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Selling the sounds of silence

Dwight Garner's New York Times article, "Meditations on Noise," reports on three books covering the impact of sound and noise on our lives.

It's a noisy world and getting noisier all the time. No wonder sales of noise-canceling and noise-isolating headphones are booming.

Dwight Garner's New York Times article, "Meditations on Noise" reports on three books covering the impact of sound and noise on our lives.

Noise is usually classified as unwanted sound, but one person's noise is another's bliss. I've always been fascinated by electric guitar distortion, which can sound beautiful. Musicians such as Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and Jonny Greenwood mastered the art of noise. Why humans like such unnatural sound is a mystery to me, but it appeals on a primitive, strangely organic level. That, or it's noise, ugly, nerve-wracking, unwanted sound. Indulging in loud music can be risky business; if you occasionally experience "ringing in the ears" after exposure to loud sounds or concerts, you may be losing your hearing.

Garner looks at three books: Garret Keizer's "The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise" (PublicAffairs); "Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence" (Scribner), by George Michelsen Foy; and "In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise" (Doubleday), by George Prochnik.

I never thought about it until I read the article, but noise exposure has social and political aspects. Garner put it this way: "You can judge a person's clout--his or her social and political standing--by witnessing how much racket he or she must regularly endure." Right, money can buy whatever degree of solitude you need.

Technology may be the source of much of the aural bombardment, but it also offers remedies. We can block out some of the din with our iPods and such, but using music to mask noise can be dangerous. When earbuds and other headphones don't hush outside noise you have to turn up the volume louder than the noise to hear the tunes, so you're compounding the problem. That's why noise-canceling and noise-isolating headphones are such a good idea; they let you turn the volume down and still hear more of the music.

Reducing background noise, in and of itself, lets you hear more deeply into the music. It's not a small, audiophiles-only distinction. Noise masks the subtle stuff, so you can't hear the reverberation surrounding a singer's vocal, or the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar. When the background noise level is high you only hear the louder sounds in the music. Listening "through" noise is stressful and fatiguing; mute the noise and you hear more and feel better.

For the ultimate in noise isolation, I prefer custom molded in-ear headphones; prices start around $399 for the JH Audio 5 Pro headphones. More affordable "universal" fit in-ear designs from Etymotic, Monster, Shure, Skullcandy, Sony, etc., can work quite well, too.

Then again, for a lot less money I recommend earplugs to fend off the racket. I always have a pair of Etymotic Ety Plugs in my pocket. And I almost always have them in my ears when attending amplified concerts. Ety Plugs turn down the noise but don't muffle voices, environmental sounds, or music.

Ina Fried's "Crank it! iTunes sells sounds of silence--for real" points out you can buy silent tracks from iTunes for 99 cents a pop. Listening to silence, what a trip!