Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Today I met the founder and president of Sensaphonics, Michael Santucci. He is a hearing conservation expert and audiologist. He is one of the few audiologists who work with the music industry. The relationship is interesting. Hearing conservation is about protecting your ears from continued exposure to loud sounds in order to preserve your hearing. He told us that baby boomers have a higher rate of hearing loss than senior citizens, probably because of devices such as portable music devices. He shows us pictures of a healthy inner ear and a damaged inner ear and had the same effect on my as the healthy lung and smoker lung photos we often see.

The traditional logic behind headphones and earphones is to increase the volume of the music reaching your ears for better sound. The brain compensates for background noise so, as most people have experienced, music in your car stereo suddenly sounds loud when you come to a stop and the background noise disappears. The damage to your ear is based on the total amplitude of the sound, whereas the perceived loudness of the signal is based on the amplitude above the background noise.

One way to have great earphones and not lose your hearing is to isolate and block the outside sound. Then you can listen to music at much lower volumes and it will still sound loud and clear. This protects your hearing while providing super high fidelity.

This is the theory behind the Shure E2cs and the E5cs that I've written about before. Michael takes this a step further and replaces the ear plugs that come with the Shures and replaces them with custom silicon molds. Sensaphonics also makes their own earphones.

Today, my second cousin Cornelius and I got molds taken of our ears. They are going to send me their ProPhonic Soft 2X earphones as well as molds that will work with my E5cs. They're also going to send me the TC-1000-totally-overkill ear set and the Elacin/Sensaphonics ER-9/15/25 high fidelity earplugs. I look forward to my future ear-mold-a-rama lifestyle, comparing the E5cs with the Sensaphonics and protecting my hearing.


Earphones are also used to listen to music without disturbing others. In most circumstances, I would want to hear outside noises. The next step would be earphones that adjust themselves to environment... if the environment is noisy, it dampens the environment; if it's quiet around you it turns down the music. And the fantasy technology would be one that could cancel out, say, plane engine noise while allowing conversations to be overheard :D

Don't these sealed-in earphones have the outside risk of blowing out your eardrums if the volume gets suddenly cranked up? This is a pretty common occupational hazzard for rock musicians who use stage monitor earphones.

At least you're starting to get some free swag from your blog.

color me skeptical. I'm sure the headphones are great, but the bad headphones as the main cause for hearing loss among baby boomers theory is pretty sketchy when it comes from someone running a alternative headphone company...

Really lets think about it. The Baby Boomers where the generation that saw Dylan put down an acoustic guitar and pick up an electric one. They are the first generation to listen to heavily amplified music. Rock shows, feedback, marshall amps cranked to 11. Then 20 years later some of them went and bought walkmen. And occasionally they actually used the walkmen for themselves rather then giving them to their kids.

Now I don't doubt that bad headphones are bad for your hearing. But to say that it's the probable cause of baby boomer hearing loss is pretty distorted I think. The baby boomers are the generation of rock concerts and jet engines, then at the tail end of their reign, 1979, about the time the average baby boomer was onto child 1.2 or so, the walkman came around and headphone use shot up.

Taking it to a more anecdotal level, my dad is a baby boomer whose hearing is going and I've never seen him touch a pair of headphones. In fact you don't see a huge amount of people in his generation wearing headphones at all. Some joggers, an occasional commuter. But they sure don't seem to be wearing headphones the way the 12-35 demographic is...

So basically, the upper-end output capacity of these earphones are much lower than other headphones which boast "bigger is better". It's physically impossible to produce more than their maximum output volume without distortion. Since your brain in isolation hears these sounds as louder than you would hear them without isolation, it is unlikely that you would blast them at that volume. In addition, damage occurs primarily as sustained loundess over time and short bursts of loudness cause less damage unless it is quite intense.

This company also does testing for hearing loss as part of their business and the do regular checkups for musicians on whether they are losing their hearing. They deal with occupational hearing loss issues and their primary products are ear plugs, not earphones. The founder is first and foremost a hearing conservation expert who is now working with audio people. So, at least, from his presentation, I trust Michael on this.

Nils. Yes. The outside noise thing is true. Their earplugs address this issue. They are popular because they have a flat frequency range for sound reduction while things like foam earplugs dampen much more high end than low end. Therefore, you can't hear what people are saying. The earplugs that they sell allow you to still hear what people are saying while lowering the overall volume evenly. They do some fancy acoustics to get this to work.

