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Is This Thing On?

How audio impacts our minds, bodies, and emotions — and why you should care.

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Illustrations by Noah MacMillan
Illustrations by Noah MacMillan

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A couple of years ago, as I was rounding the corner back to my apartment after a run, I heard something pop in my ear. It felt more like the sound of your neck cracking after a morning stretch or the dull whump of a jar being opened for the first time. The peal that followed the pop hasn’t gone away since. 

Tinnitus isn’t new to me. I’ve had ringing in my ears for as long as I can remember, though it would always emerge quickly and subside in a few seconds. The tinnitus I developed after my run isn’t like that. It’s a constant presence in my life, as if someone has stuck a tiny amp in my right ear and forgot to fix a feedback issue. The volume seems to rise and fall, though several doctors say that’s just because I can pay more and less attention to the sound on a minute-to-minute basis. It gets louder after a night of drinking, softer when I’m too busy to think about it.

The ringing in my ear has had me thinking more seriously about how I hear — and it came at about the same time the entire world started realizing how vital it was to hear and be heard properly. When most of us suddenly started working from home, the constant struggle against tinny audio from computer speakers, low-quality laptop microphones, and the consistent din from everything from garbage trucks to leaf blowers to doorbells put audio front and center.  Researchers have found that dealing with a constant crosstalk can overload our ability to concentrate, and drain us emotionally and physically. 

What can be done to alleviate that pain point, that consistent source of stress of bad audio? How do you make hearing and being heard when you’re on a phone or video call easier? That’s what the iconic audio brand Technics has aimed to solve. Technics is famous for its beloved DJ turntables and high-end audio equipment, and has been equipping sound-obsessed individuals with technology purposely built to give listeners incredible listening fidelity. So when the audio technology company decided to create a new pair of Bluetooth earbuds — the  EAH-AZ60 True Wireless Headphones  — they knew they didn’t want to release just a new pair of headphones. They wanted to understand how the bad audio many of us experience on a daily basis impacts our moods, emotions, and overall well-being. To do that, Technics created a study to test the physical and mental impacts of audio. So on a balmy morning in August, I drove to an office park in Iselin, NJ to hear a different side of the story — where sound and psychology meet. 

The physiological response to bad audio 

“When you have poor audio, you’re getting less than perfect information and that causes people a lot of stress,” said Dr. Michelle Niedziela, VP of Research & Innovation at HCD Research and the brains behind the study. Dr. Niedziela has spent more than a decade combining quantitative and qualitative research, and she said she designed this study to test both the physical and emotional reactions to differing levels of audio quality. 

First, a researcher attached diodes to my fingers and wrist. The band-aid sized tracker on my wrist was recording my heart rate while the little pads attached to my left pointer and middle fingers were monitoring galvanic skin response (GSR), a measurement of “emotional arousal” based on my body’s sweat response. The dual measurement was meant to give a full picture of my stress levels based on what sort of audio I was about to hear. 

After being wired up, I pressed play on the first audio clip, a field recording of a woman discussing the importance of public transit in urban planning, the soft din of cars passing and people chatting humming in the background. For the first 60 seconds or so, the audio quality was great, the kind of thing you’d hear from an especially composed radio reporter. But then the recording started to stutter and cut out, and I struggled to piece together what I had missed from context. 

When the recording stopped I was asked several questions about the content as well as my emotional and physical state, which encouraged me to think about how the choppy audio had altered my mood and emotions. After answering those questions, I listened to another recording — this one more polished studio recording about the transforming nature of news and journalism — and repeated the process. I was able to juxtapose my well-being during the choppier, din-saturated audio compared to the second high-fidelity recording, and a clear picture of how bad audio impacts moods began to emerge. 

Research shows that noise like honking cars or indecipherable chatter — exactly the kind of din that I heard in the first recording — can have a detrimental impact on your brain over time. You’re effectively overloading your cognitive system, and it can actually damage neural pathways in the process. It’s such a mental burden that Nina Kraus, a professor of auditory neuroscience at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, once wrote that “hearing in noise is one of the most difficult jobs the brain has to do on a daily basis.”

