27 June 2014

Earbuds and APD

Photograph circa 1908, via Wikimedia Commons

When I was in my early teens, my father bought a shelf stereo for the house. Before then we had listened to music on a portable CD players or on our DVD player, but my father scorned the sound quality of these cheap devices. Once the new stereo was hooked up, he inserted a rock and roll album and hit the play button.

"Much better," he said loudly, over the pounding music.

"Much worse," said I, covering my ears.

At the time I didn't know that I had auditory processing disorder, or APD, but I was aware of my sensitivity to loud sounds. Still, even with the music lowered I did not see what all the fuss was about. To me the music on the stereo sounded less clear than I was used to, as though there was some kind of white noise playing alongside every track. The instrumentation of each song sounded louder but less distinct, and the vocals sounded dimmer. Overall, it was an uncomfortable listening experience.

I was recently reminded of that experience when I tried to purchase new earbuds for my iPod Shuffle. I love my little pink Shuffle despite it being nearly seven years old, and use it for almost all of my music listening.
The Apple earbuds that came with the device deliver crisp, clear sound and allow me to hear shades and tones that  I wouldn't otherwise hear with my APD, but the casing on the cord started to fray this year so it seemed time to retire them.

Since new Apple earbuds are a bit pricey, I shopped around for different brands on Amazon and went with the well-reviewed but inexpensive JVC Gumy earbuds. But as soon as I tried them, I was brought back to my experience with my father's stereo set all those years ago--and just like the stereo, these earbuds were supposed to have better sound quality than usual. Worse still, the right earbud broke after only a few weeks of use, giving me no choice but to order a different pair. This time I tried a model from Sony, and while they functioned perfectly well, the sound they emitted still had that curious white noise quality to my ear.

Knowing what I know now about auditory processing disorder, I can only imagine that there's a whole spectrum of sound that I'm missing when listening to supposedly "high-quality" sound devices. What other people hear as round or rich sound, my brain interprets as white noise that interferes with what I can hear. So, for now I'll patch up my old Apple earbuds with electrical tape and continue to use them until they actually stop working, and leave that richer sound to those who can actually hear it.

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