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Music for your ears: Hong Kong start-up says Aumeo pocket device first to customise listening to people’s unique aural signature

Gadget explodes the myth that everyone hears exactly the same sounds, gets rid of distortion and missed frequencies while aslo protecting people’s hearing, company says

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 12:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 1:18pm

A start-up in Hong Kong claims to have built the world’s first tailored audio device: a pocket-sized box that can map sensitivity to different sounds and adjust the songs on your mobile jukebox to create a customised audio profile.

This can prevent damage to hearing while also clearing up distortion and filter back in missed sounds, said Aumeo Audio, the company behind the product.

Called simply Aumeo, the slim device can boost bass levels for listeners insensitive to lower frequencies or lower high-pitched sounds for those who are sensitive to this bandwidth. It is expected to retail later this year for around US$130.

It connects to a smartphone via bluetooth and stores the listener’s profile after a one-time test during which the subject listens to a set of sounds at different frequencies and adjusts the volume controls until each one disappears. Earphones or headphones must be purchased separately. 

Scientists have long known that people hear sounds differently depending on the size of their brain and ear drums, and even relating to the size and number of the hairs in their ears, among other factors.

This makes for a listening experience as unique as a person’s fingerprint, they claim, and technologists have been trying to accommodate this in recent years by designing increasingly sensitive audio listening equipment.

As Apple’s acquisition last year of headphones maker Beats for US$3 billion suggests, consumer interest in higher-quality listening devices is peaking, helped partly by the rise of smartphones that can store thousands of tracks. Many of Beats’ headphones retail for over US$300, a price point formerly reserved for professional use but which has now become more mainstream.

Aumeo has been in development for six years. It recently attracted crowdfunding of US$280,000, according to the company’s founder Paul Lee.

Lee, who used to work in the financial technology field, returned to his hometown of Hong Kong from Silicon Valley nearly a decade ago

A childhood friend who is now a surgeon connected him with Professor Andrew Van Hasselt, a world renowned otologist and chairman of the otorhinolaryngology department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Otology is a branch of medicine that deals with the anatomy and physiology of the ear.

Hasselt was interested in designing a quick assessment tool to identify how people hear sounds differently and this ultimately led him and Lee to build Aumeo.

Lee said that was just one stage in a challenging process that saw him pitch the product to companies over and over again for several years.

“People’s attention spans are very short,” he said. “So it was hard at first to persuade them to spend a few minutes doing this aural assessment of themselves.”

But he said the business and cultural climate is now more favourable as consumers are getting used to measuring their bodies’ algorithms or calorific intake using wearing devices and other means.

“As people are getting used to quantifying their own bodies, then why not quantify their sense of hearing?” he said.

Lee hopes to make Aumeo the industry standard and licence the technology to audio companies. Production is slated for next month, although the first few batches will primarily be for crowdfunding backers, the company said.