Is a wider bandwidth necessarily better for listening to music?

Audiophiles are amazing people who claim to hear things the rest of us mere mortals can only hope to hear.  In some cases this is definitely the case- I still cannot hear a Napoleon second regardless of how often my son forces me to listen carefully.  In other cases the audiophile isn’t really hearing what they claim to be able to hear.

In well controlled A-B-A comparisons where the difference is a bandwidth of 18,000 Hz (A condition) versus 20,000 Hz (B condition), the expected difference is no more than chance, yet some audiophiles claim to hear the difference and that this in some way, makes them a better person.

Clinically when someone calls for an appointment because they want to see if they can hear 20,000 Hz, I either send them to a colleague (who I may not like) or simply say no and hang up the phone.  My impression is that the desire to have extreme high frequency hearing is no more than macho bravado, and I have little time for such people.

Having said this, there is something to being able to hear 10,000 Hz versus only 5000 Hz or 6000 Hz when it comes to music.  This is not always the case- soft jazz bands simply do not generate sufficient high frequency energy above about 5000 Hz or 6000 Hz to make much of a difference.  However, orchestral, pop, and some of the more modern genres with significant high frequency percussive sounds do have energy up around 10,000 Hz.

Reading the literature on this topic is not an easy task.  I just spent several days going over an article by Dr. Brian Moore and his colleagues from the University of Cambridge in the UK[1] And I also spent several more days going back to 2008 and reviewing Dr. Todd Ricketts’ and colleagues work from Vanderbilt University[2] It’s not that these are poorly written articles- on the contrary they are clearly written and concise but that the right answer may depend on so many factors.

Although Dr. Moore and colleagues did touch on music and measured the pleasantness in a paired comparison method, this was not really the concentration of the article, nor was it the focus of Dr. Rickett’s work.  Some of the factors were degree of sensori-neural hearing loss, the configuration (slope) of the audiogram, whether there may be dead regions in the cochlea, and even the type of hearing aid processing.  Whereas Dr. Rickett’s work was based on subjects with more mild hearing losses, Dr. Moore’s work had more subjects with more significant hearing losses.  The measurement techniques were rather different as well.  Nevertheless some things that may apply to music, can definitely be gleaned, albeit indirectly,  from their work.

  •  If the hearing loss in only mild and the configuration of the audiogram is relatively flat, then there are advantages to providing as much high frequency amplification as possible given the limitations of modern hearing aids.  There is evidence that some form of compression should be used so that the sudden higher frequency percussive sounds are not too loud for the individual.
  • If the hearing loss is more significant (greater than 55 dB HL) then clinically more may not be better than less.  Dead regions in the cochlea should be suspected if not directly assessed (e.g. use of the TEN (HL)) and typically one may not be able to achieve sufficient high frequency amplification in any event given the limitations of modern hearing aids.
  • Steeply sloping sensori-neural hearing losses should also be suspect and again, more may not be better than less.  In cases such as this, depending on many factors, a more narrow band response may be judged to be more pleasant.

So, more is not always better when it comes to music, but it may be if the hearing loss is relatively mild and the configuration is relatively flat.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. (Moore, Fullgrabe and Stone, Ear and Hearing, 2011, 32, 5, 556-568).
  2. Ricketts, Dittberner, and Johnson, Journal of Speech Language Hearing Research, 2008, 51, 160-172).

About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.