Now (H)ear This
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Photo: Michael Goss
In 1984, a gumdrop-sized object developed at Etymotic Research, Inc. turned the world of electroacoustics on its, well, ear. The squat cylinder, doughy like a gumdrop except for a length of thin, flexible tubing at one end, was a foam eartip with a unique distinction: it sealed the ear from outside ambient noise while delivering test tones and speech through the world’s first “tubephone” insert earphone. Before then, earphones—also known as headphones—were designed for over-the-ear use. Because of its snug fit in the ear canal, an insert earphone allows for greater accuracy in testing, for example, by reducing ambient noise.
“The best seal you can get for the ear is foam that can be rolled down, put into the ear, and locked into place by expansion,” explains Mead Killion (M.S. MATH ’70), Etymotic’s founder, president, and chief technology officer. At Illinois Institute of Technology as part of Chicago Ideas Week last October, Killion pinched and rolled a gold-foil-wrapped version of the eartip between thumb and forefinger, then watched it re-conform to its original shape.
“If you put a tube into the foam, you’ll still have noise isolation, but now you could put sound into the ear,” he adds. The gold foil wrapping was a later innovation, which made possible a comfortable electrical pickup deep in the ear canal for determining auditory brainstem response (ABR), a standard test that detects electrical signals to measure hearing and neurologic function in infants, children, and adults.
Since that first eartip, Etymotic, which means “true to the ear,” has obtained more than 80 patents and has achieved a number of “world’s first” titles for its products, which comprise instrumentation for auditory testing; insert earphones for music enhancement, as well as hearing protection; and hearing aid components. Killion’s early background in music and mechanics prepared him for perfecting devices that would allow artists to hear such subtleties as a singer’s intake of breath while at the same time protecting their inner ears’ hair cells against excessive noise.
In the first grade, Killion began taking piano lessons, soon followed by the violin. As a young adult, he enjoyed rewiring junk jukeboxes and working under the hood of his 1939 Chevy with equal verve. Ham radio came later, as well as machine shop experience at Steel Industries while he was working his way through Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind. A fraternity brother knew of Killion’s interests and math aptitude, and urged him to interview for a job assisting hearing aid pioneer Elmer Carlson at Knowles Electronics in Itasca, Ill. Killion remained at Knowles for more than 20 years and left to start Etymotic with the rights to three projects he initiated under Carlson—the insert earphone, a high-fidelity hearing aid circuit, and an ABR testing device for infants. He earned his doctorate in audiology at Northwestern University, where he continues to teach a course in hearing aid electroacoustics.
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