There’s nothing quite like the feeling of putting on headphones, turning up the volume on a favorite piece of music and losing yourself in the song. It’s an incredibly immersive experience. Audio technology has advanced so much that headphones are now very inexpensive and can almost instantly transport you to your own personal musical space.
However, along with this pleasurable experience comes a hidden danger—hearing damage, which can include permanent hearing damage.
According to the World Health Organization over one billion young adults and teens are at risk of hearing loss because of listening to music at high volumes.
The type of headphones you use, whether they are over-the-ear headphones, noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds, has no bearing on hearing loss. You can choose any type you like. However, all three types have the same potential for hearing loss and damage. It’s the volume of the sound you’re listening to that contributes directly towards damage.
How Does Hearing Loss Happen and How Loud Should Headphones Be?
Quiet and soft sounds through your headphones do not cause hearing loss. It’s when those sounds get louder that you need to be careful. Some sound waves are so powerful that they can actually tear through the eardrum and disrupt the ear canal. However, most audio equipment such as stereos, smartphones, MP3 players and computers are not designed to go that loud.
Hearing loss is a symptom of nerve damage in your ear. These nerve fibers are located in the inner ear and carry signals to the brain which processes the sounds.
Hearing loss can really affect your life. You won’t be able to understand conversations as well and it will be more difficult to pick out individual sounds in a crowded audio environment like when using public transportation or at a sports arena.
The sounds around you will be noticeably more muddled and less distinct, as if you’re listening through earmuffs. Hearing loss can creep up on you over time, since most nerve damage takes a while to fully become noticeable.
Reduce the Decibel Level
Now that you know and understand how hearing loss occurs, what can you do to prevent it?
The key is to keep the volume level to 85 decibels or below. This is the peak loudness before you start suffering nerve damage in your inner ear.
How loud is 85 decibels? It’s about the same as noisy city traffic. You can actually listen to sounds of 85 decibels all day without doing any harm to your ears. They were biologically designed to be able to handle this level of loudness.
However, not all audio devices have their peak loudness at 85 decibels! They can often go up to 120 decibels or even more, which is a lot louder than is safe for your hearing health. 120 decibels is very loud—even louder than a rock concert or a chainsaw.
To keep your hearing intact, keep the volume slider on your speakers to the middle or lower. If you experience any early symptoms of hearing loss such as ringing in the ears of a dullness to sounds, then take off your headphones and give your ears a rest for at least an hour. You might also feel a headache. When you put the headphones back on, keep the volume much lower than it was and don’t raise it above the middle volume level.
Keeping the volume low is especially pertinent if you use in-ear headphones or earbuds since they sit directly in your ear canal. There’s no buffer between the sound and your eardrum, so the potential for hearing loss is greater. Padded over-the-ear headphones also seal in sound and create a potentially harmful environment for your ear canal nerves.
Cancel the Noise, Keep the Sound
It might put a damper on your music listening pleasure to listen at a lower volume. That’s understandable—sometimes you just want to crank the bass. So if you want to do that, choose a quiet location where your headphones don’t have to compete with traffic, crowds and other outside noises.
Choose noise-cancelling headphones that won’t pick up outside sounds. Then put on a song and keep the volume at a medium level of 85 decibels or lower. If you want to listen at a louder volume, only do so for a few minutes at a time. Afterwards, turn the volume back down or give your ears a rest from the headphones.
By following these tips you can protect your hearing while still enjoying your favorite music.
For further reading, be sure to check out our article on Which Headphones Have The Most Bass?