Everyone does it: get on the train and hole up with a good pair of headphones or ear-buds; soundtrack their walk to work with some happy-music, or go for a jog while jacked into some solid motivational smash hits. In most of these everyday sitches, you’re likely to push the volume up to compete with the traffic, the other commuters on the bus, or the heavy breathing of your fellow joggers. Fair enough. But what most people don’t realise is that this can unfortunately cause your delicate ears some serious damage. In this blog, we seek to answer the most essential questions regarding the hearing damage caused by using a humble set of headphones or ear-buds.

Headphones & Hearing Damage: The Facts

Are You OK?

Hearing damage isn’t something you necessarily notice is happening, so a lot of the time people think, “Oh, it can’t be that bad!” But damage can be caused very quickly and is irreparable, and while we should be taking better care of our ears, many of us don’t. In 2015, the World Health Organisation released a shocking report stating that more than 50% of people under 30 had already been subjected to unsafe sound levels. As such, the number of people with hearing damage has increased dramatically, and this has a lot to do with the emergence of smart phones and personal music players. But what exactly is so harmful about them?

Headphones & Hearing Damage: The Facts
Image source: jouwggd.nl

How Many Decibels?

In general, any sound that’s as loud as up to 75dB is considered safe and unlikely to cause any damage to your hearing. However, a standard smartphone produces levels that range from a maximum of 85dB to an ear-splitting 110dB. So, it’s undeniable that this is going to cause some damage. What a lot of people are also blissfully unaware of, is that the difference between say, 100dB and 103dB is much bigger than you’d think. In reality, an increase of just 10 decibels actually doubles the volume, meaning that 90dB is actually twice as loud as 80dB – way more than it looks on paper. Also, the higher the volume, the faster your hearing is damaged. As you can see in the table included above, being exposed to 110dB of sound causes immediate damage, while levels that seem harmless can be just as harmful if your ears are exposed to them for a long period of time.

Headphones & Hearing Damage: The Facts

Better Safe Than Sorry!

There are plenty of guidelines you can follow to prevent hearing damage without even having to wear ear plugs or invest in a pair of eye-wateringly expensive headphones. You probably already expected the first point, because it is that obvious: turn the volume down a little bit. A small difference in volume can make a massive difference for your hearing. Also, it’s often possible to install a limiter on your phone. These simple limiters automatically bring the maximum volume down to the safer, EU-certified level of 85dB, so you’re never in danger of it creeping up. If you happen not to listen to music on your phone, then just make sure not to push the volume of your preferred device any further than two-thirds, or around 65%. Another good tip is to take regular breaks! An ear-break does wonders and a little silence aids their recovery, since when you remove your headphones or ear-buds, the little hairs in your eardrum (also known as cilia) can stop vibrating and get some much needed rest. And the final tip: Listen to your own body! While you don’t always notice when hearing damage is happening, there are little signs you can look out for. For example, if you often hear a continuous beep in your ears, then beware! If you’re like me and find that you’re more sensitive to certain sounds, and especially higher pitched sounds, then the chance that you’ve already suffered hearing damage is much greater. So, I’ll say it again, be kind to your ears!

Headphones & Hearing Damage: The Facts

Ear-Buds or Headphones?

There are frequent and lengthy discussions about what exactly is best for your ears when it comes to using a pair of standard headphones or in-ear buds. One side says a lot of this while the other says a load of that, so you end up with an unclear picture of what might actually be good for you. Luckily, some of the myths involved can be immediately chucked out. The most well-spun fairy tale is the one that says in-ears and ear-buds are better for you. The story goes that ambient, environmental sound is closed off more efficiently, since the headphones are literally stuffed in your ears, and that because of this, you’re not forced to turn up the volume so much to block everything out. This is just not true! In-ears are probably the worst choice you could make when it comes to headphones. Why? On average, in-ears and ear-buds are worn about a 1cm away from the eardrum – and that’s a lot deeper than you ever want. Since they sit so close, the strain on your eardrum is increased, which is obviously going to be bad for your ears, so any extra ambient noise becomes almost laughably irrelevant. Naturally, ear-buds don’t have to be so damaging as long as you following the few little tips we’ve already talked about. But ok, if you want the healthiest set of ears possible, then you’re definitely better off using a pair of standard headphones. But which ones?

