Frankly Speaking

Hearing Loss and the Need for High-End Audio

Many of us have hearing loss. I do. I used to be able to hear the 15.7 kHz whine that a flyback transformer would make in old CRT (cathode ray-tube) TVs. I first became aware that my hearing wasn’t as sharp as it used to be at a CES about 10 or 15 years ago, where an exhibitor was showing a big tower speaker system. I stood next to the left speaker and noticed a hiss coming out of it. I told the exhibitor, “hey, do you know there’s a hiss coming through your speaker?” “Yeah, we know, it’s the electronics.” Curious, I went to the right speaker, put my right ear up to it, and it was quiet. I said, “but there’s no hiss in the right speaker.”

He looked at me puzzlingly and said, “yes there is.” I couldn’t figure it out – until I realized I had listened to the left (hissy) speaker with my left ear and to the right (quiet) speaker with my right ear.

I turned and put my left ear to the right speaker. It was hissing. I could only hear the hiss in one ear. Oh crap.

Since then I’ve had a number of audiograms and have informally “tested” myself constantly – I do, after all, work in the audio industry and listen to components and music all the time. I’ve also audiologists give me audiograms. Perhaps it’s small consolation but my hearing hasn’t fallen off to a degree that I would consider horrible, and I can still hear up to around 10,000 – 12,000 Hz, if at an attenuated level.

(Note that audiometric testing is generally done only up to around 8,000 Hz. I once asked my audiologist, “what about what’s happening above 8,000 Hz?” She replied, “only dolphins care about that.” Well, audiophiles too!)

Note that those “tests” that you can listen to online are utterly unscientific because they don’t take into account the quality of the speakers you’re using and the volume at which you’re listening. Although, the test tones at this link are useful. (I should mention that what people often think of as “treble” is actually the upper midrange, around 2,000 to 4,000 Hz.)

An audiogram showing “notch loss” hearing loss. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Chandramaas.

But by any measure, many of us have lost some hearing. Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart. (Sorry, bad analogy. When’s my next cardiologist appointment?)

Meanwhile, we’re audiophiles and music lovers; connoisseurs of sound reproduction at its finest. Here we are, spending a lot of money, time and effort to put together systems that sound glorious and convey the sound of recordings in the best way possible, with maximum resolution, tonal accuracy, imaging, soundstage width and depth, dynamic contrasts, power and delicacy. We upgrade, tweak, swap components and cables, constantly refine, perhaps over the course of decades.

But if we can’t hear all of it, are we wasting our time?

I say no, and for a variety of reasons.

I make no claims to be an audiologist or neurologist, so a lot of the following is going to be based on my own experience and will involve thinking out loud.

First of all, there are three major components in hearing – the ear, the auditory nerve and the brain. (I’m oversimplifying.) Sure, the ear is the sound-reception mechanism, the microphone, if you will, and the auditory nerve is literally the “interconnect cable” – but the brain is the processor, and, I would argue, the most important part in the meatware signal chain.

The brain interprets the raw signals coming from the ear/microphone – and if the ear/microphone gets damaged, the processor/brain/you can compensate.

Although I’ve lost some hearing, the world – and audio systems – do not sound “dull” to me. In fact, I think my ability to assess the tonal “rightness” of a system has only gotten better with time and experience. I do not feel the need to turn up the treble when listening. Is it partly because the brain compensates for hearing loss? I think so, at least in my case – when listening to a good system, I don’t “feel” like I’ve lost anything. (Is it also partly because of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to “re-mold” itself? I don’t know, and would welcome comments from those who do.)

I think we, as critical listeners, are instinctively aware of what vocals and instruments are supposed to sound like, whether our listening “window” has been narrowed or not. We’re constantly comparing the sound of our systems with the sound of reality as we perceive it. We know what our systems should sound like, whether hearing-impaired or not, and configure them accordingly.

We are trained listeners. How many times have you heard a friend say, “well, I don’t have as good an ‘ear’ as you do.” In fact, they may have better hearing per se, but as audiophiles (and those of us who are musicians), our training in knowing what to listen for certainly gives us an advantage in setting up an audio system, and, I would opine, in enjoying music reproduction. A trained ear can compensate, maybe more than compensate, for flawed hearing.

OK, so for a growing number of us, our hearing may be flawed. Does that mean we should just give up, throw in the towel and listen to Beethoven or Coltrane or Dylan through crappy audio systems for the rest of our lives? Of course not.

On the contrary, if our ability to perceive sound is more limited, then why not enjoy what we can hear to the best degree possible?

I say, if anything, that having lessened hearing is the strongest argument for having as good an audio system as possible!

To switch to a visual analogy, if you could only see through a small window, wouldn’t you want that window to be as clean and transparent as possible? And wouldn’t it be better than looking through a big but dirty picture window?

One last thing. Let’s talk about pride of ownership. A high-end audio system is a collection of finely-crafted components. Aside from the sheer sonic value, there’s the satisfaction of simply owning beautifully-made, high-quality audio gear. And not for nothing, but as my late father used to say, some of us are in the seventh inning of the game. If we can afford a great system, well, maybe we deserve one.

Even if we could literally hear such a system more acutely when we were younger, I think we can appreciate it more now.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Couleur.