I like to listen to Kanye West.
Kanye West likes to produce music.
When Yeezy makes an album, he spends a lot of time editing and producing the sound to make it perfect.
But when I listen to his records, I’m not hearing them in the exact way he intended them to be heard. My hearing aids, and really all hearing aids, make changes in all of the sounds entering them, skewing the art that Kanye and others have worked hard to make.
Imagine looking at a Van Gogh painting with all of the colours just a little bit off, the edges between colours just a little bit blurry, and the difference in intensity between his lights and darks just a little less dramatic. You could still recognize the painting and appreciate it, but it would be just a little bit… different. It’s not the way the artist intended. Hearing aids are generally designed to make communicating better by improving the audibility of speech cues – not making the auto-tuned rap of Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2 “pop” (although Chance the Rapper still shines through on Ultralight Beam – but that’s because Chano’s beautiful voice transcends all limits imposed on it).
What if I take my hearing aids out? Its the only way to use earbuds or headphones comfortably and honestly, some things sound better this way. Loud bass lines just sound so much more powerful – hearing aids happen to compress a lot of amplitude differences in music (I blame my complete lack of rhythm on this). However for me, no hearing aids means fewer high-frequency sounds and a reduced understanding of speech sounds. Also less of that satisfying “twang” in higher notes. In fact, sometimes I find myself listening to music through my earbuds to music that is probably dangerously loud at some frequencies, but too soft for enjoyment at others.
Now it is 2016, and there are lots of technologies that can address these things. Almost all hearing aids have some version of a “streamer”device that can wirelessly beam audio from whatever device you’re using right to your hearing aids and some hearing aids can skip the middleman and transmits sound directly from an iPhone. I’ve talked at length in previous posts about why I don’t like to use these devices though, so I won’t go over it all again here except to say that for me, the hassles and drawbacks outweigh the positives (and they certainly don’t address every issue mentioned above).
So what do I think the ideal answer would be? Imagine an app where a user could input their audiogram and have their device reset all output to a corrected level – like a hearing aid in your phone that would let you comfortably use whatever headphones you want at the levels that help you hear best. You could walk around, go to the gym, or do whatever else and enjoy audio in the same way everyone else does. Unfortunately, this just isn’t possible with the way cell phones are currently designed.
(Though I’d like to see a product where this “hearing aid” exists as an in-line device built into a pair of headphones. I think that would be almost perfect. )
For me, the current best solution is far from perfect. I use a pair of Bose earbuds and either the AdaptSound program (also written about in this blog previously) or a different equalizer program set to my best guess as to how things should sound to someone with typical hearing. It’s far from perfect, and I’d like to think Kanye would be a little sad if he knew that some of his fans weren’t enjoying his music at its best.
How do you listen to portable audio? Let me know in the comments!