It’s the time of year for saving money!
In my spare time, I am working on a side project (kinda like David St. Hubbins was in This Is Spin̈al Tap before “Sex Farm” was on the charts and the band reunited). The project in question involves hearing loss rather than audio, sparked by disturbing studies posted in recent years about hearing loss, especially amongst Millennials. It is easy to deduce that those crappy-sounding yet iconic white Apple Ear Buds may not have done anybody any favors, especially when played at high levels over even moderate periods of time.
It’s also fair to say that long before we all were aware that hearing damage was so easy to incur, we all attended events where the sound levels were unsafe. A few months ago, my wife and I took a bunch of first graders down to Staples Center for a Monster Jam truck show. Of course, I brought along hearing protection. But within five seconds of ear-splitting 130 dB audio craziness, out comes the concessioners selling pink and blue colored $20 ear muffs for boys and girls.
They sold faster than a handful of MDMA on day one of the Coachella Festival.
The loudest concert that I ever experienced was The Cult opening for Metallica on the And Justice for All… tour at the Philadelphia Spectrum in the late 1980s. The bass was so forceful that my 16-year-old ears couldn’t take it. Literally, my teenaged buddy and I got up and went outside and waited until the set was over until Metallica, came onstage.
Years later, I met the members of The Cult out in Hollywood while celebrating my 25th birthday (also along with John Bonham’s widow, thus I got to ask all of my Led Zeppelin questions as a very cool, impromptu birthday gift). I got to tell the boys just how loud they were back in the day. They took unbelievably great pleasure in the story in ways that weren’t intended.
The reality is: I am lucky to have retained the hearing that I have today as I quickly head towards 45 years old. I protect my hearing as best I realistically can, although I do like to listen to my AV system loudly at times. At my last physical, I could hear well into the 17 kHz range, which is pretty good considering past transgressions.
Various international studies show that men lose their hearing faster than women, and specifically more so after 60 years old. But find me an audiophile that a) isn’t in that age range and b) doesn’t think that he has “golden ears” (and I don’t mean a new pair of Triton One.Rs).
Recently, I had an epiphany around the concept: can you imagine if we did hearing tests at regional audiophile trade shows? What if some audiophile society or concerned group took out a room and hired a few professional audiologists to come in and do basic hearing tests and then reported the results? I would publish that data here at AudiophileReview.com.
I wonder if, say, 500 people were tested (and hopefully rewarded with something nice like a Tidal gift certificate or a Dark Side of The Moon T-shirt or perhaps a few handfuls of squishy ear plugs) what the aggregate hearing performance of said audiophile community would be? I wonder if publishing the results would change the ways audiophiles look at sound reproduction and/or their hobby?
A report on an Italian study regarding hearing loss on people over 60 years old on Hear-It.com was frightening. The Italians studied nearly 14,000 people over the age of 60, with results pointing at most hearing loss being in the very high frequencies, but most studied were having problems hearing in the 500 to 3,000 Hz range, too, which is the frequency range where basic conversation lands. Men and women, the study said, had similar hearing loss in the low frequencies, but in the higher frequencies like 2000-8000 Hz, men fared much worse–as much as 20 dB down, which is a lot.
There is some debate over the concept of whether you can train your ears, but many believe that you can. I am in the latter camp, as most recording and mastering engineers who work with EQs and audio files every day have a working understanding or “feel” (if you will) for where sound lands in the overall audio spectrum. Although not working on such a professional level, sitting down in front of Pro Tools every day, still audio enthusiasts also develop a feel for sound based on their system and the music that they listen to.
The question begs to be asked: does it matter how well you can hear? You can’t undo hearing loss. The AARP has some good suggestions about how to protect your hearing, such as keep your headphones below 85 dB, drink a glass of wine a day, and so on, but we’ve got a whole other, huge generation of both young men and women coming up who are already starting with hearing damage, which is scary, especially when looking at the future of the audio hobby.
The reality is that you can’t un-attend that GWAR show in Trenton, New Jersey, from back in the day, or un-hear that artillery fire from ‘Nam. You have what you have when it comes to hearing.
But should you tailor your system around your hearing? To my ears, as the legendary speaker designers have gotten older and perhaps naturally lost a little of their top-end hearing, some speaker brands are voiced to tailor to a slightly livelier sound on the high end. Other companies follow more of the Floyd Toole model of designing the most accurate speakers possible and go from there.
At any rate, what do you think the results of said audiophile show hearing testing would look like as a whole? Should audiophiles tailor their systems around their own specific hearing or strive to make the best performing audiophile system they can and do their best to enjoy as much of the audible sound as possible? Let’s hear from you in the comments below.