Yes. I agree that headphones are not the only thing that probably killed baby boomer ears. Rock concerts, occupational noise, etc. probably contributed too. Basically, there is more noise today than in the past, I assume. More reason to be nice on your ears.

Michael also talked about a Japanese study that showed that your inner ear recovery to loud sounds corrolated to blood circulation and that they showed smoking increased the risk of hearing loss.

He also pointed out that listening to loud sounds was one of several reasons for hearing loss including genetics.

He also talked about some interesting industry guildlines about how many decibels you could listen to for how long before damage was likely to occur. Obviously, the louder the shorter, but again, it was the sustained listening to loud noises that fatigued the inner ear and caused sensor cells to die.

An alternate technology is the active sound canceling. I've tried several of these, ending up with the very expensive Bose as the only ones that I found comfortable after hours of continuous use. (I tried the in ear plugs and found them irritating, especially in flight. Perhaps a custom fit would have dealt with that.) The hard shell around ear provides some passive protection. It also clearly indicates to seat neighbors that you want to be left alone to sleep/work/read.

Active cancelling has a strong track record with protecting hearing of pilots and others subject to loud steady noise sources. It does much worse with highly variable noise sources. For example, I find on airplanes that while it cancels most of the jet and air noise, it does not cancel voices. This is good for hearing announcements, etc. It is bad in that I hear all the banal conversations going on around me.

What's wrong with getting a hearing aid later in life? By the time we get old enough to need them, we'll be able to tatoo them onto our ear drums.

Would it be possible to blog roll me or add a link to my site please? I can link to your blog in return. It would generate more hits for both of us. My url is

Pah. What you wanna protect your hearing for? I'm deaf and it's cool. Being able to hear is overrated. You wouldn't believe the number of times hearies say to me "You're so lucky you can't hear, this noise is driving me NUTS!". Smile...

Take a look at , their ER-4's are superb, and their Ety-Com earbud/mic for cell phones are over the top.


Joi, I'm so jealous that you and Michael were able to meet!

He called me when he got back to Chicago and told me about the meeting. Very exciting. Michael is truly a pioneer in pro audio hearing conservation. He's the only one of his kind right now - an audiologist who caters to famous musicians and also makes custom earphones.

I can't want to hear your thoughts on his products. To me they are incredible.


Hi Joi,

It was a pleasue meeting you and thanks for the kind comments about Sensaphonics efforts to raise awareness about hearing loss prevention. I wanted to address some of the comments that your blog of our meeting has generated.
First of all, I did not mean to imply that unsafe headphone use was the main factor in the increases in baby boomers hearing loss. In fact, as Abe said, personal listening devices weren't very popular for young baby boomers as they are for today's young listeners (cellphones, personal stereos etc..) Coupled with an increasingly louder world, we're concerned that noise induced hearing loss will reach epidemic proportions in the near future. Currently, there are around 28 million Americans with hearing loss and about 20 million of this group has been affected by loud sound exposure.
As for the comment on hearing aids, although new 24 bit digital technology is now available, and some hearing aids include microphones that switch pick-up patterns for noisy situations automtically, the users of these hi-tech devices will tell you they aren't as happy with these devices as they were with as their original hearing. It's not often that replacement parts are as good, or better, than the original ( especially body parts!)

Thanks again. I'm looking forward to your comments once you receive product.

Best Wishes,
Michael Santucci

Hey Matt, Michael. Thanks for stopping by.

Thanks for the clarification Michael.

I definitely look forward to trying your products. ;-)

I love the sensaphonics in-ears in the headphones (2X), the earplugs, and the in-ear headset for both clear-com and my cell-phone. It's a great system, and really for the price is well-worth it. I've worn my headset for 8 hours solid without a single problem on many occasions, and I truly think they are the best in the market.

Also, their ability to reproduce sound in a small transducer is amazing.



I am a novice with these headphones and am looking for the best Shure model to use on a plane to drown out exterior noise. I am not an audiophile and typically listen to audio books on my MP3 player. Is it worth buying the E5c over the E2c for this purpose? The more noise I can drown out in the background, the better.




Although it may sound a bit corny, I in reality like looking after my hearing and whilst I do agree with the preceding poster and I really hope I do not get shot down for saying this, but I think it is essential to take all things in moderation.