It was a nice change to have Jeremy Skaller step in for my column last issue. I knew he would bring it, and I loved what he had to say. But this month, I’m taking back the reigns and going to be talking about something so few of us in the industry (and out) pay attention to. Hearing. And to be more specific, hearing protection.
We have nothing without it. It’s the most important piece of this puzzle, and many of us (myself included) often take it for granted. We bombard our ears with all sorts of noise, a never ending attack on our precious cilia. Nightclubs, football games, construction, and even something as simple as your car window down on the highway. Each and every time we push our ears a little too much, we lose a little bit of it. How many of you go to bed at night, and hear the little ringing that never seems to go away? Most of us can’t hear it during the day because of all the other noise we’re paying attention to, but it’s not until we turn the lights off that we realise it’s there. And for some of you, it might be getting louder every day, loud enough to really become a problem. I’m in the same boat. I want to protect my hearing, but I never want that to get in the way of life. When was the last time you said no to going out with your friends because the bar was a little too loud? I’m guessing for most of you, never. And when was the last time you went for a hearing test? If you ask me that question, I’m a little embarrassed to say, never. For God’s sake, I’m a professional audio engineer, how have I gone ten years in this business without a proper hearing test? It’s ludicrous! Well, I finally decided to change that, so I went to visit Dr. Julie Glick at Musicians Hearing Solutions, here in New York.
Julie is a Doctor of Audiology, and the top choice for musicians like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, John Mayer, Maroon 5, and many more. She’s created a very unique practice for herself, catering mostly to musicians and audio professionals like myself. I visited Julie at her office over on Park Avenue, which is not unlike your average doctor’s office, except she’s got a whisper room in hers, basically a recording booth, where we get to take my ears for a spin!
We talked a little about her background and practice, new technologies in the space (mostly innovated by the hearing aid industry), and even her ability to diagnose a brain tumour simply from a hearing test. I didn’t realise how much our hearing can tell us about the rest of our health! After a little chit chat, I got the rundown of what to expect today. First, I’d be doing my hearing test, then we would go over my results, and finally Julie will take ear impressions for an eventual build of earplugs and in-ear monitors, provided by JH Audio.
LISTEN VERY CAREFULLY
So now it was time for my hearing test. I entered the whisper room and sat down. Boy was it quiet. I’m used to a quiet room in the studio, but knowing I was finally going to find out exactly what my ears are hearing, and if I held any major damage, was a little frightening, and the silence was deafening (pun intended). I put on the cans, and Julie was going to start playing tones at different volumes isolated in both my left and right ears. Following that, she would ask me to repeat words; she was talking into my ears to ensure my speech legibility was accurate, too. We started with the right, and each time I could hear the tone I would click a button. We started with midrange frequencies, went to the lows (as low as 125Hz) and then up to the high frequencies (maxed at 16k). I started clicking away, thinking to myself I was doing fairly well. These sounds were so quiet, sometimes I wondered if I was clicking at a tone, or the bit of ringing in my head. Julie could tell if I was cheating and clicking at nothing, so I did my best to only click when I heard something.
Once we got to my left ear, I felt like it became a little more difficult, and thought maybe I had a little more damage in my left. Finally, after about ten minutes, we made it through to the speech test. I learned that a high frequency hearing loss in combination with poor speech discrimination in
one ear is a red flag for further testing to rule out an acoustic tumour. Very interesting stuff. Thankfully for me, I got through the words with little trouble. I hopped out of the booth and she showed me my results.
She said my hearing was actually quite good in both ears, speech recognition was great, and all signs pointed to no hearing loss at all, so nothing to worry about. This was great news, and a sigh of relief to know that I’m mixing as accurately as I can, and have nothing to compensate for; and now with my renewed interest in hearing protection, I’ll be taking the necessary steps to ensure my ears stay in working condition for as long as possible.
Now comes the fun part... Impressions! Jerry Harvey is known as the man behind Ultimate Ears, and now his new company, JH Audio, which focuses on both in-ear monitors and plugs, as well as hearing technology for the aviation community. JH is the leading innovator in monitor tech, and they graciously offered to let me build a pair and test drive them for myself. Before I got to try out some of the demo units, Julie started mixing the silicone concoction which she would be injecting into my ear canal. I was asked to bite down on a foam piece, which kept my jaw open, for about five minutes while the moulds were being formed and dried. The sensation of the mould entering your ear is a very strange one. It closes in on you, and eventually shuts most of the world out like a foam earplug would. I couldn’t speak or do much of anything while these things dried, but the wait wasn’t so bad, and I just zoned out for a bit. Finally, before Julie removed the moulds and put them in boxes, I had a second for the obligatory selfie.
