Frankie Goes to Hearing Aids: Staving Off Retirement, Part One

Frankie Goes to Hearing Aids: Staving Off Retirement, Part One

Written by Frank Doris

What’s an audio professional’s biggest fear? Losing their hearing. After all, we depend on it to make sonic evaluations, whether we’re an audiophile, equipment reviewer, front-of-house engineer, component designer or anyone else who relies on their ears to make a living.

According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, more than 15 percent of adults age 18 or older report some trouble hearing, and the problem gets more acute with age: about one in three people in the US between 65 and 74 has hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing.

Much talk in the high-end audio world is made about having a sonic reference, whether it’s “the absolute sound” of live unamplified music in real space, as Harry Pearson once framed it, or using Steely Dan’s Aja album for setting up a live concert sound system. Well, for each of us, our references are our ears. (I’ll use “ears” here to encompass the ears and brain.)

What happens when you lose that reference?

Here’s one man’s story.


Well into my 40s, I knew my hearing was good, even though I had attended some painfully loud rock concerts (when the MC5 played at Stony Brook University on July 3, 1970, I counted 18 Marshall amplifier heads on stage). I’ve also played on some ungodly-loud stages – the sound man for our new wave band the Lines was nicknamed “Decibel Don.” But I could hear the 15.7 kHz whine of the flyback transformer of our old Sony CRT TV from across the room. In fact, I never gave my hearing a second thought, other than noticing some slight ringing in my ears under certain circumstances, but only if I really paid attention.

Fast forward to the 2005 AES Convention in New York. A friend and I were on the exhibit floor and noticed a truck parked on the show floor from an organization that was sponsoring free hearing tests. “I don’t need one; my hearing’s fine,” I told my friend. “C’mon, let’s take the test just for fun,” he replied. 

When the audiologist handed me the results I smiled and said, “perfect, right?” She didn’t smile back. “You have some mild hearing loss. I’d be very careful not to do anything to cause further damage.” The results of the test noted that I had some moderate high-frequency loss (in the 3 kHz – 6 kHz range) in my left ear and mild loss in my right ear, and some mild loss of speech intelligibility in my left ear (in the 500 Hz – 3 kHz region) I had just turned 50 and, knock on wood, was in pretty good physical shape, so I had never given the slightest thought to the fact that my hearing might be getting worse. I was rattled but soon shrugged it off.

A few years after that AES convention I went to another audiologist. She said I was borderline for hearing aids but recommended I get them. My audiogram showed the classic notch loss that can happen as people age. I didn’t feel like I needed them, but for the past few years my wife had been complaining that at times I hadn’t been listening to her. (I know, that’s going to prompt some of the oldest jokes in the book.) I thought, well, if I literally haven’t been hearing what my wife has been saying, and if she’s been thinking that I’m not paying attention to her, well, that’s a problem on multiple fronts. I went back to the audiologist, winced as I paid $4,500 for hearing aids, put them on and went home. But everything sounded tinny and unnatural, and when I talked, I could hear this weird amplification of my voice that sounded like it was coming from inside my head. The audiologist assured me I’d get used to it.

I drove home unhappy, although I did notice that I could hear things like the turn signal in my car much more clearly. When I got home I thought I’d walk my dog to clear my head, and I noticed the clattering of my dog’s nails on the floor, the creak of the door opening, and the birds singing all around me. OK, maybe I just needed to give this some time. 

After I walked the dog I took a deep breath and did what I had been apprehensive about doing: fired up the audio system, put on a record, and sat down to listen.

I wanted to cry. It sounded horrible. Flat, compressed, lifeless, with no depth or detail. Soundstage? Imaging? Forget it! You know that depressed feeling you get when you feel like your life has spiraled out of control and everything is crashing down on you? That was me.

I consoled myself with the fact that my system sounded pretty great without wearing the hearing aids. Also, that I had a few years prior passed a number of double-blind tests at the Harman listening lab in Northridge, California, and had tested as one of the two best listeners in a Sound & Vision magazine blind test of various MP3 encoding rates.

I tried wearing the hearing aids regularly as the audiologist had advised, but became willfully lazy about it. I wound up wearing them only on occasion – when watching certain TV shows (and yes, TV sound is getting worse, but that’s a subject for another article), going to restaurants and social occasions, and when my wife got home from work. Eventually I got really lax, but did find the hearing aids to be useful now and then.

About five or so years ago I went to another audiologist (my previous one had moved), who tested me and said I was borderline for needing hearing aids. I asked her, “then why did my last audiologist say I needed them?” “Does she sell hearing aids?” she replied. “Yes.” “Well, we don’t. There’s your reason!” The cynic in me was not feeling happy and peppy and bursting with love just then.

