Synaesthesia and noise-cancelling headphones.

16 October 2014

I've never really gone out of my way to publicize the fact that I'm a synesthete - my senses are cross-wired in ways that aren't within the middle of the bell curve. In particular, my sense of hearing is directly linked to my senses of sight, touch, proprioception, and emotional state. As one might expect, this causes a few problems in day to day life - I can't go to concerts without wearing earplugs because I shut down from sensory overload, and too much noise makes it nearly impossible to see (and thus, get anything done). The new office at work poses a particular problem because it has an open floor plan, and lots of hard and polished surfaces. This makes background noise extremely difficult to deal with because everything echoes and rattles. I'm not the only person at work who's been having trouble due to the noise, either. To help with the noise problem while still allowing us to do what we need to do (including teleconferencing) they bought each of us a pair of Bose QC-25 Noise Cancelling Headphones, which are both incredibly expensive and very helpful.

When I first put them on I was shocked that I could hear absolutely nothing at all, as if I'd put custom-made silicone rubber earplugs in. It was as if everything had suddenly gone away - like a switch had been thrown inside my head. My vision cleared, no phantom sensations... is this what it's like to have a baseline sensory cortex?

Flipping the switch on the side of the headphones to activate the noise cancelling features resulted in even deeper silence with nothing playing through them. I can't be sure but I think the noise cancellation mechanism was filtering out the sound of my breathing, or at least the experimentation I did seems to suggest this. There is quiet, and there is dead silence. These headphones seem to manufacture the latter. As for using them as headphones I'm extremely impressed with the clarity, range, and depth of the sound they generate. Old favorites sound wonderful and new music sounds crisp, clear, and attention-grabbing. These headphones even seem to do a certain amount of noise cancellation and cleanup of whatever sound you run through them; I listened to a couple of old bootlegs from the mid-1980's and they're remarkably clearer. The tape hiss and crackle from age are almost completely gone, which brings out the music and vocals much more sharply. I noted that I was listening to those bootlegs with the volume much lower than usual, and got much more out of the experience at the same time. On the whole, it is significantly easier to concentrate at work now and I find myself much more productive while wearing them because there is significantly less distraction that I have to filter out. They feel great, too - the QC-25's are very light, have earcups large enough to fit over one's ears with room to spare, and do not seem to trap heat and cause uncomfortable sweating. The QC-25 also has a built in voice activated microphone and a standard 4-pin, 2.5mm headphone/microphone plug for a smartphone which works just fine in a regular headphone jack. I know there are some laptops out there which have a smartphone-style combo jack, but Windbringer is not one of them so I can't attest to how well the microphone works. I haven't tried it on my phone yet, so I can't speak to how well it works for teleconferencing.

I think I've fallen in love with this set of headphones, and I'm considering buying a pair for myself.