Internal EQ

February 27, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

As we age our ability to hear diminishes. Other than protecting our hearing there's little we can do to stop the inevitable march of time.

Does this mean we enjoy our stereo systems less and less? Does our loss of hearing impact our abilities as listeners?

I would suggest no. In fact, I would go so far as to posit I am a better listener today that I was a decade or two ago.

There is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is what our ears do, listening is the combination of ears and brain.

You identify differences in instruments by listening: a violin from a viola, a trumpet from a trombone, a piano from a harpsichord. None of these distinctions requires excellent hearing, but rather trained listening.

The art of listening involves comparisons of what we hear to the models of sound in our brains. As our ears age, the models adapt themselves as if we applied an internal EQ to compensate.

Some of the best listeners I know wear hearing aids. This works because over time they have adapted to their changed hearing.

Let's not confuse listening with hearing.

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16 comments on “Internal EQ”

  1. The proof is the average age of those who go to unfashionable recitals. Their ears are still capable of detecting virtually all of the relevant frequency range, possibly with diminished acuity and strength. People are highly unlikely to realise diminished range as we remember sound patterns, not frequencies. Most people could identify a relative speaking on the phone after a gap of years from the sound pattern, but who can remember the last time they heard 8.471 KHz?

    This is why music is still enjoyable for people with almost no hearing, and can be just as enjoyable on a $100 radio as a $100,000 stereo system. You don’t need the expensive stereo system or perfect hearing to enjoy music and most people have neither. No one needs a high end audio system. If you did, based on my observation that live audiences tend to be evenly split by gender, the gender split for high end audio customers should also be roughly equal, which tells me high end audio is a gender-specific hobby related primarily to the equipment than the enjoyment of music.

    Classical and jazz is very much a conversation between different instruments. If you can’t tell them apart ... it would be as meaningful as listening to a play with all parts read by one person in the same voice. That is why the BBC invested so heavily for decades in broadcasting accurate voice. You can hear it, and different instruments on the $100 radio.

    All you have to do is listen.

  2. Indeed !..Ie: We can hear 2000Hz very well, even when we are old. But we can't hear 30 kHz, even if we are very young. But, add 30 kHz on 2000 Hz, we may differ, it is another sound then pure 2000 Hz. That is what our brain is doing.

  3. I understand, that the ability to determine differences can be much better from someone who has hearing deficits than from someone without.

    Would be interesting, if also absolute judgements of e.g. tonality aspects are equally possible for someone with hearing loss or if the one is just perfectly happy in his own perception. If it’s still possible this means the brain compensates losses. But that would mean no one suffers at all from hearing losses in his perception, which on the other hand hand isn’t the fact I’m still not sure...

  4. Today's post coincidentally begins with a topic addressed by Richard Murison in the last issue of Copper, which in its relevant part, I am transcribing for greater objectivity:

    " After all, it is clear that mature audiophiles with measurably degraded hearing are still critically demanding of high-end audio systems, and are still among the most valued judges of a quality system."

    This in turn coincides with what was published by the manufacturer FM Acoustics as far back as the year 2000 with the title "Old ears? After a test, it starts by saying:

    "Often it is claimed that older people cannot "hear as well" as the young. This may be correct when simply checking with steady state sine waves as is usually done. When MUSIC is used as source signal, older people- even those whose hearing of high frequencies is limited according to the orthodox measurements - are often acute listeners. They can discern better and are able to point out fine details and characteristics in the music.

    A recent example proves the case in point: a senior person, whose hearing was clearly limited according to conventional medical checks, turned out to be the one most sensitive of a group of thirty experienced listeners. In a number of piano recording he was the most astute in pointing out details like small pitch variations between adjacent strings, the non-perfect intonation of certain piano registers and small resonances" End of quote.

    Everything said here is easily verifiable since in live concerts those orchestra conductors of mature age detect without any difficulty the flaws committed by the interpreters, however insignificant they may be.

    So for lovers of music and audio equipment that are older, or have a hearing impairment, they should stop worrying about that condition and enjoy music like any other.

  5. From what I read many are confused as to the operation of the human auditory system. The system consists of a peripheral and a central system. The peripheral system comprises those structures from the pinna to the point at which the auditory nerve inters the brain stem at the level of the cochlear nucleus; from this point in sound traverses the auditory pathways to the brain. There is decusation of fibers also allowing for the binaural experience! What a ride!

    Also there is the biological foundation for hearing like there is a biological foundation for language . This foundation allows the human given an intact system the ability to hear, and learn or program or system.

