Feature Articles & Reviews
The Single Best Investment You Can Make to Upgrade Your Sound Today and the Journey It Took to Learn the Lesson the Hard Way
It was a Saturday morning. I woke up late. The left side of my head was buried in the pillow, but I could see the sun was up. I concentrated, hoping, searching. Please, Lord, let something come through.
Nothing. I couldn’t hear.
I raised my head from the pillow and found I could still hear a little bit out of my left ear -- kind of like the sound you get when you wear earmuffs. If I really focused on it and turned my left ear toward my wife, her voice came through. But turn on the TV and I couldn’t understand a word. Music was unintelligible. It was as if someone had plugged up my head with gooey silicon -- nothing got in or out. All I could imagine was those tiny, delicate hair cells that line my inner ears disintegrating, and with them one of the primary joys of my life: listening to music. It was the weekend -- I couldn’t get to my trusted PA. I decided to get aggressive.
Many of you have probably suffered a similar problem. I’d been hit hard by spring allergies. My sinuses were a mess, and the mucus had backed up all the way into my tympanic cavity. Central Texas isn’t the worst place in North America for spring allergies, but its levels of mold and cedar are enough to keep a substantial portion of the population suffering for weeks. For most of my life, I’ve considered it a mere annoyance. This year, something bad had happened -- all that pollen had irritated my sinuses badly enough that they’d clamped down on the monkey-glue-thick mucus that had accumulated all the way back to my eardrums, and now it just sat there, festering. Usually, when you get backed up like that, moving your mouth around will eventually open it up, and for the first few weeks that had worked. But as time went on, I was spending more time clogged and less time open. Eventually, I was clogged up 24/7.
A doctor friend told me that sometimes the problem is exacerbated by earwax building up in the auditory canal. That wax, called cerumen, is usually soft and, er, waxy, and works its way out of your ear canal when you move your jaw. An ear syringe loaded with warm water can help to remove wax from the ears of the substantial minority of people who produce excessive cerumen. But sometimes, the cerumen hardens into little concrete-like plugs.
An organic farmer told me to use a neti pot to liquefy the goo from the nostril side of the problem. OK. I dutifully sauntered over to the nearest grocery (11.5 miles, thank you very much) and bought two items: a little blue ear syringe and a big translucent nasal syringe. Back home, I heated a gallon of distilled water to 100 degrees, split it, and added a tablespoon of white vinegar to the ear side and a tablespoon of salt to the nasal concoction. The 100 degrees is important: You want it to be about body temperature. After leaning over a sink and performing 20 minutes of gentle ear irrigation, I’d managed to get my auditory canals pretty darn clean. (You’ll see small bits of evidence of your success -- proof that the process is working.)
But I still couldn’t hear. A nurse friend recommended pouring hydrogen peroxide in my ears. If you’ve never tried that, I can promise you a truly bizarre experience. Imagine the aural equivalent of filling your mouth with pop rocks and taking a swig of Mountain Dew. It felt vaguely like sound. Hallelujah! The peroxide had eaten through the outer layer of cerumen!
But I still couldn’t hear. Attacking the problem via the outer ear hadn’t worked. Time to try working from the inside.
Out came the big, translucent nasal syringe. Those who use a neti pot will understand the principle: Pour water into one nostril and it will flood your sinus cavities, hopefully cleaning them of any irritants. The water then exits wherever it can, which means your other nostril or your mouth. Yummy. The syringe trumps the neti pot by adding pressure. I was so desperate for relief, I added a lot of pressure. When that didn’t work, I thought the best strategy would be to seal one nostril and add some pressure, figuring that would force the water into the outer extremities. Big mistake. It felt as if that stomach-busting scene in Alien was taking place inside my head.
But I still couldn’t hear.
Music is a vital force in my life, but so is sound itself. The idea of losing the ability to walk around and hear birds, and tree branches swaying in the wind, drove me to tears. I know -- lots of people have it much worse. But there was no respite. No combination of chewing gum, yawning, and standing on my head gave me even momentary relief. The worst part was that I didn’t have a clue how bad it was. Time for professional help.
Doctors frighten me -- they so seldom have good news to tell. I prepared myself for the worst. I spent several days endlessly reinforcing my fears by reading Internet sites. The worst prognosis was always permanent hearing damage. Health.com warned, "The fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear, allowing viruses or bacteria to grow and cause infection." Sinusinfectionhelp.com was even bleaker: "but when sinus infection and Eustachian Tube Dysfunction do occur simultaneously, early treatment is the best route. A quick trip to the doctor can nip things in the bud before any damage to hair cells of the inner ear occur which can lead to some permanent hearing loss."
Finally, I explained my problem to my long-trusted practitioner, whose name, appropriately, is Sunny. She gave me a consoling smile and said she could help me. She began by delicately probing my auditory canals with an otoscope, and pronounced them quite dirty.
What? I’d spent 20 minutes the day before cleaning them out, and had proof of the efficacy of the treatment.
