Hearing Loss & Audio Pros

Have you ever been to a rock concert and come away mumbling, "Those engineers must be deaf"? After enduring three hours of an all-out sonic assault, you were probably just a tad cranky, but the facts are that those engineers probably were deaf, or well on their way.

That's the sobering conclusion of a seven-year study of hearing loss among music and audio professionals conducted by the House Ear Institute (HEI) in Los Angeles. Data gathered from hundreds of screenings at music and audio trade shows since 1997 reveal a consistent pattern of "high-frequency hearing loss from noise-induced inner ear damage" among audio professionals.

The most common type of hearing loss in this group is decreased sensitivity in the 4-6kHz region, what audiophiles call the lower treble. Both men and women showed the same type of loss, which was more profound than among the general population. Many people lose some hearing sensitivity as they age, but music and audio professionals do so at a much earlier age than normal, researchers found.

"The results confirm what we've suspected for a long time," said research audiologist Rachel Cruz. "These groups not only have high-frequency hearing damage from over-exposure to loud sounds, they also acquire it earlier than individuals in the general population, who may experience a high-frequency hearing loss as they age." The study was the first exhaustive assessment of hearing loss among professionals in the music and audio industries, Cruz noted, and included comparative studies to determine contributing factors such as gender, age, and history of vocational noise exposure to loud sounds. HEI researchers also considered exposure to noise sources outside of the work environment that might contribute to hearing loss, such as power tools or transportation.

"HEI researchers emphasize that noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is the one type of hearing loss that is preventable, and encourage all music and audio professionals to wear appropriate hearing protection where sound levels exceed the 85 decibel level (dB SPL) for extended periods of time," stated a synopsis of the study posted on the institute's website. Use of hearing protection [and reducing the volume—Ed.] would go a long way toward prolonging careers, according to research director Laurel Fisher, Ph.D.

Established in 1946 as a research institute by hearing specialist Howard Payne House, MD, HEI runs a public awareness program called "Sound Partners," providing "education and outreach activities that promote hearing conservation and noise awareness to music and audio professionals and the general public, and encourage safe sound practices for healthy hearing and quality of life." HEI most recently teamed up with Shure, Inc. to offer free screenings to exhibitors and attendees at the 2004 National Association of Music Merchandisers (NAMM) Winter Show, held in December at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California.