Headphones & Hearing Damage: The Facts
A closed and an open set of headphones (over-ear)

Open/Closed and On/Over-Ear

The best choice for your ears is a pair of covering, over-ear headphones. These literally sit over your ears, far enough away from your eardrum and ensure that as little ambient noise gets in as possible. As such, the volume doesn’t have to be so high to get a great experience – as long as you’re careful not to nudge it up in busy traffic. But then, why not a set of on-ear headphones and open headphones? A lot of people do say that they’re better for your ears. Well, because they sit on your ear rather than around it, or they’re actually open, they let in a lot of ambient noise. The result: you’re going to be turning the volume up to block out the ambient noise and, since they sit the same distance from your eardrum as closed over-ear headphones, pushing the volume makes on-ear and open headphones potentially more damaging. But, if you only listen to music in more restful settings, then this is going to be much less of a problem.

Headphones & Hearing Damage: The Facts
Image (edited): Graphical Depiction of Active Noise Reduction, by Marekich, licence CC BY-SA 3.0

ANC: Can it Get Even Better than the Best?

Since we actually live in the future, you can now get headphones equipped with ‘Active Noise Cancellation’. What does this mean? ANC, as they call it in the business, ensures that any ambient noise is reduced to an absolute minimum. A pair of ANC capable headphones has a smart little microphone built in that actively monitors ambient noise, then flips the wave-form of the sound upside down. If you know anything about the effect of phase, then you already know what this means. What it does is effectively create a kind of ‘anti-noise’ which gets mixed with whatever you’re listening to on your headphones and effectively cancels out the influence of any ambient noise. While this might sound like dark magic, you shouldn’t expect it to be able to perform miracles. The system does work perfectly when tackling continuous noise, like the hum of a motor, but it can struggle a little bit when coming up against something like people passing by while having a chat. The goal of ANC is to allow you to enjoy music without having to turn the volume up too high. And, while this certainly makes the world of headphones much better, there are a couple of negatives to it. For instance, because you hear so little of the outside world, walking in busy traffic isn’t exactly advisable. Also, active noise cancellation is a relatively fresh slice of tech and therefore comes with a fairly hefty price tag when compared to a standard set of headphones that haven’t been blessed with its presence. So, you should definitely ask youself if it’s actually worth it – and the answer will naturally be different for everyone.

Headphones & Hearing Damage: The Facts

What Have We Learned?!

This blog has sought to explain how far we’ve gone in ignoring the health of our poor ears, the kind of damage that a set of ear-buds or headphones can cause, how you can best prevent damage to your ears, and what kind of headphones might help. It’s also worth noting that every pair of ears on Earth is different. One pair of ears will react differently to certain sounds than another pair of ears, and people have an utterly unique set of demands when it comes to sound and comfort. Whatever choice you do make, always make sure to remember the few simple tips we’ve offered, so you can enjoy the wonders that your ears are for decades upon decades to come.

How do you keep your ears healthy? Let us know below!

See Also …

» Hearing Protection Gear Guide
» Headphone Gear Guide
» DJ Headphone Gear Guide
» Headphone Impedance Explained

» Noise Cancelling Headphones
» Noise Cancelling Ear-Buds
» DJ Headphones
» Wireless Headphones
» Drum Headphones
» Studio Headphones
» All Headphones
» All Ear-Buds
» Headphone Cases and Bags
» Headphone Holders
» Headphone Adapters
» Hearing Protection

1 response
  1. Bill Wallace says:

    Thank you for the information (Headphones & Hearing Damage), it has been very helpful.

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