The challenges of an ageing audiophile

According to the NHS, The number of people with hearing loss is rising – 42 per cent of people over 50 yearsand 71 per cent of people over 70 years are affected. Estimates suggest that by 2035 over 13 million people in England – that’s one in five of the population, will have hearing loss.
Higher frequencies are often disproportionately affected in older people.

Depressing news for those who love our HiFi hobby, and are within or approaching this age and many hi-fi hobbyists are in this category. (see Do all audiophiles look like me? Why no diversity?).

What can be done to preserve our enjoyment as long as possible?

The first step is to protect the hearing we have. Exposure to loud noises, especially continual loud noises can damage your hearing. I have started monitoring sound pressure levels when listening to music using my smartwatch and have been pleasantly surprised that even music that sounds “loud” to me subjectively is showing at under 80db, which my watch tells me reassuringly should not affect my hearing. Hopefully my watch is reasonably accurate, it also tells me that repeated long term exposure to sound levels above 80db can cause permanent damage. At 85db, only 100 minutes can cause temporary hearing loss. Many of us have been to gigs like this! A weekly limit of 12 hours of exposure to sound of this level is recommended to prevent permanent damage.

I am prone to the buildup of wax in my ears and do get this cleared by a health care professional periodically. Alarmingly, you do not have to be registered as a health care professional to offer wax clearing services, so be careful whom you let near your ears!

Beyond these basic precautions, I am forced to consider whether age-related hearing impairment can influence our choice of audio equipment. My father’s view was that there was no point in investing in better equipment as you would not hear the benefits.I prefer the view that better equipment starts from a higher level so any impairment still leaves you with more enjoyment.

Our systems can help us investigate how well our high frequency perceptions are holding up. Test tones available from my streaming provider who conveniently include test recordings and test tones at different frequencies in their offer, suggest that I am still hearing a good proportion of the upper frequencies. However, I would suggest that my preferred system choices are becoming subjectively brighter and this may be a compensation for some diminishing of my perception of higher frequencies.

The final tool in our armoury should be hearing aids. It would not be unreasonable to hope that some of the digital technology seen in the hi-fi industry could be used to enhance hearing aids for the older hi-fi hobbyist. Certainly, hearing aids have got smaller as they have used digital technology, but observing my older relatives does not suggest that they are yet as effective as one would wish, or as easy to use. This includes hearing aids that cost as much as a very respectable audio system! I cling to the hope that by the time I need such aids that further improvements will have been realised.

Some premium hearing aids are starting to use artificial intelligence (AI) techniques that allow them to access a deep neural network to process sound. By logging volume control settings and program preferences for certain sound environments, the hearing aids can begin to make these changes automatically when the environment is detected. Similar technology is deployed in voice-based assistants such as Siri. These hearing aids offer the hope that they will begin to mimic how your brain would hear sound if your hearing wasn’t impaired.  

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