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Hearing What's Not There

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Man 'stabbed himself to death' after Them Crooked Vultures gig gave him tinnitus
.... went the screaming headline from a few days ago. For a moment, I thought it was some sort of Onion-esque black humor, but it was apparently very real. And very tragic.


The early morning sun cascades through the floor-to-ceiling windows of my art studio loft and across my bed. But I am already awake, with a sudden deaf-making level of pounding and ringing in my ears. Overcome with extreme nausea, I shut my eyes tightly to ward off the wild spinning effects of the room around me. Within seconds, I realize that I have lost control of the left side of my body. My partner almost instantly awakens and, immediately sensing the gravity of the situation, summons paramedics who arrive, I am to later learn, within minutes, although time has slowed agonizingly for me. I am barely aware of hurtling through a concrete passageway as dry heaves incessantly rack my body. In the hours to come, when I once again open my eyes, the medication has settled in, but the persistent, albeit subdued, ringing sounds are overshadowed by a startling, disconcerting intermittent flip-flop of my sight lines, where my field of vision suddenly rotates 90 degrees for a few seconds at a time.

Eventually -- in days, weeks, months -- I regain my speech and use of my body, and am left with a propensity for dizziness whenever I quickly change the position of my head ... and an ongoing, but lessened, ringing in my ears (none of which has responded to any kind of medical treatment).

I am a CVA/stroke survivor.


In another part of my warehouse-cum-art studio building, dear friend L., a visual & performance artist, was a neighbor with a grand space and some luck. She had recently come into an inheritance which afforded her the opportunity to chase her dream of a good audio system.

Happens that L. not only was an intelligent artist with a lot to say, but she had a vivacious personality and was very, very pleasant to look upon. So when I accompanied her to high end audio shops, she had no problem in immediately attracting the attention of salespeople who not only eagerly demonstrated equipment, but set up tests and auditions in her own space. (One, who was also a skilled cabinet maker/carpenter/builder, worked out an arrangement to carve out a special listening room in her large, open studio.) She did go through a number of system iterations, but I recall visiting her space when she had settled on a particular configuration -- what it was, I do not remember, but L. did confide that she spent more for her audio system than she spent on her new SUV. And what was most memorable was that the hearing resembled something akin to a transcendental religious experience. She had rigged things up so that she could listen in a focused way in the smaller dedicated space, but also could send music out into her workspace for background (though L. confessed that she had to curtail that practice as it interfered too much with her work; she was too tempted to drop everything for concentrated listening).

So at this point in time, I was becoming interested in getting nicer sound for myself.

That was not my only brush with better-than-average sound. Once an acquaintance's girlfriend showed up on my doorstep, telling me that she had just left him and needed a place to crash for a bit. I agreed and found myself also helping her pick up some of her belongings at her former residence. Among them was a McIntosh tube receiver and some rather gigantic speakers; the latter we had to leave behind for lack of conveyance. Hooking the Mc up at my apartment was a revelation. At the time, I was running Advent Large Loudspeakers (earlier shopping had left me pretty much with a consistent, standard recommendation: get Quads if you can afford them; get Advents if you are on a beer budget). She ended up leaving the McIntosh with me as a rental offering. I greatly enjoyed it, until its considerable heat and tendency to blow tubes rather frequently got the best of me, so it hit the classifieds.

And, later, after the Advents' woofer surrounds literally crumbled, I came into a set of large Polk Audio RT-something towers via a transaction that came out of a mixed media installation at the art gallery I was then managing. They seemed to do a nicer job of filling the expanse of my loft space with sound, as well. Eventually they joined my vinyl record collection in desert storage, while I found myself transitioning to a newer life in northwardly mountain territory.


My dear wife complains that I turn the TV volume too high, especially when BBC dramas come on. So I tear into my basement storage boxes and locate my vintage Sennheiser 424 headphones, and ... another epiphany ... English accents can be easily deciphered and TV sounds in general take on much more depth and substance, all at a WAF-acceptable level. By that time, I had rather accidentally come upon a going-out-of-business sale at a hi-fi shop and walked out with an unplanned NAD T750. So I put it in 2-channel/bypass mode and drove the Polks, eventually hooking up to the TV. However, the Polks didn't seem to sound that great unless run at volumes inappropriate to our now-small listening/viewing area.

So I found myself mostly listening to music on my PC in my tiny basement home office, via headphones. While browsing at a newsstand for music reviews in Stereophile, among other magazines, I chanced upon a piece on soundcards. I had already discovered that FLACs really did sound a lot better than MP3s, that my iPod Nano sounded a lot better with some Grado earbuds than the ridiculous insults that Apple packaged, and that my daughter's Sansa player sounded even better than the Nano. That Stereophile review propelled me to go off the deep end and get an ASUS Xonar Essence for my home office Win7 machine (easily installed under the WAF radar). Then taking a Canadian friend's advice, I allowed a replacement for the 424s with some Russian Fischer FA-002 headphones. To my astonishment, I could hear music and temporarily lose focus on the omnipresent ear-buzz. I started using headphones for everything, and tested and upgraded to a series of Grado, Fischer and other IEMs, as well. I even happened to read an Amazon user review of Sennheiser HD650 headphones by someone who said that his particular tinnitus could recede into the background while listening with them!


I do love listening with headphones from time to time, but music is too good not to share, especially with one as delightful as my spouse (She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed references aside), so a period of intense research ensued to find something appropriate both to our small room and my even smaller budget. I am pleased to say that my gamble on the NAD 316BEE, PSB Image B6's, and accoutrements seem to have succeeded in keeping the ringing in my ears at bay. Or it is more like an effect of somehow setting the ringing to the "side" while listening, not really being conscious of it until I remind myself that it is an unwanted fact of my life. (Sometimes, rarely -- perhaps once every six or nine months, I experience a few seconds of astonishing, almost otherworldly SILENCE. But the ringing always returns. Worse when I am especially tired. Sometimes it disturbs sleep, but judging from other victims I know, I seem to have a rather mild case. Certainly nothing to trigger suicide.

So this is one of the reasons I claim non-audiophile status. Not only do I lack experience in hearing what might be possible to be heard, but I have a certain noise floor that has to be overcome (or it seems, to be psychologically set aside). So I tell myself that higher end equipment would be wasted on me, but I still harbor some curiosity about whether the FLAC vs. MP3/Sansa vs. Nano/etc. "effect" I *think* I discovered might extend beyond my present scenario ...

And in the meantime, I am reading Oliver Sacks (try Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, from the same author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat) and wondering if any CA readers have a similar perverse condition and wish to share experiences.

Have a good day.
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  1. Paul R's Avatar
    Great Essay!

    Good audio setup too. :)

  2. mitchco's Avatar
    Awesome article curmudgeon! Respect.

  3. dave_kiwi's Avatar
    co-incidence. Was just reading about "Them Crooked Vultures" and tinnitus in one of the papers I read.

    These guys must play real loud - like turn it up to "12".

    My father is a multiple stroke / heart attack survivor - and has always had a lasting love for music. I believe whole heartily, that one of the things that helped him recover in the very early stages (i.e. while in hospital) was listening to some of his favorite CDs on a small CD Discman.

    Today he is still very much involved in listening and buying (heh much to my mothers chagrin) CDs / amplifiers and it's this that keeps him going .. without this love, I serious believe he would of deteriorated significantly.