    This system if it remains unaltered by trauma, disease, or other insults provides us with a unique process. As a function of time we learn auditory and linguistic pattern.

    If perchance, our delicate system is violated the common sounds we have experienced takes on a different picture. Pattern recognition, loudness and pitch discrimination will change.
    Thus an acoustic occurrence memorized when our system was in its non compromised state may sound different as a function of the changes in our
    System. Such expressions as
    “Say that again “ or “what” does not mean we have not heard but reflects that what we have heard may contain a reduced percentage of the information on which the memory of the original sound experience was based on. Thus could be caused by the simple filtration of the acoustic event due to hearing loss or due to the change in the ears ability to manage loudness and pitch.

    Recall , loudness and pitch perception can be altered by hearing loss at the peripheral or the central auditory system. In short we cannot rely on the audiogram, a graphic expression of hearing sensitivity as a function of intensity and frequency, to fully understand how we hear. Many persons may show normal hearing sensitivity across frequency and still have difficulty with listening or comprehension of sound.

    From a clinical POV many are provided an explanation of their hearing ability based on the pure tone audiogram. A grievous error!

    Hearing and hearing science is very complex and very interesting. Again, a reduction in hearing sensitivity, irrespective of the reason, will alter the information fed to the ear-brain system and how that information is processed and compared to the stored information in our brain is complex.

    So as Timothy Leary once said
    “Turn on , tune in”—-and roll the tubes!


  6. All the research of the last ten years or so suggest that the brain is way more plastic, all throughout life, than anyone ever thought before. Anecdotes such as: "you cannot teach an old dog new tricks" have proven to be false. The implications of this are widespread, but when it comes to listening, it is clear to me that anyone can become a better listener at any age, as the ability to compensate for physical hearing loss with practice is available to all humans.

    1. Neuroplasiticity operates on myriad levels. Neurons are constantly re-programmed in the integration and strength of their responses; they re-wire their synapses and grow axons to change which other neurons they communicate with, and the brain grows new neurons and connects them in fractal networks of up to eleven dimensions to increase cognitive discrimination.

      Further, there are layers of processing starting at the sensors themselves, moving through lower level ganglial nodes and loci and then routing all over the cerebral cortex to many dedicated sub-processors in massively parallel processing that dwarfs the inter-connections of supercomputer clusters. This is the white matter which traverses the central cerebral space, crosses between hemispheres in the Corpus Collossum, etc. As we grow, the structures develop and then stop changing when the skull stops growing, limiting the neuroplasticity to re-wiring and re-programming the cognitive level sub-processors.

      Neuroplasticity depends on the quality and quantity of sensory stimulation. Orphans raised from infancy in a featureless room never learn to recognize visual or aural objects and most die of microcephaly, with brains to small to run their growing bodies.

      You can refine your hearing substantially at any time, but the volume of your brain remains relatively constant or declines after your teenage years. Further, the neuroplasticity functions mainly in terms of higher order concepts of perception, but typically not in the lower layers or number of layers.

      More concretely, most people can't learn to hear or speak a foreign language with native proficiency as an adult - and that includes MUSICAL languages. You learn to distinguish phonemes pre-puberty, and that includes the sound of a violin or guitar IN THE ROOM, which is spatially different than the same sound coming from any reproduction systems in commercial production. Neuroplasticity is stimulated the most by interactive multi-modal sensations, so participation in the music making yields deeper perception, comprehension and retention of musical messaging.

      Students who start to play music past age 13 do not make it into conservatories or become professionals. Entry into music performance training programs takes 3,500-7,500 hours of practice, and this changes not only the size of your brain but also the structure. There are higher order musical hearing functions that don't develop if you learn to hear music through speakers, and you never will.

      Audiophiles learn to hear fine differences in reproduction systems, but that is a totally artificial world. There are no speakers which match the transient, temporal or spatial projection patterns of acoustic instruments. Since the spatial pattern is an aural signature of the instrument acoustic geometry, no one speaker design can reproduce more than one class of instrument. Speakers are evolved to be spatially vague - if you can hear where the speaker is, the "imaging" collapses and the reviews are bad.

      The only way to learn what music sounds like is thousands of hours in the room with the players. I grew up in a largely rural environment with a grand piano for music, which created the musical structures in my brain. Note that sounds of Nature free of post-industrial noise also stimulate the development of musical hearing.

