Tinnitus, telephones and Skype

I’ve been hearing from the media that a study recently linked mobile phone usage with a higher incidence of tinnitus across all age ranges. I can’t say I’m surprised by the link, and there’s no data yet to suggest whether the link is one of causation or correlation. Either way I can testify to phones generally having a negative effect on hearing.

I worked for six months in a busy call centre around ten years ago. The working environment itself was stressful, but for me the biggest bug-bear outside of the general management and working conditions was that I was going home with my hearing screwed up. The headsets provided were themselves cheap and tinny-sounding, despite being made for the purpose. These headsets were typically one-sided, two-sided sets were discouraged on the basis of being more expensive and cutting the user off from their surroundings making banter or prompts from trainers/management more difficult. Added to all of this, the call quality we experienced varied a lot from unintelligible with lots of loud pops, crackles and squeaks, to being reasonable but missing any treble information, making “s” and “f” phonetics indistinguishable. Fun. Not.

Despite trying to swap sides with the headset, invariably one ear suffered more than the other and I’d go home with the sound of a jet engine pounding away at one or both ears. I learned quickly that walking home alongside traffic and without a Walkman would ease the pain and eventually the noise, but the stress of the working situation made things intolerable and i soon found myself looking for another job.

Since then my experience has coloured my impression of telephony. I came of age in the early-to-middle years of mobile telephone network development in the UK, and grew used to (as well as frustrated by) tinny call quality and dropped words.

It seems daft in this modern era of comparatively cheap data transfer rates that we are still stuck with such terribly call quality. A few years ago I started using Skype on a dialup connection and was astonished by the massive increase in call quality. I could use real headphones or quality hifi speakers and hear the full tonal range of the person i was talking to. Heck, even on tinny laptop speakers the improvement was real. I could distinguish words clearly, and hear the intonations that mark seriousness from sarcasm. I’m pretty sure I’m not suffering significant hearing loss, so I’m even more astonished that it seems nobody else in the world cares about this stuff enough to find out what they’re missing.

Certainly it was a revelation back then as to what kind of call quality is now possible even over the limited analogue bandwidth of a telephone line. So why aren’t the telco’s offering a ‘premium’ service that allows for FM-radio-quality calls at a slightly higher rate, and a choice of more capable hand/headsets to take advantage? Progress doesn’t have to be a race to the bottom in terms of cost. I for one would be happy to snap up such a product and show others what they’re missing.

Which gets me thinking about the iPhone 4 I’m drafting this missive with. Skype has moved on a long way with their high-quality audio codecs, and even on a mobile network there’s more bandwidth available to make things even better. I tried a Skype test call on this handset earlier today, and it was a revelation to hear sibilants and treble detail using just the bog-standard mic and speaker built into the iPhone. I’ve not tried Apple’s FaceTime in the real world yet, but when i do the first thing I’ll be checking is to see that the audio quality is up to snuff.

I only wish the telco’s (and their paying customers) would care enough about hearing things clearly to upgrade their infrastructure to make high-quality full-bandwidth calls a standard offering.  Perhaps then we users wouldn’t find ourselves tempting to turn up the volume (blowing eardrums out in the process) to try to make up for the lack of detail. Perhaps customer satisfaction might increase and hearing damage decrease.

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