I spoke to the issue of a young generation coming along as I was having my hearing tested (last year). My audiologist, a late 20, early 30s age group just looked at me and smiled. She said she hated the thought that so much hearing was being destroyed but she had tested enough of the young to know it was true. From a purely business POV – she said her business stood to make a LOT of money selling hearing aids in the (not too distant) future. Hearing aids and tattoo removal may be an investment opportunity.
I think a lot of people would be afraid to have their hearing tested for fear of what it might reveal! I also think that trained listeners can “hear around” their hearing losses (though obviously, if you literally can’t hear anything above, say, 10kHz, you won’t be able to judge a tweeter’s performance above that frequency range). The brain is as important as the physical mechanism in my opinion.
Here is a mystery: how male engineers in their 60’s, 70’s, and even 80’s are able to continue doing great work despite near-certain age-related high-frequency hearing loss. Doug Sax, Steve Berkowitz, Bob Ludwig, Steve Addabbo, Bob Power, and Rupert Neve have all shown they can instantly pick out tiny high-frequency anomalies in a mix despite hearing tests that would almost certainly say, “You’re not hearing anything up there.” Rupert, at 80-years-plus, was the only one who could identify the source of some very brief high-frequency *something* in a mix, when several young A-list engineers had given up. (It was a few cycles somewhere above 40 kHz.) And the magic seems, to me, related to how the brain processes music. Working with a great 65ish-year-old mix engineer one day, there was some very high frequency digital buzzing hash coming from somewhere, and it wasn’t subtle to my ears (tested -6 dB at 10 kHz.) He couldn’t hear that at all. Yet, he could pick out the tiniest high-frequency details in a mix faster than anyone. After I got my hearing tested, I tried using EQ to make up for the loss. Couldn’t stand it even for a moment. I also tried EQing out the highs I couldn’t hear, and *that* was terrible. Remember, hearing tests are usually sine waves. It may be that the brain processes that very differently from music.
A British Magazine years ago tested “Golden Ears” claimants..their hearing actually was better.
Interesting topic. A few thoughts:
Existing audiometric tests analyze hearing thresholds with discrete frequencies. Tests are rarely done above 8 KHz —it’s difficult to reliably and repeatably measure the subject’s ability to hear higher test frequencies because of, among other things, the location of the test earphones on the subject’s ears.
The Audio Engineering Society and, particularly, its Los Angeles chapter, worked with the House Ear Institute for a number of years on assessment of professionals’ hearing acuity using standard audiometric tests a couple of decades ago. We found that, generally speaking, music recording engineers had less hearing loss than live sound engineers, which, we theorized, was because the exposure to high sound levels was of shorter duration followed by rest periods. Interestingly, professional audio salespeople also had higher losses than music recording engineers.
And re: older engineers making high-quality recordings: think of the many brilliant classical recordings prized by today’s audiophiles that were made using monitors that were far from accurate, such as, for example, the Mercury Living Presence recordings that used Altec 604s, the Decca recordings that used Tannoy 12″ Dual Concentrics, the RCA Living Stereo recordings that used RCA LC-1As and Altec A7s, etc. The engineers for those recordings didn’t need flat response and couldn’t get 20 KHz from their monitors, but created recordings that were state-of-the-art then and sound much better on today’s equipment.
I’ve been to a couple of AES conventions where there have been hearing testing booths and I think it’s an excellent idea. Whether we record and mix music in the studio or live, or whether we simply enjoy listening to it, it’s important that we are aware of how our hearing changes with time and whether we need to take steps to manage hearing loss. In addition I think there need to be educational programs to encourage young people particularly to be more aware of the importance of protecting their hearing – consumer audio shows are one place that could be done but probably schools and colleges would be excellent targets.
I would definitely second Garry Margolis’s comments regarding older engineers making great recordings, though I wouldn’t knock those Tannoy 12″ Dual Concentrics – was brought up on those from my first sessions as an assistant engineer. Speaking as an older engineer myself… 🙂
I believe that as we progress through the production side of the audio industry we develop listening skills that are distinct from, though complementary to, our hearing acuity. We “learn to listen”, pick out musical lines and determine whether or not they’re in tune, decide whether that snare is getting in the way of the vocals, and so on. These are not so much to do with the process of hearing but the process of interpreting what we hear. However, I did notice that my hearing did appear to improve at the top end, as measured by hearing tests, after I started studio work, though I actually put that down to learning better what high frequencies actually sound like.
With the ability to have audio piped into our ears all the time, it’s all the more important that we look after our hearing, and any programs that help bring that about are worth promoting.
What?? Is that you, Jerry? 🙂
I had my ears tested before and after having them cleaned, the difference was noticeable. If I’m tweaking my stereo to the point of buying new components, my doc checks my ears first.
Nice article! I hope one day to read an article on your blog about misophonia ! 😉 is little known and it affects a lot of people, …