Unless everyone around you took a vow of silence the moment you were born and you spent the intervening years in a sensory deprivation tank, a sound isolation chamber of some kind, or one of our planet’s rare, ultra-quiet environments, your hearing is already damaged, at least a little. It’s a part of life.
Because our hearing degrades in different ways, we lose different frequencies. If only there were a music player that could figure out each of our shortcomings, and then adjust the playback of our music so that it sounds right again! After all, when we lose frequencies in our hearing, we’re essentially adding frequency distortion to our music. That is bad. The best speakers and headphones strive for an even frequency response across the whole spectrum of human hearing, but all of that goes out the window if your ears have distortion built in, which they do.
Let’s get this out of the way: I believe SoundFocus (free, iOS), a music player app for local music, iTunes Match music (to an extent), and Spotify, to be the first music player in the world that first tests your hearing, then adjusts its sonic output to make up for the inevitable shortcomings of your particular ears. It’s just that, having been burned too many times, I never use the word “first” in a headline without quotation marks, so that’s what those are about.
SoundFocus is “the world’s first music player that tunes to your hearing,” according to its creators, led by SoundFocus CEO Alex Selig, who himself suffers from hearing impairment.
First, you test your hearing acuity, roughly speaking, in three zones — lows, mids, and highs. The little note blobs around the circle represent tones:
Perhaps because I use good headphones, and because my hearing is okay, I clocked in at the lowest (i.e. most sensitive) setting for all three, meaning that SoundFocus won’t do much for me, although it is a great music player in its own right. That said, it does prove another point — that this app could help you deal with crappy headphones or speakers, even if your hearing is good.
Then you can play your iTunes music in the app, with the SoundFocus equalizer turned on, which — if your ratings differ between high, mid, and low in the previous tests — will adjust the frequencies to make up for where your ears, headphones, or speakers aren’t as sensitive.
In addition to everything on your phone and in your Apple iTunes Match account (although it can’t apply its EQ to the cloud-stored songs), SoundFocus includes artist radio stations using Spotify’s catalog, if you’re a premium subscriber, programming the artist stations using technology from The Echo Nest (publisher of Evolver.fm). You also get access to all your Spotify on-demand tracks. SoundFocus can work its EQ magic on Spotify songs, just not on iTunes Match songs, so we recommend turning off iTunes Match in your iOS settings if you’re going to use this app as your main player.
Finally, you get a fairly sensitive EQ with presets for overcoming the limitations of small speakers, boosting bass, and a custom 10-band one too, which could be reason enough to use this great-looking app, even if your hearing is perfect:
Overall, we found SoundFocus’s promise to be solid, and it surely works wonders for those whose ears are insensitive to high, middle, or low frequencies in general. However, it’s just not detailed enough to be useful for those of us with (updated: mild) partial hearing loss, which is, like, everybody, as mentioned.
Some sort of sine wave filter sweep through the entire hearing spectrum would take longer as a test than this “one minute” gauge of how your ears handle bass, mids, and treble — but it would also be better at highlighting the spots in your hearing range that need more volume, so that you get a perceived flat frequency response, even if your hearing is a little jacked up, which it is.
Luckily, Selig tells Evolver.fm that SoundFocus is working on some sort of hardware player (which explains why this app is free — it’s promotional, in a sense). It’s possible that the SoundFocus hardware will offer more detail, which would be good news for the massive percentage of the listening population that has some degree of hearing loss, but doesn’t know it.
However, for those with more significant hearing impairment, this app should help a great deal, and according to the company’s testimonials, it already is.