You may not know it but you could be wearing computers in your ears. If you bought a pair of Apple AirPods or similar wireless earbuds, these devices are built around a tiny but immensely powerful “system on a chip” or SOC that contains essentially all the main components of a computer.
SOCs enable the latest crop of earbuds to offer a wide variety of features including support for digital voice assistants like Alexa and Siri, fitness monitoring, and a “listen-through” or Transparency mode that allows users out in the world to pay attention to live sounds. In terms of streamed sound from mobile devices or computers, the most sophisticated SOCs can support high end audio codecs that provide up to 48 kHz/24 bit streaming over Bluetooth. That’s better than CD-quality, delivered to your earbuds, wirelessly.
In addition to offering Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), these sophisticated SOCs also have the capacity to do other highly sophisticated and precise digital signal processing (DSP). This provides users with sound personalization such as adjusting bass or treble, or compressing the sound to make it sound louder.
Now, a new and exciting use case for all the DSP power built into these amazing chips has been found. Jacoti, a medical hearing technology company based in Belgium, recently announced a collaboration with Qualcomm, one of the world’s largest chip manufacturers (their Snapdragon chips are found in 40% of the world’s smartphones). Jacoti, which is known for their FDA-certified hearing apps for iOS, announced that they can provide audiologically-valid hearing testing and personalization on Qualcomm’s QCC51xxx series of SOCs, premium technology used in the latest true-wireless earbuds and hearables.
This is great news, especially for professional musicians and recording producers/engineers like ourselves. It means that not only will we be able to customize the sound of our earbuds and earphones for maximum enjoyment but do so in a way that reliably and accurately compensates for whatever issues we might be having with our hearing.
Music and audio professionals are nearly four times more likely than the general population to develop tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hearing loss.
As a working composer, I know how hard it is to talk about hearing problems. But it’s vitally important that we do so. If you’re a musician, recording engineer/producer, DJ, or sound designer, you spend a good chunk of your waking hours listening intently to what is often very loud sound. That means you’re at a very high risk for a serious hearing loss.
How high’s the risk? Music and audio professionals are nearly four times more likely than the general population to develop tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hearing loss related to loud music/sound exposure. And no, it doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re involved with: several studies have found that even classical musicians experience hearing loss at far higher rates than non-musicians.
So, when we’re on the job, it makes sense, even if we are dealing with a mild problem, to make sure that we monitor any fluctuations in our hearing and make sure we hear as well as possible by, for example, getting a good pair of hearing aids.
Hearing aids are regulated medical devices that have to meet international regulations to provide safe and highly effective amplification. They are miracles of electronic miniaturization and, especially in the past five years, have become extremely advanced, even employing artificial intelligence to process sound for maximum audibility.
But traditional hearing aids have considerable drawbacks. For one thing, hearing aids are incredibly expensive, over $2300 per ear — and hearing aids that connect via Bluetooth to your phone or computer can easily cost close to double that. Also, hearing aids typically require in-office visits for set-up and configuration, sometimes multiple office visits. And to all of us who truly care about audio quality, traditional hearing aids just don’t sound very good, especially for music. High quality hearing aids provide a frequency response of only 100 Hz to 10 kHz; they also feature speech-centric compression algorithms that can wreak havoc on musical content.
Medical-level hearing testing and sound personalization can now be had in consumer and pro-audio earphones for a fraction of the cost of traditional hearing aids — and a fraction of the hassle.
This is what makes Jacoti’s collaboration with Qualcomm so important for those of us in the music and audio industries. Medical-level hearing testing and sound personalization can now be had in consumer and pro-audio earphones for a fraction of the cost of traditional hearing aids — and a fraction of the hassle.
Soon, you will be able to buy a pair of terrific-sounding wireless Bluetooth earbuds from any of a number of manufacturers that can be configured using FDA-approved hearing aid technology. You’ll be able to stream music at full bandwidth and personalize the sound of the device to your hearing via audiologically tried and tested algorithms. You’ll simply pair your earbuds to either an Apple or Android phone and use an app to take a short hearing test at home. When completed, the proper frequency compensation and compression will be applied.
Another advantage for audio professionals is that you will be able to monitor your hearing over time. Jacoti’s technology enables you to store the results of your hearing test (called an audiogram) in a highly secure database in the cloud. Once you give your permission, an audiologist of your choice can remotely access your hearing health data and precisely tweak your earbuds to your hearing. You’ll also be able to track your hearing over time, giving you a way to quickly spot new issues as they come up so they can be addressed.
And in addition, you’ll be able to use your earbuds for live sound amplification — to hear better in restaurants or parties, for example, just as you would with those expensive hearing aids.
For those of us with more serious and complex hearing problems, traditional hearing aids (and detailed in-person testing and setup) may be needed. But at present, only 17% of the people who could benefit from amplification actually use hearing aids. Jacoti’s technology shows genuine potential to reach this untapped audience. And for those of us who love music and care deeply about sound quality, the next generation of hearables that are Jacoti-enabled may be just the ticket.
Learn more about Jacoti here.