The second half of the study switched perspectives. I was asked to talk about what I had heard in the recordings. But after I finished recording, the computerized voice told me it had trouble hearing me clearly and asked me to repeat my answers. It was a sly nod to all those times we’ve been stuck with a bad connection and tried to navigate a conversation, or that all-to familiar moment when we realize we’re on mute after a full minute of speaking. “We wanted to have these two sides to the study that show that both hearing and being heard can have a real impact on the person’s frustration levels, stress levels, and mood,” Dr. Niedziela said post-study. 

Not only is being misheard or not heard at all frustrating, it can actually impact how seriously people take you. A 2018 research paper from researchers at USC found that scientists were less likely to be believed if the audio quality of their video recordings was poor, underlining the importance of making sure you’re heard correctly and clearly.

Following both parts of the study, I was given a short quiz on what I had heard and then asked a series of questions about my emotional state using a system called the “Self-Assessment Manikin” (SAM). The SAM scale is visual (hence the “manikin”): I rated how in control or “excited” I was based on a spectrum of little drawings that look like 2D foosball figurines. 

The funny thing about SAMs is that they work. The stress I felt from not being heard translated seamlessly into a feeling of being out of control symbolized by these little characters, as did my level of agitation. I found that my frustration spiked when I couldn’t hear other people more than when I couldn’t be heard myself, and that my arousal — that is my general excitement level — was greatest when I had to refocus and repeat something to someone who couldn’t hear my voice over a spotty connection.

My own experience fell in line with what the other participants reported in the same study. According to an executive summary of the study, nearly 60 percent of participants felt calm while listening to high-quality audio. The high-quality voice biometric arousal scores were closer to zero on a negative arousal slope, indicating participants felt calmer and were less likely to be agitated when voice quality was high. But poor sound quality was found to cause stress and frustration in participants, according to their self-assessment scores. Reported states of stress and frustration were validated by the measured physical reactions, like increased fluctuations in heart rate and sweat. And participants’ self assessments showed that poor audio led to “undesirable mood states,” or all the things you don’t want to feel in a normal day: anger, confusion, dejection, fatigue, anxiety and a reduced sense of energy.

Combining physiological and psychological measurements gives researchers a full picture of what exactly is happening to our bodies when faced with bad audio, something especially salient given how many hours we’ve all spent in remote meetings over the last 18 months. The stress of dealing with never-ending video calls paired with unstable connectivity, reverb and background noise has hammered home how important it is to invest in tech solutions that improve your everyday experience.  “Audio quality can directly affect our job performance as well as your mood and stress levels,” said Dr. Niedziela. “The opposite is also true. When you’re in a meeting and people can hear you clearly and you can hear them clearly, it reflects better on you. Companies have noticed and have started upping their game on technology so people can be heard and hear correctly.”

Sound is a two-way street

Technics has been elevating, evolving, and adapting their premium technology for the last 55 years, and their new true wireless headphones, the EAH-AZ60 earbuds, are built for wearers to hear the world clearly. Its 8mm dynamic driver opens up the soundstage, making it seem like you’re hearing from an acoustically-tuned room and giving the audio a deep richness. Combine that with the earbuds’ graphene coating to reduce component vibration and you get a headphone that produces smooth, clear voices. 

But Technics also designed the EAH-AZ60 so that users can not just hear better, but be heard better. The JustMyVoice™ technology in these headphones uses high-performance micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) microphones that can suppress wind noise, as well as beam-forming technology that focuses on a user’s voice directly without letting ambient noise leak in. Technics is taking a holistic view on work habits as well; the multipoint Bluetooth connectivity in the new headset allows users to switch seamlessly from their phone to their computers without interruption.

Both sides of the equation are vital in the way we work and live today. Not being heard correctly can be as stressful as not hearing someone and attempting to hold a conversation or take away key information. Sound is a two-way street.

I hadn’t thought deeply about my tinnitus and how it impacted my daily life until I was able to sit down with the Technics and HCD Research team. I — thankfully — haven’t lost any of my hearing, but the high-pitched whine that seems to live in my right ear has impacted my moods and emotions for the last couple years. It can be a distraction from both sides of sound, drawing my attention away from what I’m hearing as well as distracting me when I’m speaking. High-fidelity audio has helped me navigate past that disturbance for the most part, though, and let me relegate that ringing to nothing but background noise — something we could all use in the near future. 

by Ted Brown

Sources are provided for informational and reference purposes only. They are not an endorsement of Advertiser or Advertiser’s products.