skullcandy women

Do women really have different ears to men?


When we heard that popular audio manufacturer Skullcandy had unveiled a set of headphones designed specifically for women at the CES gadget jamboree in Las Vegas this week, the big red bell of patronising bullwarks sounded in the office. According to reports, Skullcandy says that these magic cans are “finely tuned and engineered specifically for [women]”, who apparently have more sensitive ears than men.

Never one to simply disparage claims on appearance, however, I asked audio expert Steve Elsworth whether or not there might be something in Skullcandy’s spiel? As the one-time lead lecturer at Cape Audio College, Content Acquisition Manager at Spinlet, DJ and producer at Red Bull of top bands so cutting edge I haven’t even heard of them (my CD collection is fairly sparse for bands post 1997), Elsworth knows what he’s talking about here.

“There is a lot of scientific evidence that women have more sensitive ears than men,” Elsworth explained, “Generally speaking, they prefer background noise of around 24dB, for example, while men tend to prefer noise levels around 30dB.”

So next time you have an argument with your partner about how loud the TV should or shouldn’t be, in other words, it might well be that each of you really is hearing something different or has a biological reason for wanting it turned up or down.

Elsworth speculates that the reason for this may be cultural, and related to the fact that men have traditionally taken jobs in noisier environments, such as building sites and factories, that are louder. Whatever the reason, however, men lose out in the end.

“Men are more comfortable with louder sounds,” he explains, “And as a result tend to lose their hearing earlier.”

Even if there is some scientific evidence that men and women do have different audio preferences, Elsworth remains sceptical about using this as the basis for headphone design.

“In studio production,” he says,”Men and women both look for speakers and headphones that have a flat frequency response above all else. You want to be sure that they aren’t distorting the sound at any frequency, and that what you’re listening to is as close to the original as possible, and that means headphones that cost R15 000 or more… it would be very hard at the R300 to R1000 price point to engineer headphones that are perfectly engineered for anything.”

The goal of good headphone design is to flatten the 'Fletcher-Munson curve' which shows how different frequencies are perceived at different volumes. According to Elsworth, if you print it out, turn it upside down and shine a light behind it it makes more sense. Also, it looks like a bit like Table Mountain.

The goal of good headphone design is to flatten the ‘Fletcher-Munson curve’ (above) which shows how different frequencies are perceived at different volumes. According to Elsworth, if you print it out, turn it upside down and shine a light behind it it makes more sense. Also, it looks like a bit like Table Mountain. (Image – Wikipedia)

In other words, ladies, if it’s the best audio experience you’re after the advice is the same as it’s ever been. Spend your money wisely on a set of headphones that’s has the best sound quality by technical measures as you can afford, and if they’re too loud, turn the volume down. Be very sceptical about jargony claims about gender-specific engineering.

If you do want the best, Elsworth recommends these. Just try not to look at the price tag.

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