Electronic Noise and Tinnitus

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This article is in response to a recent email from a sophisticated technology user who suffers from tinnitus. The writer refers specifically to electronic noise from second generation Intel SSDs triggering his tinnitus symtoms in such an upsetting way that he was compelled to seek help from Intel directly. The kind of electronic noise Richard describes is not normally audible to most people, but there is little question that it is all around us, emanating from just about every type of electronic gizmo that is part and parcel of modern living.

This article is in direct response to a detailed email I received recently from a sophisticated technology user who suffers from tinnitus. The writer, Richard, refers specifically to electronic noise from second generation Intel SSDs triggering his tinnitus symtoms in such an upsetting way that he was compelled to seek help from Intel directly. The kind of electronic noise Richard describes is not normally audible to most people, but there is little question that it is all around us, emanating from just about every type of electronic gizmo that is part and parcel of modern living.

Tinnitus is a term that has come up repeatedly at SPCR over the years. It is a complex condition that we have never really explored before, but some significant percentage of SPCR visitors are tinnitus sufferers. It is most often described as a "ringing in the ears in the absence of sound." The American Tinnitus Association estimates that in the US alone, some 50 million people are afflicted in one way or another.


Where’s the ringing coming from?

This ATA article (PDF) goes to some lengths in trying to answer the question, "What is Tinnitus?" Some key paragraphs are quoted here:

"WHAT IS TINNITUS?

"A sound no one else hears In almost every case, tinnitus is a totally subjective noise — one that only the person who has it can hear. In rare cases, when the tinnitus is caused by an abnormality in a vein or artery and is in rhythm with the heartbeat, the sound may be audible through a stethoscope placed on the neck or directly in the ear canal.

"A symptom In and of itself, tinnitus is not a disease. It is like pain — a signal that something has gone wrong somewhere.

"A worry Tinnitus can be very upsetting. In a way, that’s not surprising. Richard Salvi’s and Alan Lockwood’s brain imaging research in the late 1990s showed that in some subjects, tinnitus involves the limbic system — the brain’s emotional center. Our brains seem wired to interpret constant loud noise — chronic pain and vertigo too — as something to be upset about.

"Since tinnitus is a symptom of something that has gone wrong, that something might need medical attention, such as an acoustic neuroma (a tumor on the auditory nerve). In those cases, the tinnitus is doing a job — that is, alerting the patient to a bigger problem. In most cases, though, the tinnitus trips that warning switch in error, and the person with tinnitus feels alarmed and anxious because of it.

"Continuous; Variable For some people, tinnitus is a steady, unchanging noise every waking minute. For others, it is a sound that comes and goes, or a tone that changes pitch through the day. Some have tinnitus that’s “on” for three days and “off” for one day. The majority of people who contact us have constant, unvarying tinnitus.

"Loud At least it seems loud. For the majority (83.8%) of 1,422 patients at the Oregon Hearing Research Center, the tinnitus volume was 0-9 decibels above their hearing threshold. That’s very quiet. But if that “quiet” tinnitus is very high pitched, it might not be masked by lower-pitched sounds in the environment. That could make the tinnitus seem louder than the few decibels it really is.

"Intrusive This is the kind we hear about the most, which makes sense to us. People who aren’t terribly troubled by their tinnitus generally don’t call us for help. Constant, intrusive sound can disrupt sleep, family relationships, and one’s ability to work and concentrate. When tinnitus is at this level, medical and audiological care are probably in order. It is also imperative that people with tinnitus find a way to get restful sleep. It’s an important key in gaining control of the condition.

"Often louder after waking up This is a very common experience, although researchers have not yet gotten to the root of it. We know that the brain is very active in a sleep state, not still at all. We also know that the brain experiences electrical and chemical changes during sleep that it doesn’t experience while awake. If you experience the phenomenon of temporarily elevated tinnitus following sleep, you are in good (although slightly perturbed) company.

"Misunderstood, dismissed “Go home and learn to live with it.” I cringe at these words. And we know they’re being said with baffling regularity. Our battle cry to health professionals is this: NEVER tell patients to go home and learn to live with it — unless you tell them how to live with it. We now offer an educational course for health professionals that we hope will help turn that tide.

