Safer listening: the next gen of in-ear tech

14th May 2009 | 14:47

Safer listening: the next gen of in-ear tech

After 30 years of the Walkman, new tech ends damage to hearing

The questionable legacy of Sony's Walkman

Sony celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Walkman this week – arguably one of the most revolutionary consumer electronics devices of the 20th Century – opening up debates over audio quality, the dangers of hearing damage and issues of personal responsibility when using such devices in public spaces and on public transport.

Conservative columnist A N Wilson kicked off the debate in rather sensationalist (and anti-Sony) fashion over in the Daily Mail earlier in the week, declaring that the Walkman was "THE GADGET THAT HELPED BREAK BRITAIN."

In Wilson's imaginary Britain, Sony's dinky new music player contributed to a decline in Brits' sense of personal responsibility through the 1980s, '90s and Noughties. Not to mention an increase in the levels of hearing loss due to listeners' widespread misuse of the new tech at higher-than-necessary volumes.

Nobody likes noise pollution

"Although personal music players can be isolating for certain individuals, they're not responsible for the public's declining sense of social responsibility," argues Hi-Fi Choice magazine editor Dan George, in response to the Mail's polemic.

"Of course, nobody enjoys noise pollution, either, but in confined spaces, loud phone conversations, unruly kids and grown-up conversation can be even more irritating," adds George.

"The Walkman has inspired a generation of music lovers. It has switched people on to music, enabled them to share favourite artists with friends, and most importantly, given them the opportunity to discover a fascinating world of entertainment while enduring the most mundane and ordinary activities.

"And we all owe a debt to Sony for that."

And while the general consensus of opinion swings in favour of the benefits of Sony's Walkman (and later, Apple's iPod) outweighing the social costs, there are still those in the Hi-Fi and personal audio industry that are constantly developing new solutions to improve audio quality and help music fans avoid causing unnecessary damage to their hearing.

"Research findings are unequivocal on this topic," says Gail Gudmundsen, Doctor of Audiology at earphone specialists Etymotic Research.

"When eartips completely seal the ears, listeners choose lower (safer) listening levels. Earphones from most companies (particularly the ones that come standard with music players) do not completely seal the ears and listeners turn up the volume, often to unsafe levels,to overcome outside noise."

Unwittingly deaf

ACS boss Andy Shiach agrees that "it is true that we have unwittingly created a nation of people with poor hearing," because "nobody ever told them that potentially that is what could happen."

ACS recently partnered up with Etymotics to offer iPhone and iPod users their own custom-moulded in-ear 'phones to offer improved audio and better protection for your eardrums.

"I've seen so many people with damaged hearing through my work at ACS – it is clear that by putting high volume into your ears you are going to damage them," says Shiach.

"And of course there has been several suits filed in the US against Apple for hearing damage... So to some extend I cannot disagree with what A N Wilson says in the Mail article, but at the same time it is certainly not an issue that has been swept under the carpet."

Of course, what the Daily Mail and the anti-Walkman brigade fail to mention is the developments in personal headphone technology that have been going on for some time to address these problems.

Etymotic's ER4s were perhaps the first sound isolating earphones to be made available to the consumer, around 15 years ago and were "specifically designed to be a safer way of listening to music."

As an ex-musician himself who damaged his own hearing at a young age, Shiach is passionate about getting the message out to iPod and MP3 users that they should take care of their eardrums. It is possible, as he reiterates, to "enjoy safe listening at a safe volume."

With traditional in-ear headphones users needed to get at least 10dB higher than the surrounding noise they were in to hear the music at an acceptable level, which is where ACS and Etymotics have spotted a clear opportunity in the massive market of iPod, Walkman and personal music player users with its custom earphones programme.

New tech in your ear

The fact that you cannot hear anything at all other than your favourite tunes or concertos in glorious stereo sound also throws up another potential problem for listeners – they have no idea what is happening around them, because all they can hear is their music. It is an issue that ACS is currently developing new in-ear earphone tech to overcome.

"We are soon to be launching an ambient system where you have absolute control of your ambient noise and your music signal so that you can better relate to your surroundings, by creating an entirely new sound environment," Shiach tells TechRadar.

"So you can turn the street level down, yet still be aware of what is going on around you... which is the only way we have of combating that criticism that people are getting killed or injured because they step out on the road while not being able to hear what is going on around them"

Walkman rules the roost

We look forward to (literally) hearing more about the latest developments in miniature earphone amps and the fruits of that particular partnership between ACS and Tension Labs very soon.

In the meantime, what did gadget magazine T3 think of the Daily Mail's assertion that the Sony Walkman was the gadget that 'broke' Britain?

"While coming across as deliberately fogey-ish, Mr Wilson does, inadvertently, make the completely valid argument that the Walkman was one of the most important gadgets of the 20th century," said T3's Rhi Morgan.

"And while he might not like that 'tsk tsk tsk' of hearing someone else's headphones while on the bus, then we would simply suggest he get some decent noise-cancelling earphones himself. And also one of those cracking new X Series Walkman's to accompany it!

"He could watch high def re-runs of Last Of The Summer Wine on the train without annoying anybody then."

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