Why You Can't Hear Me Now On Your Cell Phone

On a bus or in a bar, cell phone conversations can lead to major frustration. But it's not just volume or poor reception that makes it so hard to hear the person on the other end of the line, according to a new study.

Cell phones also cut off the highest-pitched ranges of our voices. Those high-frequency sounds convey a surprising amount of information, according to the study.

The results suggest that we may be missing the full meaning of what people say when we talk to them on our mobile devices.

"The prevailing thought was that, because high frequencies are not as loud in the voice, that the brain must not pay much attention to them," said Brian Monson, a speech and hearing scientist at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. "If the brain is paying that much attention to high frequencies, there must be some kind of perceptual information there."

A typical male voice measures about 100 hertz and an average woman speaks at about 200 Hz. Unlike a monotonic sound like a whistle, voices also contain quieter overtones with frequencies that range as high as 20,000 Hz. But because most of the energy in our voices falls below 5,000 Hz, scientists have long assumed that those high-pitched sounds are irrelevant.

Monson, who is also a singer with experience as a sound engineer, started to suspect that assumption a few years ago. While working with other singers, he noticed that they improved the quality of their voices by making adjustments in very high frequency overtones. In a follow-up project, he found that people could detect tiny differences in the volume of high-frequency sounds – on the scale of just a few decibels.

For the new study, Monson recorded people speaking and singing the Star-Spangled Banner. He filtered the recordings to keep only sounds above 5,000 Hz. He played those recordings to about 50 people in a handful of experiments. Then, he asked listeners to try to identify details about what they heard.

He was surprised at how well people did. Even though the recordings sound much like cricket chirps, just about everyone was able to quickly distinguish between talking and singing, he’ll announce next week at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego. It took listeners a little longer to tell whether the voice was male or female, but they all did that task really well, too.

Most surprising of all based on the current understanding of sound recognition, Monson said, listeners could tell that they were hearing the Star-Spangled Banner, not just when the voices were singing but also when they were just speaking. People were even able to identify key information about the recordings when distracting noises were added to make the task harder.

"If they can understand what's being said, that means there's an ability to extract intelligible information from high frequencies, and nobody would have predicted that," Monson said. "If you're in a situation where there's low-frequency noise covering all of the information you're used to getting from a voice, as long as you have the high-frequency stuff, you can still figure out what the person is saying and get the information you need."

That may be why talking on a cell phone in noisy places is so tough. Most mobile phones and landlines transmit sounds up to about 3,500 Hz, mostly because higher-frequency sounds were never thought to be very important.

According to other research, our brains have to work harder to extract information when it comes in limited bandwidth, Monson said, which explains why phone conversations can be more fatiguing than talking in person. And studies in kids have shown that they learn new words three times more quickly if they hear recordings that range up to 9,000 Hz instead of 4,000 Hz.

To improve the quality of our mobile phone conversations, the new findings suggest that it may be time for a technology upgrade.

"We listen to things over cell phones in pretty adverse situations, and I think their data strongly suggests you can give the listener more information by keeping high frequencies salient," said William Yost, an auditory perception researcher at Arizona State University in Tempe.


