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Effect of masker head orientation, listener age, and extended high-frequency sensitivity on speech recognition in spatially separated speech


Objectives: Masked speech recognition is typically assessed as though the target and background talkers are all directly facing the listener. However, background speech in natural environments is often produced by talkers facing other directions, and talker head orientation affects the spectral content of speech, particularly at the extended high frequencies (EHFs; >8 kHz). This study investigated the effect of masker head orientation and listeners' EHF sensitivity on speech-in-speech recognition and spatial release from masking in children and adults.

Design: Participants were 5- to 7-year-olds (n = 15) and adults (n = 34), all with normal hearing up to 8 kHz and a range of EHF hearing thresholds. Speech reception thresholds (SRTs) were measured for target sentences recorded from a microphone directly in front of the talker's mouth and presented from a loudspeaker directly in front of the listener, simulating a target directly in front of and facing the listener. The maskers were two streams of concatenated words recorded from a microphone located at either 0° or 60° azimuth, simulating masker talkers facing the listener or facing away from the listener, respectively. Maskers were presented in one of three spatial conditions: co-located with the target, symmetrically separated on either side of the target (+54° and -54° on the horizontal plane), or asymmetrically separated to the right of the target (both +54° on the horizontal plane).

Results: Performance was poorer for the facing than for the nonfacing masker head orientation. This benefit of the nonfacing masker head orientation, or head orientation release from masking (HORM), was largest under the co-located condition, but it was also observed for the symmetric and asymmetric masker spatial separation conditions. SRTs were positively correlated with the mean 16-kHz threshold across ears in adults for the nonfacing conditions but not for the facing masker conditions. In adults with normal EHF thresholds, the HORM was comparable in magnitude to the benefit of a symmetric spatial separation of the target and maskers. Although children benefited from the nonfacing masker head orientation, their HORM was reduced compared to adults with normal EHF thresholds. Spatial release from masking was comparable across age groups for symmetric masker placement, but it was larger in adults than children for the asymmetric masker.

Conclusions: Masker head orientation affects speech-in-speech recognition in children and adults, particularly those with normal EHF thresholds. This is important because masker talkers do not all face the listener under most natural listening conditions, and assuming a midline orientation would tend to overestimate the effect of spatial separation. The benefits associated with EHF audibility for speech-in-speech recognition may warrant clinical evaluation of thresholds above 8 kHz.

DOI: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000001081