The bane of my peaceful, library-like existence has been my upstairs neighbours’ tendency to acquire ever larger and more powerful audio equipment. Four-footed woofers I can handle, but the electronic kind, thumping through walls and ceilings, I can live without.
Why all the thumping? Well, [caution: physics ahead] when sound waves pass through porous materials (like those that make up stud walls), they are only absorbed if the material is thicker or wider than the wavelengths of the sounds in question. Short wavelength high-pitched sounds (at normal volumes) are easily absorbed and deadened by ordinary walls, but longer wavelength bass notes pass through with little impedance.
As I result I have become very familiar with the baselines of popular tunes from the 50’s and 60’s (as well as more Phil Collins than I care to say). Don’t get me wrong, these people’s use of stereo equipment is by no means unreasonable, it is simply an unfortunate fact of physics that my walls transmit those “good vibrations” without the accompanying falsettos. In fact it may be my desire for quiet that is unreasonable in this dinful age. However, I have recently learned that what technology gives, technology can take away.
Enter the noise-cancelling headphones. I don’t know how they do it, but these headphones can tell the difference between ambient and musical noise and then filter out the former to enhance one’s enjoyment of the latter. They are designed and marketed for the business traveller who wishes to escape the noise of public transportation, but obviously they are perfect for the serious reader who doesn’t want her literary world to be intruded upon by the raucous real one.
The headphones I bought (Sennheiser PXC250) specialize in cutting out precisely those tones that I find most annoying, namely the thumping ones. (Higher tones are significantly muted, but not entirely eliminated.) As an added bonus, they also cut out the hum of the various appliances that form the only slightly less annoying background noise of the modern household. And they work whether music is playing or not, so if I’m not in the mood for music, I can still cut out the thump and hum, and revel in the smooth, quiet hiss of the ‘phones. All I can say is, Hallelujah!
There is a slight catch: The headphones require batteries, which are sometimes located in an external pack, sometimes located in the earpieces. Both designs add some bulk and weight, which is unwelcome if you’re already carrying around an arsenal of battery-operated electronic gizmos, but for the aurally sensitive it is worth the hassle. Also, some users report a sense of pressure on the ears that they find unpleasant, but so far I haven’t had a problem with it. Finally, the higher-end brands can get pretty pricey; silence is golden indeed. My Sennheisers are reasonably priced, however, and the brand in general has a crisp, balanced sound that is perfect for classical (and not bad for the The Cure either).
So no more moldy oldies, no more six o’clock news, no more computer noise for that matter. Now, with the flick of a switch I can escape to the world between my ears and between the pages of a book. Aaaaahhhhhh…..