"Nondiscriminatory Men get it. Women get it. Even children get it. Education levels or income levels are not predictors. Excessive noise exposure is the most common tinnitus cause, but it doesn’t matter if the noise is from a rock concert, farm machinery, or artillery fire. Noise is noise; ears are ears. Those whose ears are susceptible to excessive noise are those most likely to be hurt by it.

"Manageable Tinnitus is caused by many things: ear-damaging drugs, jaw misalignment, Ménière’s disease, head injury, in rare cases a tumor on the auditory nerve. The most common culprit is excessive noise exposure. But regardless of its cause, tinnitus can be relieved — sometimes on the spot — by sound therapy. Here is the reason: A steady, low-level, broadband sound, like that of rainfall, can reduce the contrast between the patient’s internal noise and the sometimes too-quiet external world. [Emphasis mine.] Sound therapies, commonly called masking and tinnitus retraining therapy, can make tinnitus less noticeable and, for a lot of people, less troubling. Other treatments, including medications, biofeedback, relaxation techniques, and a particular type of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy, are helpful too."

The emphasized text in the last paragraph is highly relevant at SPCR: With today’s best quiet computer gear and our knowhow, we can build systems that are truly silent, barely at the threshhold of hearing in most environments. The catch is that for some tinnutus sufferers, if the component in such systems produce electronics noise that triggers their symptoms, these systems may actually be worse than noisier PCs that have higher broadband noise (from smoothly blowing fans).

I have personally experienced occasional tinnitus effects, usually during periods of extreme fatigue due to physical, emotional and/or mental stress. Overworking with little sleep sometimes brought it on as well. At such times, it seems that my silent PCs are not helping, and the electronic noise (from modems, routers, LCD monitors or even CFLs) I hear more plainly as a result of my quiet environment seems to further emphasize the ringing tone of tinnitus. This is an issue that the AMA article touches upon.

RICHARD’S LETTER

Richard from Illinois has a much worse and constant case of tinnitus than my very occasional bouts. Here is his letter:

"Subject: Problems with electronic noise from SSDs

"Dear Mike,

"As a long time advocate for silent computing and other environments, I’ve been a constant visitor to your site for your excellent relevant reviews and industry status reports. My problem with noise is primarily exhibited in suffering from long term tinnitus which stems from various environmental factors including both excessively loud environments and chemical exposure since childhood.

"Perhaps the earliest and most important of these was from large crowd and starting gun noise, as well as the chemical effects of chlorine byproducts, while competing in small and poorly ventilated swimming pool environments from age 6 through college. Add to this lawn mowing over much of the same period, college ROTC Marksman competition, audio lab engineer and audiophile, and wood cutter using chain saws, and it’s amazing I have any hearing left at all.

"As such, in the last 25 years, since the mid 1980’s, it’s made me the proverbial "canary in a mine shaft" with both hearing and chemical sensitivities. That’s when I first started getting serious about protecting my hearing and researching ways to avoid and reduce noise exposure. The first and most critical of these was reducing noise exposure both at the source and when that wasn’t possible with hearing protection. I also found that chemical exposure exacerbated the effects of noise, and avoidance of these sources helped immensely.

"In more recent years, the impact of computer and electronic noise on me has become more pronounced to the extent that even wireless transmissions affect my tinnitus adversely. I can’t even tolerate portable phone systems above 1Ghz or wireless G networks when in quiet environments. If they are in more concentrated noise environments with a variety of frequency ranges and sources, such as electronic stores like BB, the impact is far less as the noise seems to cancel itself out at the critical frequencies that affect me.

"I’d been constantly searching for the next best hard drive that would lower the noise level to inaudible, and your site has been most helpful in working through this. Fortunately, I stumbled on one drive, a Seagate Barracuda V 7200RPM 120GB drive, that has been my primary drive since it was first introduced. By custom installing it in a very quiet Stealth enclosure manufactured by Arm Systems in California (long since out of business) I’ve been able to survive for the last 8-10 years with a very quiet desktop system in my office environment.

"Of course this didn’t solve the problem with mobile computing, and even with the much more quiet 2.5" hard drive format, most of them were a problem for me due the immediate proximity of the unit. For many years I used ear plugs when working with laptops, until I finally found a Toshiba Satellite that was tolerable for reasonable periods of time. Constantly seeking solutions to this, I became an early adopter of SSDs, and was certain these products would be the answer to my long time issue with spinning hard drive noise. I eventually changed out that unit’s conventional hard drive for a Transcend TS64GSSD25-M, which has an IDE/PATA interface. Even with the occasional fan noise, which isn’t obtrusive to me, it’s a wonderfully quiet laptop I still use for travel, although very under-powered in for much of today’s computing needs other than the basics. I’ve had problems with this Transcend’s drive "freezing", probably due to the JMicron controller, and have had to replace it under warranty. Fortunately, Transcend has been excellent in this regard.

