The human ear is quite an amazing piece of audio gear. It’s an intricate yet vast system of tiny, superbly-tuned components working in sync to convert mechanical energy into what we interpret as sound. Most people, audiophiles included, will go their entire lives with limited understanding of the very mechanism that allows us to enjoy auditory information and experience musical bliss in its highest form. As a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist by trade for over 13 years, not only have I extensively studied the science of hearing and sound (I have a masters in Communication Sciences and Disorders), but I have witnessed the negative impact of hearing loss on a daily basis in my work with adult patients.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
I have had many conversations over the years with patients who considered themselves audiophiles or just audio enthusiasts, but have sadly retired from the hobby due the progression of their hearing loss and music “just not sounding the same,” as a former patient of mine described it. Despite the presence of hearing aids, he sadly just could not achieve the same level of musical detail as when his hearing was within normal range, and decided to call it quits with the hobby completely. I distinctly remember this man, a retired radio engineer in his early 80s, kindly offering me his vintage, three-way JBL loudspeakers free of charge. I was legally and morally obligated to politely refuse, and encouraged him to find a teenager in the neighborhood who might take them off his hands.
In its early stages, hearing loss negatively impacts the ability to receptively communicate in noisy environments, and reduces the overall enjoyment of hobbies such as listening to music or watching movies. As hearing loss progresses in severity, it can lead to increased isolation, reduced overall activity, and a significant decline in quality of life. A recent study by Johns Hopkins links hearing loss with a significant increase in the risk of developing dementia and other cognitive impairments.
Sensorineural hearing loss, the most common type, is typically caused by some combination of noise exposure, genetics, and time. Men are twice as likely to experience hearing loss than women, with age being the most reliable predictor. Males between the ages of 60 and 69 have the highest incidence and prevalence, which alarmingly places a core demographic of the audiophile community at the highest risk.
I’ll use my own dad, who bought his first pair of hearing aids last year, as a case study for the purposes of this article. He struggled with progressive tinnitus (ringing in the ears) for years before receiving an official hearing loss diagnosis. My mission now is to act as a hybrid audiophile/audiologist; the challenge being to find speakers paired with an equalizer or equalizing software that match his current hearing and sound profile. This will be an ongoing process as his hearing naturally fades and devolves, but I hope to provide him with the best listening experience possible for as long as I can, even if he will never be able to hear music in its purest form again.
What Does Hearing Loss Sound Like?
No two cases of hearing loss are the same, but there are some common patterns. High frequencies are the first to go. High-frequency hearing loss is typically diagnosed when a patient has difficulty hearing within the 2,000-to-8,000Hz range. We audiophiles recognize that there is much more auditory information to be heard beyond 8,000Hz, which is why it can be so painful to lose that top-end sparkle we associate with the highest of frequencies reproduced in the music we love. My dad recently confessed that female vocals specifically have become considerably less detailed with his particular case of hearing loss, which has been devastating and frustrating, since many of his favorite artists are female.
Over time, details will fall flat. Many of my past patients have reported that detail in music degrades fast with hearing loss and can be the most frustrating casualty. Separation of harmonies and instrumentation, subtleties in finger picking/plucking, dynamics, and many of the other unique characteristics that color our favorite musical selections will blend together in a maddening gray area.
You might need to turn up the volume more than before. Hearing is measured in terms of frequency (Hertz) and amplitude/loudness (decibels). With hearing loss, not only do certain frequencies disappear, but you may lose the ability to hear adequately, or at all, at certain volume ranges. This means you will need to increase the volume of your listening equipment to compensate.
What Can I Do to Protect My Hearing?
A great rule is to avoid prolonged exposure to sound above 85 dB. Repeatedly subjecting your ears to OSHA’s danger zone is a near-certain death sentence for the stereocilia (tiny hair cells inside your inner ear responsible for hearing). High-powered listening sessions, days-long music festivals, or even turning your headphones up too high for too long can and will do serious damage. Occupational or environmental exposure can also sneak up on you. It may take years or even decades, but the eventual and inevitable permanent loss of those cells will result in some form and severity of hearing loss.
Use hearing protection in all listening scenarios where a volume knob does not exist. Protecting the middle and inner ears is not difficult or expensive and is a no-brainer for live concerts, movies, and other potentially auditorily-demanding situations. Attending a single action flick can actually cause permanent hearing damage, as movie theaters are loosely regulated and often peak at 105dB or louder. I recently took my kids to see the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, and according to my iPhone dB meter, there were repeated peak amplitude readings above 105 dB, with an average range of 85 to 90dB during action sequences. A good pair earplugs will only set you back $50 and are invaluable in the quest to preserve your hearing. There are also less expensive, over-the-ear options for kids for around $15.
Think about the 60/60 Rule when using headphones or when cranking up your system.
Apple AirPods and many other popular earbuds, in-ear-monitors (IEMs), and headphones have max volumes near or over the 100dB mark. We tend to crank the volume even higher to drown out background noise, which is why Active Noise-Cancelling (ANC) earbuds and headphones are actually recommended by audiologists, when used responsibly.
Considering you can get a very good-quality pair of ANC headphones for under $400 and an in-ear pair for less than $200, enjoying music while simultaneously protecting your precious hearing is not all that difficult for most audiophiles. There is a growing list of acceptable budget options as well.
Hearing professionals recommend listening to your music at 60 percent volume for no longer than 60 minutes per day.
Hearing-Loss Shaming and What We Can Do to Stop It
I see hearing shaming all the time in the geriatric healthcare world, believe it or not. Those patients who still have their hearing sometimes become frustrated with, and may even ostracize, others who have severe hearing loss. They stop inviting said patients to Bingo, exclude them from conversations, and refuse to repeat things for clarification. You’d be surprised how apathetic even the seemingly sweetest old ladies can be.
When it comes to the audiophile community, it is exceedingly important that we not follow this pattern. While our demographic is changing and evolving, we are still a mostly-male, older-leaning group that will inevitably experience hearing loss in large numbers within the next decade or sooner.
My hope is that we, as a society at large, become educated on the subject, and respect hearing aids and those who wear them, dissolving the stigma entirely. Perhaps this would inspire interest in and spark the eventual development of mainstream hi-fi hearing aids. The FDA has finally relaxed its guidelines on hearing aids after many decades of prohibitive pricing and the need for a prescription. Good-quality aids can now be purchased over the counter for a quarter of the price of older models, without a prescription from an Audiologist (though I still recommend consulting with one in the earliest stages of your hearing loss, to help map out your deficits and fine-tune your hearing aids).
My best advice for my audiophile friends is that it’s important to be mindful of your hearing and how easily that you can damage it. It is 100-percent natural to lose hearing over time and that doesn’t mean that you have to sell off your Wilsons and Audio Research gear. By no means do that. There are ways to protect the hearing you have. There are ways to modify your system to meet your personal hearing too. Lastly, to our youngest music lovers, I have this advice. Care for your hearing now. Ear plugs at a concert are a must. Perhaps the same goes for movie theaters, too? Use your good judgment and you will have avoided many hearing loss opportunities over a lifetime.