Many audio manufacturers have addressed the changes that room acoustics afflict on our sound systems. But until a week ago, I knew of no audio manufacturers who’ve addressed the changes that our hearing causes on sound.
Many of us have hearing deficiencies, some minor, some major. High-frequency hearing capability tends to decrease with age (especially in males), and frequent exposure to loud noises gives us “noise notches” around 6 to 8 kHz. A 40-year-old woman who’s spent her working life in an office will likely perceive a recording or a sound system quite differently from a 60-year-old guy who’s spent 35 years operating a bulldozer all week then playing drums in a rock band every weekend.
SK Planet, which I gather is a Korean telecommunications company, has created the first audio product I’ve seen that deals with hearing deficiencies. SoundBest is a music player app for iOS (iPhone/iPad/iPod touch), Android, and Windows PC. The first time you use it, SoundBest runs a test on your hearing, then it calculates an equalizer setting that will compensate for your hearing deficiencies.
The iOS and Android apps cost $2.99 — an impulse buy — but the Windows version is $35.99. Kind of ironic when you consider the average Windows user is probably older and probably has worse hearing (and therefore needs SoundBest more) than the average iPhone or Android user.
I tried the iOS version of SoundBest on my iPod touch, downloading it from iTunes. I was somewhat concerned because the website for the app includes no instructions and few details. But I didn’t need them at all to get the app up and running. Clicking on the app launches the hearing test. The app plays a tone at a certain frequency and level in one ear, and you hit an onscreen button when you hear it. For about two minutes, it plays more tones in each ear, at various frequencies and levels. The app warns you to go to a quiet area before starting, and I suggest you make it very quiet — even the seemingly benign, soft snoring of a nearby labradoodle made the test more difficult.
Of course, this test not only gauges your hearing capability, it also gauges the capability of your headphones. SoundBest has no way of knowing, say, if the high-frequency roll-off it detects is in your hearing — or in your headphones.
After you finish the test, SoundBest displays your results, then calculates the proper EQ curve for your hearing. A preview screen with an onscreen on/off switch lets you sample the corrective processing with a piece of classical music. You can store multiple EQ curves (presumably for different people or different sets of headphones) and recall them later. You can also select from lots of preprogrammed EQ modes such as Rock, Vocal, Jazz, etc., but as usual with music-specific EQ modes, I didn’t find them useful.
As it happens, I had my hearing checked by a professional audiologist about three weeks before I tested SoundBest. (Because I hear for a living, so to speak, I get a hearing test every couple of years.) After I took the SoundBest test, using PSB’s new M4U 2 headphones, I was impressed that SoundBest’s results looked pretty much identical to the charts that the audiologist showed me: above-average for my age, with essentially flat hearing in my right ear and a little bit of high-frequency loss in the left ear.
However, the program needs to vary the timing of the test tones a bit more, as professional audiologists do. I found it was possible in later tests (after I got used to the presentation) to anticipate the tones and get a perfect score.
The SoundBest music player interface is pretty similar to the stock iOS music player interface. As you’d expect, you can browse by artist, album, song title, genre, playlist, etc. When you load the program, it automatically populates its lists with all the music on your device, and incorporates cover art, too. However, I couldn’t figure out how to get it to recognize new tunes I brought in from iTunes; the iPod touch’s own music player had no such difficulties. Apparently either a bug fix or a better instruction manual is needed.
What did the music sound like with the fixes in for my hearing deficiencies? Not all that different, since I don’t have major hearing problems. It did make the sound slightly brighter, which was, in theory, exactly what it should have done. I liked the effect with some music and didn’t like it with other music. (Funny, that’s the same way I usually react to room-correction technologies.)
SoundBest might work wonders, though, for older listeners who have significant hearing deficiencies. Treble details you haven’t heard for years could be restored, but in a smart way that would be exactly calibrated to what you need — not a dumb “crank up the treble” way that would negatively impact sound quality and probably not suit your deficiencies well.
I actually tried simulating what the results would be for a listener with significant hearing loss by ignoring most of the tones at the two highest frequencies. (You can see the results in the accompanying screen shot.) As it should have, SoundBest compensated by providing substantially more treble boost.
If you’re over 45, or you’ve spent a lot of time running loud machinery, playing in rock bands, etc., I’d strongly recommend checking out SoundBest. After all, it’s $2.99 — a small fraction of the price of most audio tweak products. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it, but I can promise that it works the way the manufacturer claims, it’ll give you a pretty accurate picture of your hearing capabilities, and it’ll be fun.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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