Sweet Silence

Our columnist roamed the streets of midtown Manhattan wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

“There are no earlids,” wrote the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in his eccentric and masterful 1977 book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. It’s an obvious point, but an interesting one. “The sense of hearing cannot be closed off at will,” he noted. You can always avert your eyes if there’s something that you don’t wish to look at, but you can’t avert your ears if, for instance, your subway car suddenly becomes the chosen venue for a group of conga drummers playing for spare change. It was this problem I was trying to address recently by roaming the cacophonous streets of midtown Manhattan wearing a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones.

Indeed, many people deal with the acutely intrusive nature of our sonic environment by wearing audio armor. The iPod and similar devices provide them with a controllable acoustic circumstance, one that keeps them reasonably well insulated from everyone and everything else. However, I’m an extremely late adopter—­possibly the last person on earth who does not own an iPod. This is a philosophical decision: I like to be where I am. And part of being in a place is hearing it. All well and good, except the world is filling up with sonic spam: endless security announcements, cell-phone ring tones from hell, people talking about their grocery lists at a volume more suited to Il Duce from the balcony. All of which tends to suck the bliss out of be-here-now.

My journey to earlids started with a pair of earplugs, squishy and low-tech, a dozen pairs for a buck. A year or two ago I spent two weeks aboard a massive 2,000-plus-passenger cruise ship that I was foolishly trying to use as a writer’s retreat, a place to finish work on a manuscript. But even the quietest corners of the ship were suffused with horrid background music and ceaseless chatter. A friend took pity and gave me a set of earplugs. They worked fairly well. Once I’d stuffed them into my ears, I could focus.

This experience made me increasingly conscious of how the world sounds, and how it affects me. I began craving silence; and the more I wanted it, the more I realized how hard it is to come by. To some extent it’s a function of modern life; I’ve been told that the world gets louder by a decibel every decade.

But my guess is that silence has always been a scarce commodity, even in ancient times, even in out-of-the-way corners of the earth. For one thing, it doesn’t really exist in nature. There are always birds or crickets or a zillion caterpillars munching in unison through a forest of leaves. Sure, there are quiet spots—the high desert of Joshua Tree comes to mind—but real silence is something we’ve always had to manufacture. The world’s religions—Catholics, Quakers, Buddhists—have all worked hard to create silent environments so they could com­municate with God or attain enlightenment. These traditions have been in existence for ages, suggesting that the world has always been a noisy place. Recently I read about the Tammariba people of northern Togo—a relatively tranquil spot, I’d imagine—whose gods, according to the ethnologist Myriam Smadja, “hate the noise made by humans: the loudness of their voices, the stamping of their feet, the pounding of their pestles and the smith’s hammer.” But the gods can forgive as long as people are careful not to make a sound at night.

I identify with the gods of the Tammariba. I too hate the noise made by humans. What I want is an oasis of clarity amid the sonic clutter. And so I do what the people of Northern America do. I turn to technology: specifically Bose, the inventive audio company—founded by MIT electrical-­engineering professor Dr. Amar G. Bose—that markets products like the Wave radio directly to consumers through seductive long-copy advertisements. According to its ad copy for the Quiet Comfort 3 headphones, introduced last year, “The [airplane] cabin becomes more peaceful; you can hear yourself think.” Friends who’d used them told me about an eerie silence to be found inside of them. I decided that maybe the clarity and focus I sought could be supplied by this product. And so, like a religious devotee traveling to Nepal to visit a reincarnation of the Buddha, I drove to Framingham, Massachusetts, where the Bose Corporation is based.

I met with two members of the Bose “noise-reduction technology group”—Dan Gauger, the research manager, and Robert Luppino, a technical marketing manager. In a little theater designed for headphone demonstrations, Luppino explained that the product was originally marketed to pilots in 1989 as a way to mitigate cockpit noise and allow them to hear radio communications more clearly. In 1999 they began to offer the same technology to airline passengers. The headphones are still primarily marketed to frequent fliers who want to dull the roaring engines. Eventually I tested the Quiet Comfort 2 headphones, somewhat bulkier than the newer model, with big cups that enclose the ear, and I marveled at how the sound of the room’s vent fans disappeared when I turned the switch on. I listened to a song by the Dave Matthews Band to demonstrate the sound quality—it’s terrific—and then a voice said, “You’re in a flight at twenty thousand feet. Go ahead, lift a cup.” I gingerly pulled a cup away from one ear, discovering that the little theater was now filled with simulated airplane roar that I didn’t notice with the headphones on.

I was impressed, although I realized that I still heard the voices of other people in the room. “We don’t cancel all noise,” Luppino explains. “It’s taking the volume control on the world around us and turning it down a bit.”

The way the technology works, Gauger says, is that a microphone within the headset constantly monitors the ambient noise level and counters it by manufacturing the opposite sound. “If a sound is going up, we make it going down; you put the two sounds together, and you get destructive interference,” he says. “We have to make as much sound as we’re trying to cancel.” It’s our technological culture in a nutshell: to attain tranquillity we double the noise.

I left Bose headquarters with a pair of Quiet Comfort 3 headphones with their small oval ear cups and cunningly designed rechargeable battery that slips easily into the frame of one cup. And cautiously, feeling a bit like a test pilot myself, I began wearing them around town. I rode the subway, turning the switch on and off. And, no, I didn’t get silence. What happens is that the bottom layer of the noise spectrum is removed, while everything else—the announcements, the conversations, the ding-dong of the door closing—is still audible but muted. Certain sounds, like the guitar of a street musician, became even clearer. As Gauger explained to me, the technology is most effective at blocking low-frequency noise because it’s literally slower moving; the canceling technology is fast enough to counter it. “The physics gets in the way at higher frequencies,” Gauger says, “because things are just changing too rapidly.”

I test them out on the streets of midtown and decide that it’s probably a good thing that the headphones don’t give me silence. I can still hear oncoming cars, although I almost get winged by a bicyclist going the wrong way. When I stop in the vest-pocket park across 53rd Street from the Museum of Modern Art and turn the headphones on and off a few times, I experience something similar to the Bose-­simulated airplane demo. I discover how much sound the headphones actually block. All at once I notice that the city has an ambient roar—the sound of millions of vent fans and car engines—of which I wasn’t conscious until I was able to turn it off momentarily.

Shortly after my cruise-ship experience, I visited the Met to see an exhibition of fifteenth-­century Italian art. I found myself bombarded by loud conversation, so I remembered the earplugs, still in my purse. I put them in, and not only did they cut the volume on the voices, but the colors in the paintings suddenly seemed brighter.

Similarly, my most satisfying experience with the Bose headphones was a visit to MoMA. One of the biggest problems with the Taniguchi makeover—with its massive atrium, hard floors, and cleverly interconnected spaces—is that the whole building seems to act as a woofer. The collective murmur created by people and the ventilation system borders on the thunderous. And while the headphones can’t eliminate the sound of a father explaining to his toddler that he should look at the soup cans because Andy Warhol was a very famous artist, they do transform the museum into a reasonable place to look at art. I was disappointed that I couldn’t repeat the almost hallucinogenic effect produced by the earplugs at the Met, but the Bill Viola films of people suspended underwater, titled Stations, looked extra dreamy. And I could actually enjoy myself in the chronically mobbed galleries that hold the museum’s most famous paintings. My suggestion to MoMA is this: in addition to the gizmos that play audio tours, the museum should distribute earlids to those of us who simply want to hear ourselves see.

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