      I took a 40 year detour into audio and became proficient in hearing flaws in the systems. This training included years of building and operating recording studios, which educated my ears to the sounds of studio performance and manipulations - which eventually became annoying as I moved to live recording and pursued an ideal of "Straight Sound". I eventually stopped listening to recordings and my hearing started to transition back to my native language of acoustic music.

      I then moved back to the East Coast to immerse in Classical music, attending a hundred concerts a year or more with a partner who plays piano and harpsichord daily. This reduced my sensitivity to audiophile concerns and increased my perception that all reproduction is flawed with 15 years of neuroplastic evolution.

      I had an epiphany from a lecture given by Dr. Manfred Schroeder, where I learned there is a spatial perception mechanism that is inhibited by loudspeakers: the pinnae act as directional phase encoders to triangulate discrete room reflections by direction of arrival.

      If you learn to hear music through commercial recordings and speakers, which all have phase scrambled response, the phase of room reflections carries no useful information and your brain has no coherent feedback to drive the neuroplasticity. If you learn to hear music in a city with constant background noise, then the echoes carrying phase information are masked, again stunting hearing neurogenesis on a developmental level so your brain will remain under-sized as an adult.

      This has been in a vicious circle since 1932, when audiological research started using radio technology to test hearing and only urban/suburban radio and phonograph listeners as test subjects. They lack this hearing facility, so the true capacity of human hearing has not been measured for 87 years!

      The Blumlein experiment suffered from this selection bias (the participants were radio and phonograph listeners), and this flawed science is the basis for all "stereo" reproduction.

  7. Yes there is a difference. The question is what do you listen for? How do you judge what you hear? I've said in the past the difference between music lovers and audiophiles is that music lovers buy equipment to listen to recordings. Audiophiles buy recordings to listen to equipment.

    Until I was nearly 40 years old I was not a fully fledged critical listener. I hadn't put it all together yet. I had some of the elements down but at least one critical one was missing. Even as a child I knew what I liked and what I didn't like but I didn't know exactly why and I never gave it much thought. In my teens as an audiophile I wanted to hear stereo separation. Among people in my house and all their musician friends they played a game known as "drop the needle." Usually in this game someone took a phonograph record, put it on the turntable, and placed the stylus somewhere on the recording and you had to guess what piece of music it was. In this circle of people you had to guess who the artist was.

    In college in an elective humanities music course I learned the four elements of music; melody, tonality, rhythm, and harmony. Of course when voices and many instruments that can only play or sing one note at a time there won't be any harmonies (or antiharmonies called dissonances...I just made that word up.) but it's still music and can be beautiful music. (my disgust with a certain person I used to admire and respect came with discussion over a composition by a man named John Cage regarding a so called composition called 4'-33" which was 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. IT COMPLETELY LACKED ALL FOUR ELEMENTS OF MUSIC. He claimed as an expert and teacher it was music, I claimed he was a fraud. I haven't communicated with him since.)

    At 25 I learned how to listen to space, the acoustic effects of place that alter sound. Being able to understand it and create it synthetically made a world of difference. In my appreciation of music. It taught me what effects it has on not just sound but music itself.

    But at about 40 when I struggled with tonality, I realized just how difficult and important that was and how it interacted with all of the other elements. And then I was on the road to becoming a critical listener.

    So what do I listen for. Four things mainly.

    1. Composition. Does the composition show skill, imagination, is it interesting, does it have lots of compositional techniques that make it interesting like key changes, different combinations of voices, dynamics, melodies, harmonies, interesting and changing rhythms. beautiful or at least interesting melodies. Are they cleverly integrated, expounded upon. Are there nuances, subtleties that give the artists the opportunity for their own expression. If there are lyrics are the clever, interesting, poetic, suitable for the music that goes with it, not mindless or trite? (she loves me yeah yeah yeah is dumb dumb dumb.) If the answer to these questions is no or not much it's a deal breaker. If this goes wrong it doesn't matter what else goes right. I'm not going to like it.

    2. Artistry. Do the musicians show the enormous skill of masterful performance and complete control over their instrument of self expression. Do they have the technical skills to interpret the composer's intent without playing wrong notes, without neglecting dynamics, subtleties like rubatos, nuances, make their instruments sing like their music comes from their heart or do they just play the notes? No racism intended but this is the downfall of many musicians from the far east who think that technical perfection is all that is required to make music. They are dead wrong because music must convey something from inside one human being to another. Playing like a machine is not music. It can achieve technical perfection of even the most challenging writing but it is not music. Music cannot be written down on a sheet of paper. The written sheet music is not a representation of music, a precise map, it's only a guideline and if followed to perfection it is a complete failure.