I also asked her whether exposure to loud music had damaged my hearing and she said no, what she saw in the audiogram was classic age-related hearing loss. This was a small but not insignificant consolation. At least I hadn’t done damage by being foolish in my youth and not wearing hearing protection. And I was relieved that I didn’t “need” hearing aids after all.

But a couple of months ago, one of the hearing aids broke. I went to another audiologist; someone I had befriended when she took care of my mother’s hearing needs during her last years. She tested me and this time the news was unequivocal. I needed hearing aids. Seems like in the last few years my hearing acuity has taken a plunge. Literally. The audiograms for both of my ears look like an inclined plane, with an almost straight decline across the frequency range. 

I mentioned to my new audiologist that I thought my last hearing aids had stunk, and told her I was an audio professional and that I’d probably be more demanding than a typical customer in auditioning and settling on a new pair. I spent a good amount of time comparing models – not as much time as Jay Jay French did in his article, Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’, (Issue 178) but I listened quite a bit to a number of models. I noticed that the sound quality of all of them was way better than the older ones, and told the audiologist that the technology seemed to have improved immensely. She said it had.

I settled on one particular set, but as with my previous pair, hated them once I got home. I should note here that it’s pretty much impossible to make a snap judgment in the audiologist’s office after a few minutes of listening – you really have to live with them for a while. Although their resolution was astounding, and I could hear the birds in the trees with remarkable 3-D spaciousness, everything sounded fake and artificial and the “voice in your head” effect while talking was severe. Turns out the audiologist had put solid domes (earpieces) in. I went back to her office and she installed semi-open domes and the improvement was dramatic. But when I went to play my acoustic guitar, I heard a weird “chorus” effect on the higher strings. Yet when I turned the hearing aids off, the guitar now sounded dull, without sparkle. This would not do.

She then suggested I try a different brand, a Widex Moment behind-the-ear model. “A lot of musicians I work with tell me they like these,” she said. They were $800 more but was I going to screw around with my hearing? The sound was warmer, and much more natural – but not as detailed. Sound familiar? Yep, it was like choosing between a more-detailed but brighter speaker and one that had less resolution but offered a better tonal balance. The irony was not lost on me. And when I played my acoustic guitar it sounded fine.

Then I listened to my high-end audio system and it sounded really good. And they significantly improved speech intelligibility. "What?" wouldn't be the most-used word in my vocabulary anymore. I decided to keep the Widex hearing aids.


Widex Moment 330 behind-the-ear hearing aids with recharging station.


But now I have to face the facts:

There's no dancing around it any longer. My hearing is compromised.

The good news: I’m thrilled with the audio quality of my hearing aids, and they clearly operate at a much higher level of A-to-D and D-to-A processing than my old clunkers. They sound clear and it's easier to hear people talking. (I tried reaching Widex to get some technical details, but as of press time no one has responded.)

Best of all, I can listen to my audio system with them and it’s an enjoyable experience. Here’s why: they have a phone app that can adjust their volume and EQ, and if I turn the hearing aids almost all the way down, they add a bit of upper-midrange and treble that’s missing when I turn them off. And they do this without screwing up the sound of the rest of the frequency spectrum. I’ve experimented with listening to other audio systems, live music, band rehearsals, and other situations, and I’ve been thrilled with everything except listening to streaming audio, which for whatever reason sounds like crap. Honestly, my new hearing aids are far beyond what I expected. Though I will say that listening to my system is enjoyable without them.

The sobering news: I have to accept the reality that I can no longer review audio equipment on a professional level. Although I have decades of experience in listening to thousands of components and speakers, I no longer have a true sonic reference point. I can’t in good conscience do definitive reviews about audio gear anymore. I’m not terribly crushed by this last statement – I stopped writing audio equipment reviews more than 10 years ago, but it was because I wanted to, not because I had to.

Which leads to another question: if you’re an audio professional and you can hear more accurately, in terms of frequency response, with hearing aids than without, are you better off wearing them on the job? For example, if you’re a mixing engineer, should you wear them when doing a mix rather than try to mentally “fill in” the attenuated frequency response? Or are you better off not wearing them because over time your brain has adjusted to reality as you hear it, and you’re able to consciously or otherwise compensate, and because wearing hearing aids is adding a layer of degradation to the sound, like listening to a second-generation copy of a master tape?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but when I go to the AES convention in New York this October, finding them out will be a priority. I'm curious if anyone knows the percentage of audio industry people who have hearing loss. Especially since, frankly, not everyone might want to be upfront about it, or even realize they have hearing loss. It's not like we're airline pilots who have to get their vision certified on a regular basis or they can't fly.

So, I have to deal with a new reality.

We all do as we get older, each in our own way.

I'll play the hand I’ve been dealt, and I’m not about to fold.

And every time I might want to complain, I’ll think of Beethoven.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/James Musallam.

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