Now came my favourite part of the day which was testing the monitors. I had three models to choose from: the JH13, JH16, and the Roxanne, which has an astounding 12 (yes, twelve!) drivers inside them. These tiny little earbuds have 12 drivers in each ear. Unbelievable, and a testament to the care and thought that goes into designing and building these pieces of technology. First up was the 13s. Now, one thing to note is these demo units aren’t moulded; mine would take a few weeks to build, so the perfect fit isn’t quite there, and you mostly just have to push them in your ear and hold them to match the audio quality of a mould. I found the 13s had a great deal of clarity and shine, but not quite the oomph I need when I’m mixing or listening. I need a rounder bottom, and some nice punchy bass. Next up was the 16s, which I was told have more intensity in the low frequencies. And that they did. It wasn’t in your face or over the top, but they had the thump I’m usually looking for. Last up was the Roxanne, which is the latest model from JH, and their top of the line in-ear. Now these babies cost about $1,700, so I would hope they had everything I was looking for and then some; and I can say without a doubt, they delivered. The biggest difference with the Roxanne is the potentiometers for the low frequencies on each ear, which means I have the freedom to push them when I want, and dial them back if I need. Not only that, but they also had much more emphasised punchlines in the low-mid frequencies somewhere between 250-500Hz. I have to say, the differences are subtle, and for the most part, any pair you get is going to feel like a whole new listening experience for you, but of course I like my bass, so I had to go with the Roxanne. It gave me the flexibility I needed, and all the right qualities I wanted. The final step now, is customisation.
JH allows you to customise the colour and design on each pair which only makes sense since each pair is already custom designed to fit only your ear. A design tool on the JH website allows you to pick various colours or even upload artwork for print on each ear. I haven’t quite done this step yet, and was hoping to on this 14-hour flight I’m on to Korea, but unfortunately these transpacific flights don’t have WiFi, so hopefully when I land I’ll have a bit of time to finish the process!
I have to say that Julie was incredibly generous with their time, and was pleased to answer all of my questions. I left feeling a weight was lifted off my shoulders. My hearing was A OK, and will hopefully remain that way. What I wanted to get across in this article is that hearing is the single most important tool we have as audio professionals. It is our life force. Without it, we have nothing. So it’s important that we take care of it the same way we take care of the rest of our bodies. Getting a hearing test isn’t very expensive, and most health insurance companies will reimburse the cost. Go do it. I waited far too long for mine, and while my hearing was just fine, it very easily couldn’t have been. Something which would have been easily preventable if I noticed any loss early. It’s like anything, early diagnosis is the best way of fighting any illness. So go get your ears checked, and if you find that you’re often in loud environments, invest in a pair of moulded earplugs. They will save your hearing, which you can’t get back when it’s gone.
THE FINISHED PRODUCT
While in Korea, I had some time to work on the design of my in-ears using the IEM design tool on JH Audio’s website. I went through and tried some ideas, but wanted something unique that wasn’t quite offered on the website. I wanted a black translucent mould with gold exterior, and my logo along the bottom, but the gold option isn’t available, so I decided to contact the design team at JH to see if they could sort it out, and they happily mocked up what I wanted, and it looked great! I gave a quick ‘OK’, and they were delivered within two weeks back to Dr. Glick, who then had me come back in to ensure a perfect fit, and teach me how to properly insert them into my ears, which can be a little tricky at first.
Firstly, the case they come in is made of carbon fibre, and looks gorgeous. It’s also personalised with my name on it, which is a nice touch. Inside are your IEMs sitting on a reverse mould, and underneath is a cleaning tool and little screwdriver to adjust the bass response. They looked so cool in person. I picked them up and Julie was very helpful with inserting them in my ears. Once in, they fit like a glove. Perfectly comfortable, and easily something that can be worn for long periods, like a flight. The isolation is incredible; once in your ears, you basically can’t hear anything from the outside world; it’s just you and the headphones, and they sound like an absolute dream.
I’ve had the chance to listen to them over the last few days, and I’m really at a loss for words on how to describe them. The sound is, of course, phenomenal. Each Roxanne has 12 drivers (yes twelve!), all phase corrected to make sure every wave hits your ear at the perfect moment. But even more than the unbelievable sound is the experience of having something that fits your ear perfectly. It’s like a little secret between you and your headphones that the rest of the world isn’t aware of, and your ear unlocks this experience. It’s an interesting feeling to have a piece of technology that is almost a part of you. I personally can’t see myself ever going back to traditional headphones for moving on the go. These are audiophile headphones in a nice small package, a best of both worlds really. I would encourage anyone who truly values sound or is just interested in a new listening experience, to go and make a pair. Pricing varies from a few hundred, to nearly $2,000, so there’s a pair for everyone. I think you’ll truly be amazed.