Sunday, January 17, 2010

Audio Fitness & Ear Health for the iPod'ing Athlete: In Ear Phones + Custom Sleeves

You're going deaf and it's your ipod+gym's fault. The volume needed to crank the phones on a pod to counter act the noises of the environment usually verges on or goes beyond 80db's. That's not good. In fact it's actually bad. And the rate of youth hearing impairment has gone up so much in the era of the iPod, that the EU is freaking out.

The typical ear bud phone (like the one that comes with ipods) is a big part of where the blame sits, as it sits right beside the ear canal, thus having to crank the volume to be heard - over other competing sounds.

Isolation from the Noise Environment.

There is a fix. It's earphones that support noise isolation. This approach is different than noise cancelation, done by batteries and mics on headphones. Noise isolation is simply achieved by blocking off a great deal of incoming sound into the ear.

The usual method is to use an "in ear" or "canal" headphone design, rather than having something sitting beside the ear canal, ie ear buds. Simply think: earbuds = bad. In ear phones = much better. These enable the ear, effectively, to be plugged, isolating one's hearing from the outside noises; focusing on inner audio peace. The consequence of these monitors is also awesomely that the actual volume of the music can then be turned DOWN substantially. And thus, one's ears are getting the same audio experience at lower decibles. That's critical.

Another plus is that audio quality can improve with better isolation and less drive. This one change can make an audio system feel like new, and a better quality new (more on this elsewhere)

IEM's - In Ear Monitors - the rich variety of type and price
There are numerous types of these headphones now available. Here's a sample listing. The best solution is (of course) a custom made "in ear monitor" designed to fit just YOUR ear. You'll see stage musicians using such monitors rather than those big black speakers facing towards them on stage. More recently, these IEMs have taken off in the audiophile space for simply great listening.

Aside: Indeed, good 'phones and a good headphone amp is a great way to get audiophile audio experience at literally or proportionally a tenth of the price. And if you haven't tried that, and you love music, you owe it to yourself. Here's an entire article on high fidelity on the cheap (another passion of mine)
But even saying you got yourself this little piece of audio heaven like these awesome custom made ACS T2's, would you want to use these in the gym? Or out and about? Maybe not so much.

So how get, good audio and the audio isolation to protect one's hearing?
A great solution to bring out the best of great audio and excellent hearing protection isolation in a package that is gym safe is to combine some decent off-the-shelf in ear phones with custom sleeves.

Enter Etymotic Research and ACS. Delighted was i to learn that my fave get around in ear phones, the Etymotic Resarch 6i's, were being paired (so far just in the UK/EU) with such custom sleeves via (i have nothing to do with this company). I've reviewed the Ety 6i's and Ety's awesome customer service previously (again, no association with the company).

The sleeves are produced by the UK's Advanced Communication Solutions (again no affiliation other than customer), makers of those awesome T2's that Stephen Fry's been blogging about.

Why i like this particular set up is that the Ety 6i's really are a just-right headphone for the quality audio most of us put on our ipods for regular listening (mp3's of 320kbps or less, or aac of some sort; rarely aiff). The 6i ( i is for iPod) is specifically balanced, especially in the bass, for the iPod. If a person wants more audio oomph while staying true to the sound, then it's time to consider a wee exernal amp to drive the ipod sound, like Robert Gerkhe's, discussed here. But that is not a typical gym set up where you may also be using your ipod with an interval timer, say.

Indeed, the 6i is beyond just alright, especially when considering price, value and function and of course audio quality here. They are so infinitely beyond the phones that come with the ipod, it really is like getting a whole other instrument to hear one's music, but they have an unfussy, robust build that can well handle typical ipod scenarios. Like the gym.

Adding custom sleeves makes a great earphone headset even more resiliant and effective.

Sound Comfort. The advantage of the sleeves is at least two-fold. Of the many of these in-ear stock phones i've sampled, none feels effortless to wear. You do notice them. The Ety's stock sleeves of silicon are likely some of the easiest wearing stock configurations (shown in the white headphones above) and are used by the company's primo Ety 4's as well, but compared to a custom sleeve, well there's no comparison.

The ACS sleeves, shown right in clear and above in colors, is not made of acrylic (like some customs) but a special silicon blend that can be worn all day long (sometimes all night long if one falls asleep to music).

Form = Function. Perhaps more importantly, because they are custom fit, the sleeves do their job as noise isolators better than the non-custom types with that added comfort that makes them really a joy to use, along with the enhanced sense of audio precision. I think i mentioned comfort? They can also be washed, which is great, cuz well, we're talking workouts and sweat here.

