Cocktail Parties, Wedding Parties, Recording Sessions

It's called the "Cocktail Party Effect." You may be immersed in the middle of a crowd of audiophiles all talking at once, but when someone says something that catches your attention, such as your name, you can focus on the sound of that person's voice and exclude the babble. The noise suppression can be 9–15dB; ie, the sound being concentrated on seems to be three to four times louder than the ambient noise, according to Wikipedia. The exact mechanism of the Cocktail Party Effect is not known, but it is conjectured that it has something to do with the binaural nature of human hearing: the fact that we have two ears allows us to apply spatial discrimination to what would otherwise be a jumble of sound.

In mid-September I was given a strong, if inadvertent, reminder of the usefulness of the Cocktail Party Effect. During my subway ride into the office the day after my flight back from this year's CEDIA Convention, while listening to music through my usual combo of Apple iPod, Emmeline The Hornet headphone amp, and Ultimate Ears UE5 headphones, I noticed that the soundstage was pulled a little to the right. A few days later, I woke up with no hearing at all in my left ear. Not only was I completely deaf in my left ear—if I snapped my fingers next to my left ear, I heard the sound only in my right—but there were rushing and whistling sounds in my left ear that made understanding what people were saying very difficult.

I bought one of the glycerin-based earwax removers from the pharmacy on my way to work, but it had no effect (footnote 1). I then asked my GP for a referral to an ear-nose-throat specialist who would be covered by my insurance. "Can you come in on October 25?" "Yes, but can't you fit me in any earlier?" "Sorry, the doctor is fully booked until that date."

Damn! October 25 was almost a month away. I had finished my reviewing for the November issue a couple of weeks before and had nothing lined up for December. However, while I'd already done all my auditioning of the Era Design 4 minimonitor for the review in this issue (p.141), I was also supposed to be writing about NAD's impressive new M3 integrated amplifier. (My thanks to Michael Fremer for taking over the NAD review at short notice; see p.90.) But I then had a trip to England to attend the memorial service for my late mentor David Inman (you can find tributes here), which is where the Cocktail Party Effect made its absence known.

At the church memorial, some of David's favorite pieces of music were played on a system loaned by Meridian, for whom he once worked. Afterward, it being England, everyone retired to the pub across the road, where many glasses were drunk in David's honor—except that, even with my one good ear, I could hardly make out what anyone was saying unless he or she was standing right in front of me. In such a noisy environment, one good ear didn't seem to be much better than two deaf ones, and the feeling of being besieged by incomprehensible monaural muttering was distressing and tiring.

I'm sure critics of this magazine are already thinking, "So what's new about JA being deaf?" But I have to tell you that, with almost all of both my creative and recreational lives dependent on my being able to hear, losing even one ear was a depressing matter.

The next three weeks went very slowly—though I did regain some hearing in my left ear in time for the wedding of music editor Robert Baird and Pip Tannenbaum, the magazine's erstwhile production manager, who still works on our Buyer's Guide and "Recommended Components" issues. Even so, when two or more people were speaking simultaneously at the nuptial celebrations, I could hardly make out what was being said by anyone, Cocktail Party Effect or no.

October 25 came, and an examination revealed that while my right ear was clear, a large plug of compacted earwax was pushed up against my left eardrum. Much flushing with warm water later, with unsightly chunks of brown wax swirled away down the doctor's sink, I could hear again! A subsequent comprehensive hearing test revealed that my hearing sensitivity now not only matched, left ear to right, but also fell well with the boundaries of "normal," at least up to the test's 8kHz limit (footnote 2).

"How old are you?" asked the specialist. "58," I replied. "In which case," he said, "I'd say your hearing was perfect!"

Perfect. You read it here! Guess I needn't hang up my reviewing credentials quite yet. But my experience underlines the fact that the listener's ears are the primary component in his audio system.

Attend a Stereophile recording session
Back in 1992, Stereophile got into the business of concert promotion when it booked Canadian pianist Robert Silverman for two evenings of recitals in order to record his performances for a live double CD, Concert (STPH005-2). We don't believe in rushing to repeat a success, so 15 years later, on February 10, we're promoting another concert, this time featuring Attention Screen, the quartet led by Stereophile reviewer and jazz pianist Bob Reina.

Attention Screen features Don Fiorino on guitar, lap steel, lotar (a four-string Moroccan lute), and extreme ukulele, Chris Jones on fretless bass guitar, and Mark Flynn on drums. They will perform two sets of jazz improvisations in the superb acoustic of Manhattan's Merkin Concert Hall, just north of Lincoln Center at 129 West 67th Street. As well as capturing the concert straight to hard drive, I will give a lecture in the intermission on how I chose to make the recording, and concertgoers will be able to purchase the eventual CD at one-third off list price. Tickets for the February 10 concert are available for $15 (auditorium) and $10 (balcony) from the Merkin box office (see the ad on p.156 for details).

Attention Screen's music—the band calls it "collaborative jazz"—may be entirely improvised, but it sounds through-composed. Bob will play one of the Merkin's Steinways without amplification, and Don has promised to bring his eight-string electric ukulele. I look forward to seeing Tri-State readers at Merkin at 8pm on February 10—this will be a night to remember.

Footnote 1: My doctor warned me never to put anything in my ear, and especially not Q-Tips, which can compact the wax. Ears should be cleaned only with warm water.

Footnote 2: I informally check my high-frequency sensitivity every month when I test loudspeaker impedances. I step the test frequency down from 50kHz and note when I first hear the sinewave. Even when the playback level is very low, I can still hear the tone when it reaches 15.5kHz.