Looking back it’s quite easy to see how poorly I have dealt with auditory processing throughout my life, whether it be my tendancy to hyperfocus on particular sources or general dislike of crowds. At one extreme there are times where if I’m focused on the audio from a TV I won’t process the words of someone else in the room. My brain will hear the noise but it just registers as background, not a voice or words I need to listen to.
Experiences like that mean I sometimes joke that I’m hard of listening as opposed to being hard of hearing.
At the other end of the extreme though comes overstimulation, times where my brain tries to process every voice in a crowd and is unable to push any into the background. It’s an exhausting, overwhelming and anxiety inducing experience that I can only really mitigate by getting out of the situation. It’s also entirely out of my control, sometimes a crowd of hundreds is fine while other times a dozen people in a relatively small space is too much.
What’s that got to do with gaming though?
Well most of the time RPGs involve people and conversations and with the return of in person conventions larger crowds, all speaking at once. After a particularly bad (but not gaming related) experience last year I decided to try out Flare Audio Calmer earbuds to see if they could help. Partially this was because of my plan to attend Dragonmeet and I wanted to have the additional option if needed. As it turned out I wore them the full day, only taking them out once I got to the confines of my hotel room.
What are they?
Flare Audio are one of a number of companies that offer soft silicone ear buds designed to filter out a portion of the audio landscape. The company claims that they remove distortion in the 2-8kHz range (middle to high frequencies) that can trigger the fight or flight response while leaving the wearer able to hear most sounds.
What are they like to wear?
Surprisingly comfortable, though they do require some getting used to. The silicone is soft and the buds easy to fit – if you are ok with standard in-ear earbuds then you should be fine with them. They’re available in three sizes, standard, mini and kids plus a range of colours while a pro version offers a more fine tuned filtering (though at twice the price). It took me a few days to get used to wearing them for more than a couple of hours but after that I got into the habit of just putting them in whenever I was out and about (though it’s worth noting on occasion I do find they get a little uncomfortable).
Do they work?
That’s the important question, to which the answer is yes, but. There’s always a but. They definitely take the edge off of noises, especially high frequency ones such as machinery or the screeching of train brakes (yay, commuting!). They also succeed in taking the edge off of voices, especially from background conversations. However, this is where that but comes in.
By filtering out some vocal frequencies there have been occasions where I’ve found them that little harder to follow. Not by much, but just a little, to the point that they may sound a little flat. It’s a trade off I’m generally willing to accept as voices tend to be the major source of troublesome noise for me the earbuds would be pointless if they didn’t filter them out.
So are they worth it?
For me, yes. If you struggle with auditory over stimulation then I would recommend giving them a try. There are a number of companies selling similar products and the basic models (such as the Flare Audio Calmer I use) only cost £20. That’s low enough that they’re worth just giving a try if you think they might help, just be aware that the effect might be subtler than you first expect. As they fit into the ear canal it’s also possible to stack them with over the ear headphones. This can not only help smooth out the audio range of whatever you’re listening to but also means they can be combined with active noise cancellation to enhance the effect.