Truth, lies, and lady earholes vs man earcaves

Astrid Bin

Recently I discovered that I had a 20% off coupon for Skullcandy headphones. I don’t like those headphones, but I wondered how much they were going for these days so I had a look at their website.

It turns out they have a line of headphones just for ladies!

Women’s headphones, you say? How interesting and infuriating. I wondered what scientific basis they would provide for this, as audio companies are usually very transparent and happy to talk about the frequency response of their products (like AKG and UrbanEars do), because people who want quality headphones care about this stuff. Yes, even the girls!

Further down the page I discovered how these were Just For Girls:

I’m going to gloss over the “make up resistance” feature and “fit for a woman” stuff for now (I know I hate putting foundation on my ears only to find it smeared all over my headphones later) and concentrate on this “Audio For Women” nonsense.

Tuned For Her! Cleaner deeper bass and very natural sounding vocals! How is this remarkable technology possible?

Ah I see, they feature female-specific tuning built from the ground up.

Wait, what the hell is female-specific tuning. The lack of explanation for this term is shocking; it’s extremely patronising to suggest that women just don’t hear the same as men, considering it’s such an uphill battle to be taken seriously in audio in the first place. Even worse, othering women by saying “Regular headphones don’t work for you because you’re different” is adding specifically to this problem.

I wanted to know what basis they used for tuning to my precious lady ears, because apparently they don’t need to provide this information on their website because women are prone to believing magical things. So I tweeted them:

Why yes, I was feeling salty, how could you tell.

After a couple of days nothing happened. Then, I got a DM:

Ah, that explains it. WAIT NO IT DOESN’T. Let’s deconstruct this nonsense.

Studies have found that there is no difference between men and women with regard to the mean hearing threshold in proportion to age at 0.5 kHz (A), 1 kHz (B), 2 kHz (C), 3 kHz (D), 4 kHz (E), and 6 kHz (F) frequencies …

Let’s leave aside the sweeping and unsubstantiated “studies have found” thing for a second and look at what they’re saying.

They allege that there is no difference in the mean hearing threshold in proportion to age at all these frequencies (though I don’t know what the letters are standing for there, smells like copy pasta). For those keeping score at home, the hearing threshold refers to the level, measured in decibels, at which a person can just about hear sounds at a given frequency. So they’re saying here that at age 2, males and females are similarly sensitive to sounds in these frequencies, and the same is true at age 12, 22, 32, and 102. “In proportion to age” means that our hearing sensitivity changes over time with age, but that there are no appreciable differences between man and women.

But wait, there’s more!

… the mean threshold levels for males become worse at 3kHz, 4kHz, and 6kHz …

Wait, so they just said the thresholds are similar in at 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6kHz, but in the very same sentence allege that the threshold levels for males are actually worse at 3, 4, and 6kHz.

But hey, it’s just facts. What really made me realise that they don’t have a damn clue what they’re talking about is the use of a value judgment word (“worse”) to describe a difference in data. A difference in hearing threshold does not mean someone’s hearing is “better” or “worse”, because the existence of a difference does not indicate how big that difference is, the level at which it’s noticeable, or if it matters at all in listening tests, or what value, if any, should be attributed to it.

But let’s press on:

… which means that women are more sensitive than men in proportion to age, which we take into account when equalising the audio quality and overall design of our products marketed to women.

Again, moving from “no differences” to “oh wait there’s differences”. But more importantly, there is absolutely no indication that this “increased sensitivity” among women actually means anything because they haven’t provided any data.

But now, the denouement:

This study (among others) can be found at the government website for national center for biotechnology information here. We sincerely hope this answers your question.

You know, I’m currently writing a PhD, and it would save me so much time to just paste a link to Google Scholar in place of 200 references and say “Work related to what I’m saying, and other work not related, can be found here.” But that’s not how you cite things, because that’s meaningless and lazy and has no value.

So I did some digging and found an article from 1997 called Hearing Loss: Does Gender Play a Role? that seems to be where they got this information from (but who knows, they never sent me any citations despite me directly asking for them). It includes this graph:

Whoa! That looks serious! I mean, look at the difference in the lines! Especially at 2, 3 and 4 kHz! Skullcandy said that men’s hearing at these ranges gets “worse” at these ranges. That sure seems to be true! Consider me pwned!

Not so fast, Skullcandy.

Firstly, let’s read the caption underneath this graph:

Figure 2. The gender reversal phenomenon. Average audiograms of 341 males and 346 females in age range 50 to 89 years. Adapted with permission from J Am Acad Audiol (1993;4:42–49), Copyright © 1993, American Academy of Audiology.

Oh, so this graph doesn’t represent women in general! It actually represents women aged 50–89.

For fun, let’s give Skullcandy the benefit of the doubt here and pretend that this graph doesn’t apply to a particular subset of women with age-related hearing loss who are much older than Skullcandy’s target demographic. Let’s look at what the difference in those decibel sensitivities actually mean.

Let’s take the example at 3kHz. According to the sample represented by this graph, women can hear a 3kHz tone at about 35dB, where men would need it played at 50dB to hear the same tone. That’s a big difference! Sounds serious!

But is 35dB vs 50dB a big difference? Decibels are a logarithmic scale that we use because the differences between the loudness of sounds we can hear measure is huge, and a logarithmic scale allows us to describe that enormous range which would be inconveniently big to fit on a graph if it was linear. This huge range is due to the human ear being incredibly sensitive; for example, I can hear a jet engine, but my ears can also hear someone gently whispering smash the patriarchy.

Back to the issue at hand. The actual difference between 35dB and 50dB means, brace yourself, that women can hear a 3kHz sine tone at the loudness of a library, while men need that same tone to be played at the loudness of the ambient noise inside your house.

Is it measurably different? Sure, that’s measurable. The more difficult (and interesting) question, however, is whether it matters — Skullcandy, if they really actually cared about this and not just making some hand gestures towards ladyscience, would tell me about their own research, the experts they consulted, and the listening tests they carried out, to determine if some numbers they read in a paper that time do, in fact, make a difference in reality, but clearly getting to the truth of the matter isn’t the point.

And let’s not gloss over the fact that listening tests are key. Most studies that indicate differences in hearing thresholds use sine tones to test sensitivity (I’m saying “most” because all the ones I’ve heard of do, but maybe there’s ones that don’t), and simply plastering the results from sine tone hearing tests on to the experience of music, which is much more complex and much more nuanced than a sine tone, is not just overreaching: It’s ridiculous and false, and demonstrates that Skullcandy really isn’t trying too hard, they’re just trying to make quick cash by assuming that women are unconcerned about this sort of things and will believe any old stupidity.

When I was a kid a grownup remarked in conversation, “Don’t make me eat shit and call it ice cream,” and this is one of those moments that this phrase was built for. Skullcandy, I don’t accept your half-assed explanation, I don’t accept that you’re somehow doing me a favour by applying pseudoscience to lady headphones (and they didn’t even tell me how they’re doing this magical “tuning” or how they’re applying their nonsense frequency sensitivity data to bass frequencies to make them “cleaner”), and don’t keep making things harder by marginalising women in order to make a quick buck.

What I am willing to do: Hear shit and call it Skullcandy.

Astrid Bin

Written by

Artist/Designer/Maker/Funambulist. The internet. TV. Games. Interfaces. Sounds. Public space. Outer space. Funny, both ha-ha funny and the other kind.

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