How it (the customization + iem purchase) Works
  • First a person orders their custom ety 6i's from the web site's partners. The pack includes the 6i's and a voucher to get the custom moulds done (if you already have 6i's you can get the custom sleeve pack separately)
  • ACS has partnered with a number of audiologists thoughout the UK that will take the ear impressions on presentation of said voucher (yes that's right: an audiologist puts goo into the ear canal that takes the shape of your ear, and from these shapes, the sleeves are fit).
  • Within two weeks, the custom sleeves are deliverd to your door.
  • Swap the ear flanges on the ety's for the custom sleeves.
  • enjoy enjoy enjoy.
Availability beyond the UK. Currently, the Ety/ACS partnership.My understanding in talking with Andy Shiach, head honcho at ACS is that they are working to bring this combo to other countries (like that little one over the pond - something ends in an a...). In the interim there are companies in the US like senssaphonics that will do the sleeves, but prices aren't posted, and you're not getting the combo price. If you do get ear moulds done in another country, ACS can arrange shipping - talk with ACS directly about this.

Other Phones
Personally, for the gym and related to'ing and fro'ing, i think the ety's and the customs are the perfect blend, but you may already have in-ear phones that you love. If you would like to customize these for this comfort, db isolation and enhanced audio zip, you can. As a quick note, ACS does sleeves for most IEMs, too. Here's the page on their site for the info and a list of the brands for which they do customs.

Improving All Parts of Well Being
Working out the physical parts while compromising the vestibular/audio parts is sort of a health contradition, but a lot of us do it: playing our audio to create our own private universe meaning that we have to play it way loud to get the isolation. In ear phones go a long way to redressing the audio overload while improving audio quality. Custom sleeves make that experience that much better - and way more comfortable.

Indeed, in trasit, these are great to wear on trains or planes or the occaisional automobile without being plugged into the 'pod, just for noise isolation. No batteries required.

Again, i'm not remunerated by either Ety or ACS. I do know that they make great products and have awesome customer service. And intiguingly, there's something it seems the UK has put together (with a US partner) in a consumer friendly pacakge ahead of it's US or Euro cousins that is da wee audio bomb - but it a good way.

UPDATE: even more options for iPhone Athlete, via ACS, Ety and the Apple Store

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Sinztah said...

Hi MC,

This article was interesting to me, as a music lover, but raised an interesting question in my mind.

Z-Health seems to espouse that sensory deception or confusion (like the eyes registering a lack of movement when running on a treadmill as the body registers movement) is a Bad Thing.
So, would this not apply to music during a workout as well? Do you not feel that laser-like focus on technique is probable to be lost with an audio distraction? Obviously not to the point of sloppiness necessarily, but I thought both Z and the RKC were very much in favour of the Zen-like total absorbtion in the movement and the technique.

Interested to hear your thoughts, again, great article (as usual).

Piers McCarney

mc said...

Piers, thanks for writing. good questions. here's my speculative reply.

Sure sometimes having audio is a distraction from what is percieved as boring. I personally like to listen to audio books while doing hill intervals on a stationary bike.

When i can control my own audio environment, i tend not to listen to anything directly but tend to have ambient sound on when doing technique focused work.

No doubt you can imagine cases where the environment's sounds are more distracting than helpful, and one's own sounds better facilitate attention?

I'm not sure i'd go with music and movement being a bad thing since much movement is coordinated by music - dance, shamanic ritual. Have you seen the work on music and its uniqueness to humans? Oliver Sacks's work? It seems music is likewise in a special place for our brains. There were studies in the early nineties too about baroque music and mozart on the brain for math. Sacks points at physical benefits.

Whether there's disorientation from having one cut out from the environment it seems is more a potential safety issue - can't hear that large barbell that's been dropped and is rushing towards you - than a vestibular effect.

So since we will get plugged in and since there may even be neurological benefit to music in our training, it seems a good idea not to be made deaf by it.



Sammy said...

Great post, as usual. One caveat, though - the in-ear phones generally need to achieve a pretty good seal in order to properly attenuate outside noise. That's well and good, but if something should yank on those cords - like, say, if you turned your head and reached while your music player is clipped to your opposite hip - it's pretty loud, and might be generating some unhelpful negative pressure in your ear canal.

Secondly, because I gotta ask: what did you play?

mc said...

thank you for dropping by, Sammy,

1) Are you speaking from personal experience or speculating? if your experience what brand? i'd like to know. that's poor design.

most off the shelf IEM's, and the ETY's especially are designed to form a "pretty good seal" without problem; and with the custom sleeves, it just happens, because they fit: they don't have to be squished to make a seal. And some just really can't.

THere's also not a pop especially with flanges or the squishy ear plug types if they get pulled out fast - not that i'd recommend it. The custom sleeves - easy peasy. again, cuz they fit.

can't say anyone i know or have heard reports of any negative experience of these sleeves being inadvertently removed causing a pop or problem. I do know that it can be most unpleasant if you have the custom ones, that fit into the outer ear - someone yanks those out, it is totally no fun - but not with any ear canal problem; it's the outer ear that smarts. Those really fit snugly.

the latter two only in the studio.



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