Hearing screening for school children: utility of noise-cancelling headphones

Lo, A.H.C. and McPHERSON, B. Hearing screening for school children: utility of noise-cancelling headphones. BMC Ear, Nose and Throat Disorders, 13:6. 2013.



Excessive ambient noise in school settings is a major concern for school hearing screening as it typically masks pure tone test stimuli (particularly 500 Hz and below). This results in false positive findings and subsequent unnecessary follow-up. With advances in technology, noise-cancelling headphones have been developed that reduce low frequency noise by superimposing an anti-phase signal onto the primary noise. This research study examined the utility of noise-cancelling headphone technology in a school hearing screening environment.


The present study compared the audiometric screening results obtained from two air-conduction transducers—Sennheiser PXC450 noise-cancelling circumaural headphones (NC headphones) and conventional TDH-39 supra-aural earphones. Pure-tone hearing screening results (500 Hz to 4000 Hz, at 30 dB HL and 25 dB HL) were obtained from 232 school children, aged 6 to 8 years, in four Hong Kong primary schools.


Screening outcomes revealed significant differences in referral rates between TDH-39 earphones and NC headphones for both 30 dB HL and 25 dB HL criteria, regardless of the inclusion or exclusion of 500 Hz results. The kappa observed agreement (OA) showed that at both screening intensities, the transducers’ referral agreement value for the 500 Hz inclusion group was smaller than for the 500 Hz exclusion group. Individual frequency analysis showed that the two transducers screened similarly at 1000 Hz and 2000 Hz at 25 dB HL, as well as at both 30 dB HL and 25 dB HL screening levels for 4000 Hz. Statistically significant differences were found for 500 Hz at 30 dB HL and at 25 dB HL, and for 1000 Hz and 2000 Hz at 30 dB HL. OA for individual frequencies showed weaker intra-frequency agreement between the two transducers at 500 Hz at both intensity criterion levels than at higher frequencies.


NC headphones screening results differed from those obtained from TDH-39 earphones, with lower referral rates at 500 Hz, particularly at the 25 dB HL criterion level. Therefore, NC headphones may be able to operate at lower screening intensities and subsequently increase pure-tone screening test sensitivity, without compromising specificity. NC headphones show some promise as possible replacements for conventional earphones in school hearing screening programs.