To test or not to test? That is the question nagging those of us who make our living using our ears. The real question is: how many of us would rather bury our heads in the sand than know the truth?
Product PointsApplications: Test and measurement
Key Features: PC software for Win 95/98/2000/NT (Mac and Pro Tools plug-in versions to come), Airphones high-isolation headphones, Ear Q Calibrator unit.
Contact: Ear Q at 415 479 7339 Web Site
Weighing in on the side of the ostrich are the cost and hassle of visiting a doctor, who will most likely only test in the 125 Hz to 8 kHz “speech” range.
With the introduction of its Ear Q Reference Hearing Analyzer System ($399), Ear Q Technologies is bringing the whole hearing range truth home (or workplace or on the road). No more excuses…
The Ear Q system is comprised of software for Win 95/98/2000/NT PCs (Mac and Pro Tools plug-in versions to come), Airphones high-isolation studio headphones and a calibrator unit. Hardware requirements are minimal, requiring a Pentium 166 MHz PC with 16 MB of RAM, a SoundBlaster AWE64 soundcard or better, and a mixer or amplifier to drive the headphones.
The small, 9-volt battery powered level calibrator has few features, all of which are found on the top of the unit: a power switch, a headphone impedance switch, audio in and headphone out TRS 1/8-inch jacks plus three level calibration LEDs.
According to Ear Q, the included Airphones headphones have a frequency response of 25 Hz to 20 kHz and provide enough isolation (25 dB of external noise attenuation) to make any reasonably quiet room comply with ANSI standards for hearing test booths.
Hooking the system up (computer soundcard analog output to the headphone amp; headphone amp output into the calibration unit; calibration unit output to the headphones) was easy enough, once I rounded up the proper cables and adapters. Installation of the software was also straightforward, though a little old school (it required manually copying and pasting files from the supplied floppy diskette into a new directory you create on your hard disk).
The easy-to-use interface starts with a calibration routine that sends a 1 KHz tone from the soundcard through the headphone amp to the calibrator. The headphone amp output is then adjusted to the proper level using the three LEDs on the calibrator (yellow=under, red=over, green=calibration level). Once the level is set, stop the calibration routine, unhook the calibrator from the headphone amp and plug in the Airphones headphones. Let the tones begin!
The testing window displays a bank of 16 faders, each corresponding to a frequency within the test range of 63 Hz to 20 KHz. Starting with the left ear, the user raises each fader until the tone is clearly heard, then back down until the tone can no longer be heard, then back up slightly to the minimal audible (or hearing sensitivity) level. The same process is then repeated for the right ear.
Unlike standard hearing tests using pure tones, Ear Q uses slightly warbled tones to reduce the effect of ear canal resonance at the higher frequencies. Using an accepted audiological test method, the test tones are not continuous, but instead are in short bursts (approximately 1/2 second on and 1/2 second off).
The faders can be moved in 1 dB or 5 dB steps (software selectable) using the mouse or the keyboard cursor up/down keys. Note that there can be a delay between moving the fader and hearing a change in volume in 1 dB step mode, especially if you are stepping up or down faster than the tone burst cycle.
When the testing is complete, save the results with a descriptive name (say, ‘After live speed-polka death metal concert’), and click “Display Results as Audiogram.” This brings up a graph with the vertical axis divided into five color bands (from ‘severe’ to ‘normal’) with the horizontal axis corresponding to each test frequency. The right and left hearing data is plotted using lines of different colors. Earlier test data (say, ‘Before live speed-polka death metal concert’) can be simultaneously displayed for easy comparison.
Another function of the Ear Q test system is to provide you with suggested “corrective” equalization settings for tailoring a sound system to your hearing response. The suggested EQ settings are based on algorithms derived from Etymotic Research’s FIG6 formulas. Suggested EQ settings are provided for three listening levels – “soft” (65 dB), “comfortable” (80 dB) and “loud but comfortable” (95 dB).
The Ear Q system performed as expected throughout my evaluation, though I did have a few quibbles with the software interface. Minor irritants included having to consent to the software license agreement every time the program is launched, and a pop up screen that cannot be bypassed. On my wish list: I would like to see Ear Q add the ability to launch the Audiogram graph program (say, to review earlier test data) without going through the calibration and hearing test interfaces first. It would also be useful to be able to toggle on/off comparative test data overlaid on the Audiogram graph display.
After extensive testing, I am impressed by this powerful and informative test system. I was surprised by the consistency of the test results when measured under the same conditions (e.g. ‘Late night writing a review’ vs. ‘Late night writing editor’s column’).
The calibration and testing process is easy, though testing each set of 16 frequencies for both ears does get a bit tedious (I quickly found out why the manual recommends spending no more than 15 seconds per frequency).
Even with some rough edges in the software, it is clear that the Ear Q Reference Hearing Analyzer System is a winner. Filling the gap between inertia and informed reality, the Ear Q system brings to your home or workplace the ability to measure baseline response and the effects of temporary situational/environmental changes in your hearing. The ability to test your hearing acuity (or that of your most competitive colleagues!) on your own time and in your choice of locations makes this system a unique and powerful test tool.