Buzzkill alert: According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk of early hearing loss. As pocketable devices have become more powerful and we’ve gravitated toward listening to everything on earbuds, bumping music at high levels has had an impact on our ears.
People with hearing loss don’t immediately go deaf. The early warning signs are much more subtle.
“If I wrote a big paragraph up on the wall and I pulled out every other word, it’s not like you wouldn’t be able to see that paragraph,” says Turtle Beach communications director MacLean Marshall, who says he was recently diagnosed with early onset hearing loss at age 40. “It’s just that you would have a little or a lot of trouble reading it. That’s kind of what hearing loss is like—it’s not that you can’t hear, it’s that you have trouble understanding what people are saying. You really have to hone in and pay attention.”
If you have to turn the TV volume up to ridiculous levels, you may be experiencing one of the earliest signs of hearing loss. This, in turn, makes it hard to watch anything with friends and family. Marshall’s company makes an audio system called HyperSound that gives people with hearing loss a boost in audio clarity without changing the experience for the companions next to them.
HyperSound uses parametric emitters to produce focused beams of ultrasound. You need to be in a sweet spot to hear the effect; the surface area of the emitter units is basically the size of the audio zone, and they fire audio straight out without degradation at distances up to 25 feet. Because they’re directional, you just point them at a single person in the room to enhance their listening experience. In a clever design touch, the surface of each emitter is mirrored. If you can see your reflection in both units, you’re in the sweet spot.
When you’re outside of the listening zone, you can still hear the HyperSound audio faintly. When you’re inside the sweet spot, it’s almost as if you’re wearing headphones—over-the-ear headphones hovering a couple of inches off your ears. If something’s in front of an emitter, you can’t hear anything out of it at all. If no one’s on the couch to absorb the noise, it sounds like the audio is coming from the back wall.
The sound quality of this $1,600 system won’t blow you away whatsoever—the intended effect sounds like a tinny clock-radio speaker. There’s absolutely no bass to speak of. This system only handles the really high end.
But that’s the point. By bringing the audio “closer” to your ears without headphones, they make dialogue sound clear and present—sharper without being louder. The emitters, which connect to a little processing box outfitted with RCA and optical ports, are designed to be added to an existing sound system rather than replacing one. That includes anything from a 7.1-channel surround-sound system to a black-and-white Zenith.
The way these speakers create audio aren’t the only unique thing about them. You can’t just go into a store and buy them; you need to go through a hearing healthcare specialist. Those specialists can create custom audio profiles for the system that are tailor-made to your hearing; there are common hearing-loss settings already programmed into the processing box.
Marshall says Turtle Beach spent three years testing the system to gain FDA clearance and that the company is considering bringing the system to the traditional consumer market. HyperSound isn’t intended to be a substitute for hearing aids. Instead, it can be used to take a break from them or possibly promote their adoption.
“You’re not supposed to run around all day with something stuck in your ear,” says Marshall. “Most people when they get home just want to take their hearing aids out. Our hope is that if somebody gets this, they’ll kind of realize what they’re missing out of the house. They’ll probably be more inclined to get a hearing aid… Right now, there’s a 5- to 10-year delta in between that person’s first consultation and when they go home with a hearing aid.”
According to Marshall, HyperSound’s high-frequency emissions won’t bother your pets. Or at least they won’t complain about it.
“My dog just looks at me when I ask,” Marshall says.