Everyone's talking about bandwidth, but what about our own? Most sound we hear is accidental and has a massive impact on our mood, our stress levels and our productivity, but few of us recognise it as a problem.
"Sound affects us psychologically, psychologically, cognitive and behaviourally, even though we're not aware of it," says Julian Treasure, Chairman of The Sound Agency and author of Sound Business, speaking at a recent lecture in Nice attended by TechRadar.
"We move through soundscapes all the time, and most of them are accidental - a by-product. Most retail soundscapes are accidental, incongruent with the brands, and mostly hostile."
Some examples include squeaky ("screaming") shopping carts, noisy chiller cabinets ("it's like standing in a factory") and the most prevalent of all: lousy music delivered through cheap speakers and public address announcements ("who would think that creates a pleasant environment?").
Treasure singles out hospitals, where noise levels - beeping machinery, computers, and general din - have doubled in the last 40 years. It affects patients ('threatening' noise means sleep is degraded, delaying recovery) and staff, whose rate of dispensing errors is on the rise, too. "We're designing environments that make us crazy," he says.
The open-plan office racket
One location where sound is not conducive to modern living is at work where open-plan offices and chattering colleagues contribute to an environment where concentration is virtually impossible. "Not even a woman cannot understand two people talking at the same time," says Treasure.
"We have the capacity for about 1.6 human conversations, so if you're listening to one conservation particularly you're only left with 0.6 for your inner voice that helps you write," he says, claiming that office workers are 66% less productive in an open-plan office than when left on their own.
It's no wonder that Treasure has particular concern for architects' ears - he thinks they should use them. "Let's stop this madness of open-plan classrooms right now," he says of some recent experiments in education before describing how the reverberation time of a room - and clarity of speech, which is as low as 50% on 'normal' classrooms - can be massively increased through the use of sound-absorbing treatments.
There are health reasons, too. A study in Germany found that 65 decibels is the average noise level of a classroom, and that at precisely that threshold a teacher's heart-rate increases to hit heart-attack levels.
"Many teachers are losing significant life expectancy by teaching in environments like this every day." And yet it costs just £2.5k to sound-proof a classroom.
Music: problem or solution?
Both a major problem - and a solution - to distracting or uncomfortable sound is music itself. Take music in shops: how often have you entered a shop, a cafe or a pub that blasts out a commercial radio station or TV channel seemingly as loud as possible, subjecting everyone inside to meaningless adverts and over-familiar songs?
These people ought to be trying to create a comforting, calming atmosphere that makes customers feel relaxed and encouraged to make carefully considered buying decisions. Instead, loud, harsh music through tiny, tinny speakers makes many of us unconsciously about-turn and take flight without even considering why.
That's not to say carefully thought-through music can't also be part of the cure. One of The Sound Agency's projects is Harrods' Toy Kingdom, which opened last summer and has sounds of a circus and an enchanted forest with little fairy voices from flowerpots situated at ear-height for children. "It's a designed sensory environment," says Treasure. "It's not just about sticking some music on."
With the constant hum of modern life is taking its toll, Treasure thinks we're losing the ability to listen. Partly because the ability to easily record audio and video using smartphones and tablets has made the premium on accurate and careful listening disappear, but also because the world is now so noisy, both visually and auditory, listening has become a chore.
"Many people take refuge in headphones, but they turn public spaces into millions of tiny sound bubbles," he says. "No one's listening to anybody. We're becoming impatient; we don't want oratory, we want soundbites, and the art of conservation is being replaced by personal broadcasting."
Wearing headphones is but a sticking plaster over the problem of sound in cities. "It's frightening just how many people are now wearing headphones, as if they're trying to escape the world we've created," says Poppy Elliott, who runs Quiet Mark, a UK-based not-for-profit arm of the Noise Abatement Society.
Quiet Mark is an awards scheme that seeks-out - and certifies - everything from gadgets, kettles and washing machines, to cars, heavy machinery and lawnmowers whose manufacturers pay close attention to achieving low noise levels.
Getting back to nature
Blocking out irritating, distracting or downright nasty sound isn't easy. "If you put music on top of noise, it's like putting icing on top of mud; it might look like a cake, but it doesn't taste like one," says Treasure. "Music on top of noise is just more noise, and most retailers don't understand that."
Even when we do decide to retreat to our own worlds within headphones, it's usually with music that neither helps concentration nor encourages serenity. If you're trying to work, don't fill your headphones with anything with a 'voice', such as radio, podcasts or even lyric-filled songs since they'll only further use up your concentration.
The best sounds for concentration are natural and unpredictable, with a general mood replacing a narrative that your brain will unconsciously be distracted by.
"Over hundreds of thousands of years humans have learned that when the birds are singing, we're safe, so it makes us feel secure," says Treasure, though as well as birdsong, streams, waves and forest sounds can all help.
The key theme here is ambience, and Treasure has helped develop randomly generated soundscapes for umpteen brands, shops and hotels, clips of which can be downloaded from Soundcloud, while a CD called Moodsonic and a free app that plays a 40-minute loop of entrancing randomness, Study for iOS, are also available.
If you work in a noisy environment and need to write, soundscapes like this are a God-send - and we'd put Brian Eno's ambient classic from way back in 1978, Music For Airports, in that category, too.
The future for sound
Even with the right kind of soundscape chosen, the quality isn't always the best. "People have become accustomed to poor quality audio, relying on expensive speaker systems and headphones to conjure up an audio experience fed by heavily compressed, thin audio sources," says James Caselton, Head of Product and Partner Marketing at Dolby, who thinks that 'driving headphones and speakers to the limit' is now easy to achieve.
Although it's hardly become mainstream, there's a definite trend towards higher quality downloads, and as hard disk space becomes less of an issue (a 2TB hard drive now costs less than £200), ripping CDs in lossless quality - or downloading music as hi-res WAV, FLAC or OGG files (for now, usually only from the websites of minor record labels and artists) - is at last a realistic ambition.
Meanwhile, music for home cinemas is getting more advanced, too, with the Wireless Audio & Speaker Association recently showing a completely cable-free 7.1-surround sound system.
Is this the future for cinema audio? Yes, it is, says Dolby, who thinks that the future of surround sound is a move from channel-based sound to object-based sound.
"Object-based sound is the future as it provides much more control over the placement and movement of isolated sounds or objects within a theatre environment," says Caselton. "This puts audiences right in the middle of the action and offers a more natural, realistic sound that envelops the audience."
Dolby's own take on this, called Atmos, was launched last year and has been used in over 100 cinemas and in more than 30 films, including The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Life of Pi.
Even the advance of the humble soundbar - which now makes up a third of all speaker sales - is an indication that sound is becoming just as important as visuals.
A pillar of existence
"Sound is a pillar of our existence that has been ignored," says Elliott. "We've had the golden age of design technology and we've got every single machine conceivable that does everything for us either here or on its way, but maybe the way those machines sound hasn't been given a high enough priority."
Maybe it's time we all started making more noise about better sound.