Echo-y rooms make my brain go ballistic. Whenever I’m having a group conversation in an echo-y room, everybody else seems to understand each other like nothing’s wrong.
Me? I am concentrating like the Dalai Lama. Even so, I can’t make sense of a single sentence. It’s the worst nightmare of my life.
Alright. An echo-y room may not be as bad a getting your arm ripped off and being beaten with the bloody end of it, but it’s bad. Very bad.
Echo is so bad for us H/A wearers simply because hearing aids aren’t as smart as the brain.
With perfect hearing, the brain and both ears do this miraculous teamwork where they talk back and forth to minimize distorted sound in a specific location, and they make sense of it. They do it well. They exchange information even regarding the space in which the sound is taking place.
Unfortunately, the brain cannot talk to our hearing aids directly, so this incredible synergy cannot happen. And it results in poorer speech understanding.
When we say the word ‘back’ for example, the letter ‘b’ is likely to be louder than the letter ‘k’ (try to say it). When you say it in an echo-y room, by the time the ‘b’ sound has stopped bouncing around, you’ve already said ‘k’, which can be quieter than the sound of the letter ‘b’ still alive.
This phenomenon is called masking: the ‘k’ is masked by the ‘b’ sound and it prevents you to hear it. (if you want to learn more on The Basics of Reverberation check out this dated but still relevant article on The Hearing Review).
Multiply the masking effect for multiple words being said at the same time from several different people and you have a recipe for disaster.
What so? Should we surrender and admit defeat to this nasty enemy? No! The secret is in learning to control your environment.
Some rooms are more echo-y than others
That has to do with hard, flat surfaces and high ceilings. Sound bounces off flat surfaces such as concrete, marble and glass, so it takes longer to die. And you keep hearing the delay of the original sound.
To kill the bouncing sound, you need soft surfaces such as large curtains, rugs, and even wooden beams. All these coverings absorb sound, rather than whack it back into the room.
No H/A wearer wants to hold an important conversation in a bare bathroom—tiled walls and floor, glass shower door, mirror, and high ceiling. When we want to really communicate with our friends and family, give us a low-ceilinged library, adorned with plenty of lush rugs and soft drapes. The sound stays between the two people speaking with each other—where it belongs.
On The Hearing Link — a UK charity – you can find a comprehensive list of things that make a difference to the acoustics. Have a look. I think you’ll find this helpful.
Strategies for defeating echo
Now that we know the basics, let me tell you about a few tricks that work for me.
- The bag in the corner and the coats
- Sound panels
The bag in the corner and the coats
You’re visiting a friend who’s just moved to a new house. And you’re having a tea in her nearly empty living room. The echo is unbearable.
Try hanging both of your coats on wall hangers or place them over tall bar stools, or even just over your chairs. And place a bag or two in the empty corners. Get creative. Experiment. Your purpose is to spread soft surfaces around the room. After you try something, say a few words loudly to see if the echo has reduced. If it works, do more of that; if not, try something new. Repeat until you’re comfortable.
These can be a quick and inexpensive way to dramatically reduce the echo in a room, if you don’t have the time, money or inclination to redecorate. Here is an example. Disclaimer: I haven’t tried these personally, but I think they’re worth a shot for the price. If you’ve had success with a different model, let us know in the comments.
I use the app RevMeterPro to measure the echo in a room. If you’re a sound engineer you probably won’t use this app for professional purposes, but I find it very useful to get an indication of the amount of room echo. This app measures the time in ms that it takes to the sound to die (until you can’t hear it anymore).
I find that below 500 ms is okay for my hearing aids. Over 1000 ms is a nightmare. These numbers are not set in stone. Do some experiments, and see what works for you.
How to use it? After the app calibrates, you have to make a trigger sound. I usually clap my hands. Not incredibly scientific, but again, it works to get a general idea.
You can win the echo battle
Next time you are in a situation where echo is winning, here is what you do: you take a step back and analyze the room you’re in to identify what surfaces are contributing most to the nasty echo. Then you take action. Maybe all you need to do is to spread the curtains wide, and that will make a whole lot of a difference.
And when you’re home, try to get rid of the echo in every room. It’s no fun to live in an echo-y house. And if you manage to get rid of it, you’ll be giving your brain a well-deserved spa treatment.
Share your tricks in the comments so others can learn from you, and if you found this article useful, share it too.