"With the constant evolution of technology, and my ever increasing interest in all things digital, including digital photo and video processing, a couple of years ago I eventually was pressed into upgrading my digital processing computer. While I was tempted to build my own, I opted to work with Puget Systems when they provided a very competitive quote for an Intel i7 system compared to my own pricing. It includes the following:

  • Antec P182 Case
  • Asus P6T Deluxe V2 Motherboard
  • Intel Core i7 Quad 920 Processor
  • 12GB Kingston DDR3-1333 RAM
  • Seasonic M12D850W PS
  • Gigabyte Radeon HD 4850 1GB Silent (Fanless) Graphics
  • Scythe Silent Case Fans
  • Gelid Silent Spirit CPU Cooler
  • Pioneer 20X DVD-RW Drive
  • Windows Vista Ultimate 64 dual boot with Win7 Pro 64
  • Initial HD WD Caviar Green 1TB replaced/w Intel X25-M G1
  • Various 2.5" drives including USB Portables
  • Scythe Smart Drive 2.5" Enclosure

"During that time period, the Intel X25-M G1 was just being introduced. After trying a WD Caviar Green 1TB drive, even with the system operating remotely in an adjoining room with noise dampening, I couldn’t tolerate it and bought the Intel SSD when they became available. By using the original Toshiba hard drive from the laptop as swap disk, and various Seagate and WD portable USB drives for data, this unit has been superb in both silent operation, and performance.

"This brings me to the issue that initiated this email, the SPCR article by Lawrence Lee entitled "Consumer SSD Battle: WD, Kingston, OCZ, Intel".

"As a footnote to his noise evaluation Lawrence states: "n.m. = Not measurable. It’s possible that there could be a tiny bit of electronic noise (typically a high pitched squeal) being emitted by any of these SSDs, either intermittently depending on task, or continuously, but we never heard a thing, even in the anechoic chamber with ear pressed right up against the drives." [Editor’s Note: This was, in fact, my own comment]

"This is particularly relevant to me, most notably as a tinnitus sufferer. As mentioned above, I am able to detect electronic noise in a variety of environments from certain electronics, and I’ve found certain SSDs to be major culprits. Specifically, the Intel X25-M G2s are a major problem. Having had excellent results from the original G1 version, I purchased 2 G2s when they were first available. Unfortunately, they emit a strong high pitched electronic noise that severely impacts my tinnitus, causing it to ring at different frequencies and for long periods of time following even short exposure. It’s similar to the problem I have with both wireless 3G networks and cellular phone 3G transmissions, where the iPhone on 3G causes it but the 2G/EDGE transmissions don’t. However, it’s much more severe with the Intel G2s, as evidenced by a family member who also has tinnitus, but to a lesser degree. They are not bothered by the iPhone 3G transmissions or 3G wireless, but the Intel G2 drives them nuts as well!

"After first determining this problem, I initially thought it was with the SATA interface, as spinning SATA drives cause a similar problem. But of course it’s difficult to divorce the HD noise from the electronic noise in this situation. I have had some luck with reducing the noise level with the hard drives using a Scythe Smart Drive 2.5 enclosure, but it doesn’t seem to impact the Intel G2 noise at all! Nor does any kind of shielding seem to work. It’s just constant and pervasive throughout the house when they are on. In contrast, the Transcend IDE SSD doesn’t emit any electronic noise that I can detect, and is completely silent from my perspective. So there may be some factor involving the SATA interface that is causing the problem. Continuing to seek a solution, I decided to try out another SATA SSD, the OCZ Vertex 2 60GB. This one also caused some electronic noise, although not as severe or pronounced as the Intel G2. But it was obtrusive enough that I returned the drive.

"Finally, after sitting on these 2 Intel G2 SSDs for quite a while, I contacted Intel and they have agreed to look at them to see if they can determine the issue and a cause. With luck, I’ll have some resolution to this. To sum up my feedback to the article, please let the reviewer (Larry) know that there are individuals out there that are adversely affected by electronic noise, including that from SSDs. Unfortunately, I’m one of them. It would be great to define the specifics of this problem, with regard to the frequencies and intensity of the signal that causes it. If you have any suggestions on how I might go about doing this, I’d be very much interested in your response.