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  • by Anonymous on Oct 31, 2011 at 12:57 PM
    To "Uh": To clarify, I'm not some trigger-happy lunatic. My lawfully-carried firearm is a last resort, to be used only after retreat, talking, and pepper spray have proven unfruitful. As stated, it's only one tool of many in my vehicle emergency kit. There's also a small shovel, blankets, water, food, whistle, signalling mirror, jumper cables, Fix-A-Flat tire repair...see what I mean?
  • by Anonymous on Oct 31, 2011 at 12:17 PM
    REM: Thank you!
  • by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 02:15 PM
    Tripp: Thank you! Somehow, I think you and I would get along famously. An early "Happy Holidays" to you and yours.
  • by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 02:13 PM
    To Anonymous 10-30-11 2:16 PM: I'd say I'm a lot more socially responsible than the people who endanger everyone else on the road with their simultaneous driving / cell chatting. As for me being "ill prepared"..see my previous post at 1:40 PM this date. 'Nuff said.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 07:33 PM in reply to
      What if you come upon a bad wreck in a remote area where every second counts. Without communications, you won't be able to do much to help the accident vicitims get medical attention/help. Each person makes his own choices in this world. You're free to make yours.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Oct 31, 2011 at 04:26 AM in reply to
        ....And indeed I have. Nobody can have every base covered. I should also mention that mine is a single income family, and therefore, a cell phone is not what we consider a necessity. As stated, I've gotten along just fine without one for all of these years, so I see no compelling need to change. Besides, I tend to avoid remote areas..and if I do happen upon a wreck, someone with a cell phone will be along any time. Meanwhile, I'll most likely break out my emergency first aid kit and do what I can. I wonder: What kind of emergency kit do you keep in your vehicle?
        • reply
          by REM on Oct 31, 2011 at 09:05 AM in reply to
          You can get a free non-activated cell phone from almost anywhere. Keep it charged up and in the car; it can still dial out 911 without paying a service provider. No reason for someone to go without this modern technology, you might need it one day.
  • by anonymous Location: Roper on Oct 30, 2011 at 05:38 AM
    great article, very interesting
  • by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 04:30 AM
    This is not a problem for me at all...mainly because I have never owned a cell phone, and never will. I've managed to go 44 years without one; I'll keep going. Besides, why make it EASIER for people to bug me?!
    • reply
      by Malcom on Oct 30, 2011 at 09:11 AM in reply to
      Anonymous, it sounds like you are at that age when you can get away with not hearing someone clearly. However, now I, a 34yr old male/ husband for 10yrs, can tell my wife that her frequency did not make it through the cosmos and into my ear.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 10:37 AM in reply to Malcom
        Malcom: Yes indeed! Heck, we all know that guys have "selective hearing" when it comes to spouses anyhow. If I did have a cell phone, that would be just one more way for me to NOT hear her!!
    • reply
      by 911 type calls on Oct 30, 2011 at 09:40 AM in reply to
      think about getting 1 for emergencies only! give no 1 your number and just use it for just in case stuff , get 1 of the prepaid phones they are cheap . everyone needs 1 because of the increase of crime around here and these crazy drivers running people off the roads
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 10:26 AM in reply to 911 type calls
        First off: A sincere "Thank you" for saying that with manners and respect, something that is quite often absent on this site, and the internet in general! Anyway, no, I seriously doubt I'll change my mind on this one. I tend to be extremely stubborn, and highly resistant towards change. As another example of this, you'll never find me on MySpace, or Facebook either. Besides, I really get tired of seeing all of these "cell phone slaves" that can't walk, go out to eat, or drive without having their cell phone glued to their ear, and it's almost always a conversation that could wait until later. Heck, between texting, cell phones, and Facebook, hardly anyone actually talks in face to face conversations anymore. Don't even get me started on the thoughtless jerks that refuse to turn off their phones while sitting in a movie theater! I simply refuse to be a part of all of this. It may seem as though society and technology have left me behind, but it's not true...I chose to stay behind. Anyhow, I'll climb down from my soapbox now. Hope you have a good week!
        • reply
          by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 11:16 AM in reply to
          You appear to be a socially irresponsible and ill prepared individual. 911 situations do happen.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 09:54 AM in reply to
      what if you come upon a disaster situation one day and have no way to call for help. TrakFones are dirt cheap. am typing this on a cell phone. have had the same cell no. for 20 years with no one ever bugging me. what if you need help one day in the middle of nowhere.
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 10:40 AM in reply to
        Well, when I'm out in the middle of nowhere, I have an emergency tool kit for my car, an emergency survival kit with food, water, blankets, a small shovel, etc. I also have pepper spray and a .45, so I'd say I'm as covered as can be!
        • reply
          by Tripp on Oct 30, 2011 at 01:27 PM in reply to
          My grin got wider and wider the farther I read. Great response. There is nothing more important than being prepared to take care of yourself. Being able to summon help is always a good thing but... That takes time. Be prepared. The multi-tool (.45) is definitely a good addition to the kit.
        • reply
          by Anonymous on Oct 30, 2011 at 01:35 PM in reply to
          not if something happens that you are not prepared for.
        • reply
          by David on Oct 30, 2011 at 03:36 PM in reply to
          Well said, I carry a .45 as well. An instant way to resolve a problem if necessary, but I hope I never have to use it.
        • reply
          by uh on Oct 30, 2011 at 06:35 PM in reply to
          I'm always taken aback at how little reverence and discretion people use when discussing a deadly weapon. The number of problems solvable through the use of a handgun are very few.
        • reply
          by 40 on Oct 30, 2011 at 09:51 PM in reply to
          So uhh, how many handguns you own?
        • reply
          by REM on Oct 31, 2011 at 09:02 AM in reply to
          "The number of problems solvable through the use of a handgun are very few." -- Try comprehending the context of the conversation again. In an emergency situation when carrying a weapon may be necessary! Personal protection is a God given right to citizens; if you don't chose to exercise it, then so be it. Don't chastise others for it.
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