"Well, I have to get a look at that eardrum, and I can’t see it. It’s covered with cerumen."
In came the nurse, with a big squeeze bottle with a long tube and a soft proboscis. One held a tray under my ear, and the other began firing squirts into my ear. I couldn’t see what was happening, but the discussion had me cackling uncontrollably.
"Oh my, look at the size of that!"
"Can you believe there’s more?"
In went the otoscope again. "I still can’t see it. Keep going."
"I really cleaned them vigorously yesterday," I said. "In fact, I have good hygiene. Honestly."
"There’s a huge chunk. Maybe you can see it now."
"No, still too much blockage. Hand me the curette."
A curette is a little spoon with a long handle that professionals use to dig out recalcitrant chunks of extrahard cerumen. Do not try this at home.
Sunny looked at me. "I usually only see that kind of smile on children. What happened?"
Indeed, I was beaming. I could hear. And not only could I hear, I was hearing high frequencies I hadn’t heard in years. Decades, maybe.
My problem wasn’t completely resolved. Once Sunny could see my eardrum, she said it was looking concave. That meant there was pressure from a sealed system on the other side. I had acute otitis media, combined with eustachian tube dysfunction, which still was blocking some of my hearing.
The treatment included several steps. First was a steroid shot to quell the swelling throughout my sinuses and eustachian tubes. Next, I began a nasal steroid that had helped enrich Melanie Griffith’s life. Sudafed PE every four hours. Nasal irrigation twice a day. But all that was just to get rid of the sludge that had built up in my tympanic cavity. The important part was the miraculous change I experienced from having every last little bit of cerumen removed from my auditory canal.
Before I go into what you can expect from this, let me point out that our bodies create cerumen for a purpose: It effectively protects the tympanic membrane (the eardrum). That delicate little piece of skin must be free to vibrate, but it is also the only thing standing between the outer world and the delicate cochlea/stapes system. Cerumen protects the human ear’s elegant ability to hear.
Still, sometimes taking a chance is worth the risk. I got into my car, which has a medium-good sound system, and dropped in Kat Edmonson’s new CD, Way Down Low (CD, Spinnerette SR 1202). In the first track, "Lucky," the clicks of the marimbas positively jumped out of the speakers. Edmonson’s coquettish, breathy voice sounded so present that I wondered how great it would sound at home. I mashed down the accelerator and set the controls for the heart of my home audio empire.
It was as if every piece of equipment was brand new.
At home with the big system, I continued the female jazz thing with Gretchen Parlato’s The Lost and Found (CD, ObliqSound OSDCD 113). Her song "Henya" is haunting. Again, the breathiness of her voice, the tickling high grace notes on the piano, and the stick pulls across the cymbals -- it all just came to life. The ATC SCM-50 speakers have always done a fantastic job of providing realistic dynamics, but again, it sounded as if some E.T. had landed and made magic on my system while Sunny was flushing out my ears.
Switching to the studio setup, I tried two bands I’d seen earlier that month, and whose live sounds were still fresh in my mind. Lambchop’s Mr. M (CD, City Slang SLANG 50013) is another in a long line of stellar records by Kurt Wagner & Co. His voice is a bit of an acquired taste -- he swallows his words -- but now I could understand him. About three minutes into "Gone Tomorrow," when the band goes into a jazzy break, the air around the instruments opened up the soundstage in a beautiful way.
The other performer we’d seen recently was Mayer Hawthorne. His most recent album, How Do You Do (CD, Universal Republic 2782587), has the best kiss-off song since Cee Lo’s multi-titled hit of 2010. Hawthorne’s "The Walk" manages to be even more poetic as it carefully wraps a perfect beat around his condemnation of his girl’s "shitty fuckin’ attitude." The track is compressed for radio and sounds flat on a high-quality stereo. Still, I love it. It reminds me of what a great live act Hawthorne is. And "The Walk" now sounded better than ever.
That’s the great thing about these new ears -- everything sounds better. I encourage my fellow reviewers to try the treatment and be amazed by the improvements.
I respect folks who can tease out the subtleties of a $3000 power cord and pronounce it a bargain. I haven’t yet learned how to do that. But there are items we all lust over that clearly make big sonic differences: speakers, turntables, preamps, headphones, microphones. All cost substantial amounts of money, but none offers the staggering improvement that can happen when your doctor lavages your auditory canal and then, with otoscope and curette, completely cleans your ear, down to bare skin. In the US, the average cost of this treatment is about $75.
I trust my life and all parts of it to the people who cleaned my ears. If you, like me, are lucky enough to have a really great GP, just let them do it. But not all doctors are created equal. If you live in a city large enough to have an opera company, call and ask for the name of their house ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat) physician. If not, ask your own favorite doctor for a referral to an ENT.
I promise you who are serious about sound that nothing will more improve the sound of your system, or of your music in general, than a good, thorough ear cleaning. It’s like opening a new world.
. . . Wes Marshall