss than in past years. Millennials didn’t do themselves any favors by jamming Apple ear pods into the ear-holes as kids, thus many have hearing loss already. For those of us who love listening to music, we can’t undo the things that we’ve done over the years and/or the natural loss of hearing that men deal with as we get older.
That’s just how things work, but we don’t have to be naïve to the facts. For example: workplace standards suggest that you can’t be exposed to more than 85 dB of noise for more than four hours or so without a significant break. That’s fine for a factory, but if you are on a plane from Los Angeles to New York, which takes the better part of five hours, how loud are your headphones playing? Did you take a 30-minute break perhaps while polishing off some over-seasoned airplane food? How long is your overall exposure to music and sound? Just something to think about on your next trip.
None of us has perfect hearing, but as someone who invests in high performance audio equipment, perhaps taking an hour or so to go in to see the audiologist to service and test your ears is a smart investment in your audio system’s most important component?
How do you care for your ears? Have you ever been to the audiologist? Did you know that you weren’t supposed to listen to sound at 85 dB or louder for more than four hours? Comment below to tell us about your self-care routine.