    3. Quality of instrument tonality. This is big especially for soloists. The best musical instruments and voices that have remarkable properties of tone. Tone is not just spectrum. It is the ability to produce the most pleasing sounds for their type. A great operatic voice, a great violin made in Cremona Italy hundreds of years ago still in fine condition, a Steinway piano, a great pipe organ, even a great acoustic guitar. These don't just happen. They are the culmination of exceptional skill and dedication. And sometimes that achieves great tonality of sound. Purity of tone with distinctiveness. A range of power where the quality of tone doesn't change from soft to loud or over its range of notes in the musical scale, the ability to subtly change tone by the way it is played, clarity of tone.

    4. The effect of acoustics on sound. The profound effect this element has on 90 percent or more of what you hear can greatly enhance or detract from all of the other elements. There are a whole range of defects in acoustics that wreak havoc on sound. Among the most common in the difference between live music at a great venue and what our technology creates in recordings is deadness. Another is lack of envelopment. Dynamics, the sense of power cannot be compensated for by ignoring the acoustic effects and just making everything else louder. There's more to dynamics of power than loudness alone. Tonal balance is integral to acoustics. It changes the perceived tone of music in ways recordings can't match giving sound clarity and mellowness at the same time. (The single exception is binaural recording of a live performance in the audience but unfortunately that type of recording has other fatal defects) The reverberation is also the glue of sound in time that connects one note to the next. Too little and the sound is disjointed, too much and it becomes a blur. Optimal is different for each genre of music. Even the tempo of music is related to it. That is why music written for pipe organs in a large church or cathedral is usually slow. That is why symphony orchestras usually sound best at their home concert hall being familiar with what acoustics will do to their sound.

    Taken all in all, becoming a critical listener is a skill that can be learned with patience and expert guidance of different aspects of sound and music along the way. Having only so much time in life I don't like wasting any of it listening to music that is less than the best of its type that I like. This precludes over 99 percent of all recordings made. It also precludes sound systems I can buy in a store which don't deal with all of these factors to my satisfaction. Even the one I built for myself is not something easy to deal with.

    1. A well known pharmaceutical was developing a drug for age related brain issues. It had a high toxicity level and was shelved for that application. It has been given to older animals in the lab and regrown hair in the cilia in their ears. As you can imagine that has generated excitement beyond the pharmaceutical industry. The newest audiophile tweak?

      1. High toxicity level. Restores cilia in the ear but so far no indication that it restores age impaired hearing or other hearing damage. The criteria for FDA is "safe and effective." Sounds like they have a long way to go to meet that criteria. I wouldn't get too excited just yet. I'd also point out that Rogaine only restores small cilia type hair to the scalp and when you stop taking it, even that falls out. Not entirely safe as it can cause low blood pressure and not particularly effective in curing baldness.

        1. Is it just me, or would audio enthusiasts argue about the sky’s shade of blue? My wife works in clinical trials so I’m well aware of FDA. I thought my comment was relevant and perhaps mildly humorous without a detailed medical or legal dissertation required! Jeesh!

  8. Interesting how well written and thoughtful this subject created in the responses. I read an article on line, or in one of the audio magazines, a few months ago, that said, aging audio fanatics can still hear better than most people think. The person that wrote this article was an otolaryngologists, a doctor who specializes in hearing. He was not an audiologist. This article says that hearing tests only are concerned with speed frequencies, because understanding speech is critical. Never are hearing tests done with any frequency above 4000 Hz. But, this doctor is also an audiophile, and says as we age, we still can hear high frequencies and just as well as before, except, with less sensitivity. In other words, play it louder and it will sound just as good as when we were young.

  9. People thoroughly enjoyed listening to songs playing on their car radios in the 50's and 60's. Those radios and speakers were hardly full range reproduction.

    Therefore, enjoying music you now hear on an audio system does not depend upon being able to hear above 15000hz, etc. Matter of fact... certain limitations in the reproduction may end up sounding better when listening in a room. Being a musician, I found that the limits of playback could often times improve "the mood" of the listener. Raw live sound is not always as good as what some profess it to be. Concert halls altered sound tremendously. Clubs likewise.

    No two rooms a band played in sounded the same. Some were dull. Some were bright... and others...."just right."

    I think certain audio companies marketing is partially responsible of making some people feel inferior in their ability to enjoy a great audio system. If you can hear enough? Then it becomes all relative. My dad knew an audio engineer that could only hear in one ear.

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