Why Are All Headphones Terrible?
When I was in the 4th grade I got my uncle’s old iRiver as a present for my birthday. This was big moves. Gone were the days of my Cars soundtrack skipping in the CD player when we went over bumps on the way to school, and hello to the days of the Rube Goldberg machine that was acquiring digital music and getting it on my MP3 player. This was back when you had a 50/50 chance of getting Tim McGraw’s music for free on LimeWire, or accidentally downloading a tasty piece of malware. “FreeMusic4Dayz is asking to open up a port on your machine: do you accept? Sure! Why not?”
For whatever reason my new iRiver didn’t come with headphones, which meant I borrowed some from my Dad’s Walkman days. We’ve all had these at some point:
Oddly enough, though, only the right side worked. Given that these babies were older than me at the time, I didn’t really think twice about it until my next birthday when I got an even bigger upgrade: the iPod nano. Now I was really jamming in style with the classic white spaghetti earbuds we all know and love. But, hold on, the left earbud doesn’t work? “That’s okay, I’ve got some allowance money saved up,” and off I went to Target. I probably spent a whole $14.99 on a pair of sweet Skullcandy headphones that were sure to turn heads on the playground. “Sorry guys, can’t play tag today; Taylor Hicks is burning a hole in my pocket.” Much to my disappointment, my new Skullcandy headphones had somehow befallen the same fate as my last two pairs, and I was starting to think it was the CapriSun I spilled on my iPod. Turns out, it wasn’t the headphones or the iPod — it was my ear.
One Ear Wonder
After a few trips to the audiologist, I found out I had hearing loss in my left ear. It wasn’t totally deaf, but it was significant. It’s hard to describe hearing loss in terms of percentages, since hearing loss is somewhat relative to how it’s perceived by the hearer, but after some goofing around with the volume on my phone over the years I’ve found mine to be about 50%. That means it takes about twice as much volume in my left ear to hear at the same level as what I can in my right ear. It’s not an exact science, though. If some noises are below a certain threshold or are a certain pitch I can’t really hear them at all on my left side, but the 50% explanation does enough to get the gist across in most situations.
I had a few follow up appointments with an ENR doctor, and the option they gave me at the time was for “exploratory surgery.” They didn’t exactly know why I couldn’t hear as well out of my left ear, but they could probably cut me open and figure it out! I didn’t love that idea. I think we decided to wait until the end of the school year to decide, but then we just kind of forgot about it. That might sound a little odd, but I’m fairly sure my ear has been like that for my whole life. It’s not like it was causing me discomfort, or impairing the way I communicated. Plus, I liked being able to sleep on my good ear and turning whatever room I was in radio silent. Turns out this is a pretty good power to have if you get a wife later in life that talks in her sleep a lot.
Stick That in Your Ear
Fast forward a few years and I’ve graduated from college, moved, married the love of my life, and started a big-boy job. After some gentle prodding from my wife (turns out she wasn’t as amused with my roll-over-and-go-radio-silent antics as I was) I scheduled an appointment with a new audiologist to see if there were any new options. After getting an exam done, and going to another ENR doctor, they gave me some similar options to the ones I had received in grade school:
- I could get surgery that could maybe fix it, maybe make it worse, or maybe do nothing.
- I could get hearing aids.
- I could do nothing
Well, I did nothing last time, so that was my fallback plan. I didn’t really want to get surgery, after all it’s kind of fun being able to tune people out! That left me with trying out hearing aids, and turns out you really can try them out. My audiologist gave me a pair for a month to use. Which I thought was pretty wild since some pairs of hearing aids can get a little pricy. Especially for something you put in your ear.
Not Your Grandma’s Hearing Aids. Actually, They Probably Are
When you try hearing aids on for the first time it kind of sounds like you’re in a fishbowl listening through a tin can. Also, maybe unsurprisingly, everything seems LOUD. Having both ears seems like a luxury. You find out later most people call that normal. I remember going back to work after picking up my trial pair on a lunch break. “Shoes make noise when you walk?” I almost threw my laptop off the balcony when the fan came on. I thought it was about to launch into outer space.
What your audiologist tells you actually turns out to be true though: after a week or so you don’t notice it anymore. Your brain learns to filter out your voice along with the other fishbowlesque sounds, and it becomes your new normal. You tend to not even notice you have them in. What I did notice was that I didn’t have to do the awkward giraffe-neck-turn thing I would do if someone talked to me at the movies on my left side, or making sure my wife was on my right when we went on walks, or I didn’t have to fill in some of the conversational gaps I might have missed during my team’s lunch breaks.
I also noticed my new cyborg super powers. Most hearing aids are now Bluetooth enabled, and you can connect them to your phone. If you have an iPhone you’ll probably have an even easier time, since most Bluetooth enabled hearing aids are MFi (made for iPhone). MFi hearing aids let you easily stream music, answer phone calls, and enable audio hand-offs between your other Apple devices — save your Macbook (majorly on my wishlist). I can stream music and podcasts straight into my ears whenever I want, and no one needs to be the wiser. This is amazing for when I’m driving to work, in the grocery store, working out, or whenever life needs some background music. They’re also water resistant, so no worries wearing them when you plan to get sweaty or have to be in the rain for a little bit.
Ever find yourself going out with friends to watch the game, only to arrive and see 15 other games on 15 TVs all on mute? No worries. I can use an app called Tunity to stream the audio from any muted TV straight into my ears. I can even adjust the streaming/surrounding audio levels. I can also use the Evoke app to change the directional focus of the hearing aids in case I want to focus my hearing on the person in front of me, or even the people behind me! Some hearing aids are starting to become IFTTT enabled, meaning you can setup your own automations — essentially making them IoT devices.
The Future of Audio?
With products like AirPods becoming so popular it’s already normal to see people walking around with headphones in all the time. What if the hearing aids market opened up to everyone? If the audio amplification features were removed from hearing aids they might become viable for the consumer market. Imagine a new generation of technology completely centered around an audio only experience. What if there was a social media platform where all you could do was listen? What about a Listen-Up display where you could get audio notifications in a new creative way? Imagine Siri reading a text to you in your ears, then responding with your watch — what if we ended up *gasps* using our phones less? Whether or not you’re able to order your own pair off of Amazon one day, I hope hearing aid technology continues to make the advances it’s made in the last few years. Even if it’s only for me and your grandparents.