Thursday, 18 January 2018

Look, Ma! No wires…!

I know it’s a little late in the month for an epiphany; but – despite its tardiness in not only time, and some other dimensions – Tuesday morning was the occasion for a rather remarkable and personal one.

I have written on here, before, about my struggles with increasing deafness: particularly my hard-won aural relationship with music and theatre. I have also detailed how – in the process of enabling these acts; of wringing out every single gram of what is left of my hearing… – I have begun to morph into something of a cyborg.

Until Tuesday, all of my efforts had been based around maximizing the amount of sound entering my head through my ears: either via my hearing aids, or with various combinations of headphones and amplification. My latest (and longest-lasting) setup (sans hearing aids) – after much experimentation; and taking into account the recommendations and experiences of those also ‘deaf’ – consists of a pair of AudioMX AX‑05 circumnaural headphones, plugged into a FiiO K5 desktop headphone amplifier: into which itself was slotted FiiO’s Alpen 2 DAC and headphone amplifier (which could therefore also be used on its own outside the house); and into which (finally) was piped (or, rather, cabled) the sound from my iPhone (on which I keep all my Apple Music playlists).

I have always used the headphones wired into one (or both) of the two FiiO amps, even though they can connect to my iPhone via Bluetooth. (Sadly, in this latter case, the sound they produce is just too weak.) And I shall probably continue to do so where the greatest clarity and fidelity is required (e.g. for writing programme notes; CD reviews, etc.) – especially as there is still quite a bit of ‘headroom’ remaining, as regards volume/loudness. (Although, one day, I may well have to wear headphones – belt-and-braces fashion – over my hearing aids….)

Nonetheless, I had always hoped (especially for more ‘casual’ listening: e.g. whilst I write this blog) to be able to reduce the bulk of equipment both sitting on my desk (currently the dining table…) and (especially) required to carry about (e.g. for when I am sitting in one of the booths of Susie’s Cafe Bar, at The Other Place): looking for a reasonably faithful solution a great deal more convenient, more portable, more usable. As well as trying out my current ‘cans’ with the cord cut, I have been beta-testing a pair of Olive “next‑gen hearing aids” (also connected to my iPhone using Bluetooth). Although these are promising, there are too many technical issues negating everyday usage: especially the fact that the battery life will never get anywhere near the six or seven days I obtain from my current NHS-issued ‘instruments’. (As mentioned previously, I do have a streaming device associated with my hearing aids: but I find it much more useful for speech, than music.)

If only I could – like the great majority, with their hearing intact – just slip something onto my head (whilst, perhaps, keeping my hearing aids bunged into my ears, and my glasses perched on them). If only there was something that weighed around an ounce: that (like my aids) I could forget I was wearing. If only there was something that gave my iPhone a direct line to my brain (or at least my cochleae)! [Of course, if it could bypass the faulty wiring that shares partial responsibility (and reprehensibility?) for my duff hearing – with increasing age and faulty genes – that would be even better! One day, perhaps….]

Well, two(-and-a-half) out of three ain’t bad! Step forward the now-I-look-like-Geordi La Forge-with-my-VISOR-on-backwards Aftershokz Air (right): which uses bone-conduction technology to get around most of my failing aural components. I’ve known of bone-anchored hearing aids (BAHA) – and had bone-conduction hearing tests – as long as my hearing has required assistance…. But have had enough surgery to last a lifetime, thank you. Now, without any scalpel-led involvement, I can have titanium on the outside of my noggin, as well!

It was a recommendation from an audiologist friend, fully aware of how my hearing works (or not), that prompted their well-researched and somewhat hesitant purchase (a large-ish chunk of that extra £550 a month we disabled have to pay in additional living costs…). I thus found myself, on Tuesday morning – as you may well have guessed, by now – unwrapping them with the prudent precision of my hero Gil Grissom: utterly convinced that I would be disappointed (yet again), and would have to send them back for a refund (and not for the first time).

But, here I am (as of late Tuesday afternoon) – having listened to “the greatest symphony ever written”; the same composer’s Piano Concerto no.21; and a selection of the incidental music from NCIS – thoroughly immersed; the volume only set just over halfway, with not a touch of equalization; finally de-wired from my iPhone and the dining table. I also have the, for me, unheard of joy of being able to discern what is going on around me. No longer do I need to message the rest of the household (unless I resort, temporarily, to my ‘connected’ headphones – which I will, of course, when the occasion warrants it), or stick signs up (top), warning them that I will not be able to hear them approach (which can be incredibly disconcerting: it often appearing to me that they have just beamed down from the Enterprise)!

I can even – a luxury that will take a while to get used to… – wander around the house, leaving my iPhone behind – and still hear the music loud and clear! And, who knows, one day soon, I may even attempt to try out the actual phone functionality of my iDevice: using the Air’s “dual noise-cancelling” microphones – something, that, for the other five-sixths of the UK population, is their normality; but which, for me, will be a quite monumental novelty….

I feel like I’ve finally made it – audially – into the twenty-first century. Who knew it sounded quite so conveniently good?!

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