In case you haven’t seen it yet, The New York Times reports today that New York-area schoolkids have resorted to an unusual solution to cellphone bans. Apparently unaware of phones’ vibrate mode, the students have opted for an incredibly annoying ringtone pitched at 17,000 Hz. Theoretically, “adults” shouldn’t be able to hear that. (The real issue is middle-aged adults, an ironic choice in New York schools where many of the faculty are younger.) I also think that’s a liberal estimate of hearing loss; while most people lose some of their high-end hearing as they age, the numbers from the private security firm quoted in the article seem a little odd — 12,000 Hz for a 50-year-old? I hope not! (Better cover your ears on the subways, huh?)

A Ring Tone Meant to Fall on Deaf Ears [; registration required and free story may expire]

The upshot of all of this is that there’s a free, if primitive, hearing test in the article (and presumably, all over the Web where these students are getting it). Hearing loss is a major problem; according to Aetna and the Harvard Medical School, 24% and 40% of adults over age 65 have difficulty hearing, and thirty percent of people over age 85 are deaf in at least one ear. For a better hearing test, here’s a free online example (I’m sure there are others online, and of course this does NOT substitute for a medical exam . . . nor can it measure just how annoying a kid with a cell phone can be):

Free Hearing Test

Anyone out there know what typical hearing loss figures are around middle age? (Lately, every time I write something some real experts show up out of nowhere, which is a pleasant experience!)

  • Adrian Anders

    Can you hear me now? No? Good.

  • interested in electric baton and somehow wandered hear.

  • kokorozashi

    The NYT article seems based on a hoax. Cell phone speakers are crap.

  • GaryG

    I'm skeptical, I wouldn't have thought any mobile would have a speaker capable of reproducing a tone in that range…

  • It doesn't seem to be a hoax, in that the NYT writer claims to have heard it on the cell phones. I don't think it's impossible that one of these devices could produce sound in that range . . . or, on the other hand, that could explain why no one can hear it. 😉

  • i tried out generating a 17 kHz tone and i (age 25) could definitely hear it, but i supposed that there is the factor of at what levels you could hear different frequencies.

    anyway, i guess an added benefit is that higher frequencies get absorbed more easily, so that even if a teacher could hear that frequency, hearing it from across a classroom filled with kids should be tough.

    lastly, the fact that ringtones are not usually in that frequency makes it less discernable as an alarm.

    i think the most interesting part of the article is the original intention of the "technology". as a crowd deterrent specifically for younger people. that's funny.

  • Egan

    It's so funny how many people question a small speakers ability to play a 17KHz tone. The larger speakers have LOW end, in addition, often times with the same small speaker as tweeter, super tweeter, or these days with MP3, iPod speakers have one mid range and no bass!

    I think Yamaha's replacement for NS10's, 5" & 1" near fields have a frequency response over 47KHz +/- 3db ( who else would measure it? )

    At Berklee Music College – a mandatory class Music Technology 101 – has like 150, 18-30 year olds listen & 99% + hear 20KHz sine wave… and the girls hear a 30KHz sine ( I only know they weren't joking because all heard and thought I was kidding…) Notable because it's a big group of people, and done every semester, with very standard results – no testing on this, just so we know how they sound, loudness in frequency ranges, a test tone @ home doesn't show how others hear it….

    Anyway, the small speakers, can reproduce all the high end – it's lower notes which cause trouble for tiny speakers… Cell phones are a huge variety, but most current phones can broadcast FAR above that, even on speaker phone.

    Yes, not a bright idea for under 30 year old female teachers…. ( is it smaller ears that make them more high end sensitive, and not great low end? I dunno..)

    Oh, I submit general hearing knowledge, undamaged, as I believe many formerly common situations of hearing damage environments are better prepared for, other concerts which caused hearing loss to all audience members are illegal…etc. as always Your Milage May Vary!

  • widdlt

    I reckon it's a hoax. The speakersthemselves might be able to produce a 17kHz tone but the sampling rate the sound is produced at is most likely 22kHz or less putting 17kHz tones well above the nyquist. The tones will then foldover and appear as audible aliasing noise around 5kHz.

  • akdjflkdj

    heard it meself, it be true laddies, them kids got high pitch noiseys

  • old fogey

    It is not a hoax. I know kids who have it on their phones. Problem for them is I am 33 and can hear it fine and it bites. It is truly a piercing sound.

  • Jesse Badger

    I dont understand why it is so hard to believe. All my friends have it on our phones and play it throughout class, the teacher doesn't hear a thing. We even played it in front of him and asked if he could hear it and he said he didn't hear a thing. For us students however, we are going crazy. The noise is very annoying.

  • Barbara

    This is not a hoax. We played it for unsuspecting teenagers and kids. We even tested on a 20 yr old, who did hear it. They stated they heard a very high pitch annoying sound. I'm in my late 30's and heard nothing.

  • Ok so the ringtone is def. real, because I have it on my phone. It is a very high pitched sound, and when I play it my dog goes nuts, so yes it is very true!