"Thank you sincerely for your work in this area of technology, and for listening to my experiences.

"Sincerely, Richard in Illinois

—————————————

"*PS — The head of Intel North America Customer Service is the one to whom my query about the SSDs was escalated. He contacted me directly by phone and handled it himself, including receiving my shipment personally, and paying for it as well. Following my explanation of the problem, including my request to exchange them for G1 units, which are no longer available, he offered to refund my entire purchase price paid to MWave.com. Amazingly, just a few days later, I received a check from Intel, via next day mail. Their response has been terrific, and frankly the best I’ve ever had from any tech company in my many years of dealing with such."

So… kudos for great service from Intel and an excellent result for Richard.

MORE ON SSDs & ELECTRONIC NOISE


Are they truly free of noise?

After these exchanges with Richard, I rounded up all the SSDs on hand, plugged them into a test system, and put each one up to my ear, one by one. I have to report that my inserted comment in Larry article was not completely correct. With one or two SSDs, there is a tiny bit of intermittent bzzzzzz — but at such a low level that when my ear is >6" away, I can’t hear it. In a PC, it would be completely blocked by the case or drowned out by other components, even in the very quietest systems. I doubt this is what Richard is "hearing"; it is too low in amplitude for even dogs to hear it, in my opinion. None of the Intel SSDs exhibited any audible noise. However, I listened to the SSDs only during normal operation — idle, write or read.

William George of Puget Computers, who has also been working with Richard to sort out the SSD noise problems, heard something from an Intel G2 SSD during routine testing, and he reported to Richard,

"I also ran a disk check during boot up, and everything looked good there. However, during the minute or so that took I noticed a subtle, extremely high-pitched noise from the computer (which is otherwise nearly silent). I wonder if that is similar to what you hear all the time on the Gen2 drives? Anyways, since it was only during that one test and not in Windows (even during CDM) I don’t think it should be a problem – but I did want to mention it up front, in case that affects your plans." [Editor’s Note: It is not 100% clear whether this noise came from the SSD or some other component.]

Richard’s response to William:

"Ran disk check (on my Intel G1 SSD) as you suggested and there was no audible noise that I could hear. However, there was an immediate intense spike in my tinnitus, which was something I hadn’t detected before in normal usage. As soon as disk check was finished, it subsided and was no longer present. Weird! There are definitely strange things going on with the Intel SSDs, and perhaps other brands, in the generation of electronic noise at audible or inaudible frequencies."

It is my hunch that Richard’s reaction to electronic noise has little to do with normal audible noise. From other emails I exchanged with him, I believe his hearing is not particularly sensitive in normal ways. He describes the tinnitus effect as being around 3000Hz. which is mid-band (4000Hz is near the highest note on a piano; 3000Hz is maybe a half octave down from there). My speculation is this: The electronics noise might be ultrasonic, at a frequency no human can "hear", but his body/mind reacts to it, and it manifests itself as a ringing in the mid-band, like a mechanical resonance being triggered by noise/vibration far outside the resonant frequency.

Richard’s tinnitus is reminiscent in function to an environmental allergy where overexposure to a particular stimulus that is normally benign makes changes in the immune system, which then results in a hyper-sensitive reaction by the immune system on further exposure to that stimuli. One of my siblings has developed many respiratory allergies over the years, but when he was in his 20s, he had no allergies at all. His doctors postulate that increased levels of airborne particulates from pollution and climate change is a very real possible cause for his allergies. Is it possible that all the ultrasonic electronic noise from modern devices and gadgets represents a similar kind of increased environmental pollution and stimulus that causes the hyper-sensitive reaction we describe as tinnitus?

What about anyone else? Does electronic noise from an SSD in your quiet computer bother you? What about any other kind of electronic devices?

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SPCR Articles of Related Interest
What is a "Silent" Computer?

A Primer on Noise in Computing

External Links of
Interest

Wikipedia – Tinnitus
American Tinnitus Association
Ringing in the Ear Comes From the Brain
Wikipedia – Allergy
Discover Magazine: "Ringing in the Ears" Actually Goes Much Deeper

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Discuss this article in the SPCR Forums.

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