Hearing tech targets “cocktail party noise problem”

Photo credit: cottonbro from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The UK’s Eureka magazine reports that a new device is targeting the cocktail party noise problem.

What is the cocktail party noise problem? Also known as the Lombard Effect, after French physiologist Etienne Lombard who described it in 1881, the cocktail party effect is the noisy buzz of conversation in a busy room as people talk with one another. The sound level rises so everyone speaks more loudly to be able to be heard above the background din, creating a positive feedback loop that results in everyone shouting in everyone else’s ear, but still not being able to understand what is being said.

Younger people are able to process the multiple conversations better than middle aged and older people, so it’s not a problem for them, but it is for up to 80% of those between 40 and 64 according to the manufacturer of the new device.

The technical term for our problem–yes, I have that, too–is the Speech in Noise problem. Prof. Martin Pienkowski at Salus University has written about this. Speech in Noise difficulties are thought to be a manifestation of hidden hearing loss, first described by Kujawa and Liberman at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

We hope the new device makes it into commercial production and helps those using hearing aids to cope with hearing loss, but to us it makes far more sense–as well as comporting with a basic principle of noise control–to reduce the noise at the source.

Obviously, people can’t be made to speak more quietly, but restaurants and meeting rooms can be designed to reduce outside noise, absorb sounds being made in the room, and of course turning down the volume of any background music below rock concert levels.


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