We all love our headphones and enjoy the privacy they offer us, but at the same time, we have to be conscious of the dangers headphones present. A lot of users crank up the volume to unhealthy levels and hurt their hearing long term.
The great advantage of headphones is the ability to hear every little detail in the music. That is why professionals use headphones instead of loudspeakers. With headphones, the sound travels directly from transducers to the eardrums without distortion.
Loss of hearing can have a substantial effect on the person’s ability to hear musical details, which negates the usage of high-end headphones.
Using headphones responsibly and practicing safe headphone use should be one thing all audiophiles and even regular users should be aware of.
Below you’ll find some guidelines for safe listening that should help avoid an unwanted ear doctor visitation. (Keep in mind the information given is not a substitute for medical expertise. Consult a real doctor for a diagnosis.)
How the Ear Works (Simple Explanation)
From the picture above, you can imagine how the sound travels down the external auditory canal, also called the ear canal, to the tympanic membrane or eardrum and makes it vibrate. The eardrum transfers the vibration to the 3 bones called Malleus, Incus, and Stapes, which amplify the sound.
The last vibrating bone, also the smallest bone in the human body, Stapes, is attached to the Cochlea, which, with the help of fluid and sound-sensitive hair cells, transforms the vibration into electrical signals traveling to the brain.
That is a simplified explanation of how the ear hears the sounds and sends its information to the brains.
The table on the left shows how fast hearing damage can occur at different levels of volume. The louder the sound, the quicker hearing degradation occurs.
OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) permits workplace noise levels of up to 90dB for an 8-hour workday. Additionally, higher volume exposure is also allowed, but for shorter periods.
Loudness of Everyday Sounds
Many people experience loud and thus harmful noise levels daily, but because they are exposed to the sounds for shorter periods, the harmful effects don’t show immediately.
Let’s name a few areas where you should be cautious about your hearing:
- If you work on a construction site
- If you operate with loud machines in manufacturing
- If you often visit loud concerts, where loudness can reach 120dB
- If you participate in sporting events like motorcycle rides
Remember that hearing damage can accumulate over time, but because it occurs gradually, it’s almost impossible to recognize the difference in your hearing over many years.
Your hearing might be damaged because of cumulative effects in your environment, but because you don’t have anything to compare it with, your brain doesn’t alert you about it.
The only real measure of hearing damage can be done with a medical examination by a doctor, which you should visit if you are concerned about your hearing ability.
Statistics for the Decibel (Loudness) Comparison Chart were taken from a study by Marshall Chasin, M.Sc., Aud(C), FAAA, Centre for Human Performance & Health, Ontario, Canada. There were some conflicting readings, and, in many cases, the authors did not specify at what distance the readings were taken or what the musician was actually playing. In general, when there were several readings, the higher one was chosen.
Loudness of Musical Noise
Some musical instruments can also produce damaging noise levels though long-term exposure is usually avoided since music uses different noise levels.
If you visit loud concerts frequently, you might have a problem with hearing damage over time. Some research suggests that loud, constant noises are more problematic than listening to music, which is perceived as pleasant by the listener, but it is best not to count on it.
What Type of Hearing Damage Can Occur Due to Noise Levels
There are 3 types of hearing loss:
- Conductive hearing loss
- Sensorineural hearing loss
- Mixed hearing loss (a combination of both)
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss occurs when the conductive mechanism that transfers sound vibrations from the middle ear canal to the internal ear doesn’t function correctly, or at all. The damage can occur due to disease, various conditions, and loudness abuse.
Conductive hearing loss might result in hearing all sounds at a lower volume while the ear still functions properly at higher energy needed to hear the same intensity. You can still hear all frequencies, but your ears require more energy (loudness) to send an audible signal to the inner ear and brain at the end.
More often than not, conductive hearing loss can be treated entirely or partially to remove the hearing impediment. Various medical treatments combined with hearing aids substantially improve the patient’s ability to hear normally and thus help the patient to communicate naturally with those around.
Sensorineural Hearing Loss
As the word tells, it’s a combination of sensory and neural hearing degradation. A sensory and neural (also known as retrocochlear) hearing impairment can exist in one ear only. The only way to differentiate between the two is with in-depth audiometric testing. The most common reason for sensorineural hearing damage is an inner ear or auditory nerve damage.
The damaged organ of Corti (also called spiral organ) and damaged hair cells, being unable to stimulate the nerves, are most commonly associated with sensory hearing loss. The hearing nerves’ inability to send over the neurochemical information is the most common cause of neural hearing degradation.
Even with today’s modern technology in the medical field, it is not always possible to determine the causes of sensorineural hearing loss. It is also harder to treat than conductive hearing loss. More often than not, it is a permanent condition that can only be treated at a symptomatic level with hearing aids. Keep in mind that sensorineural hearing degradation can lower sensitivity to loudness and distortion or inability to hear specific frequencies even when present at an otherwise audible level.
Mixed Hearing Loss
As the name suggests, mixed hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural and conductive hearing loss, which can be improved only by treating the sound conductive mechanism. At the same time, sensory and/or neural damage is helped with hearing aids. This condition is permanent, and professional medical help is required to remedy the condition.
How to Know if You Have Hearing Damage (Symptoms of Hearing Damage)
Keep in mind that hearing problems are not always permanent and can occur temporarily after being exposed to damaging situations. Timely medical treatment can, in many cases, help the patient to recover from the loss of hearing completely.
Additionally, pretty much all humans are subject to gradual hearing loss. The effects of gradual hearing loss can accumulate over time, but it is difficult to spot and seek medical help soon enough because this happens over many years.
After being exposed to a loud sound, the most common signs of hearing loss are:
- Muffling of speech in general
- Difficulty understanding speech of certain words (due to the ears not being able to hear specific frequencies)
- Difficulty following other people talking, asking them to slow down in a noisy environment
- Buzzing or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
Any of the above symptoms can occur when exposed to loud noises for extended periods. When you are in a loud club for too long, it is very common to experience many of the symptoms described above.
Thankfully after some time, your hearing should improve, but if you keep abusing your ears like this, the damage can become permanent.
For people with inner ear damage, the best bone conduction headphones can be a good alternative, as they don’t require a healthy cochlea.
How to Know if My Headphones are Too Loud?
Suppose you are using an amplifier and a powerful playing device. In that case, it is very easy to crank up the volume to unhealthy volumes, unknowingly hurting your hearing in the long run. If you experience any of the symptoms above after listening with headphones, this is a sign you have listened at too loud volume.
How to Set Safe Volume with Headphones?
The Fletcher-Munson loudness curve above shows how the perception of sound changes at different loudness levels. Loudness depends on volume and frequency. That is why lower volumes are less fun to listen to. You can clearly see the non-linear curve in the picture above.
That explains why so many want to increase the volume of music that they like. With some tone rebalancing, you can adjust the amplitude spectrum at lower volume levels to have a more pleasant listening experience. Unfortunately, the dynamic filters needed to adjust the spectrum are not available to average users and are only being used in a professional production.
With the equalizers present in many modern playing devices, you can adjust some frequencies to produce a more natural and more appealing sound. The adjustment of treble and bass, high and low frequencies will give you the best results.
Setting a safe volume level with headphones depends on the type of headphones used and the environment. Since most people don’t have an SPL (sound pressure level) meter just for figuring out the safe volume levels, you have to resort to different methods.
A simple test in a quiet environment that will tell you if your headphones are too loud is to do this:
- Turn up the headphones’ volume to your preferred level, then take them off your ears and hold them in your hands extended in front of you. If you can still hear the music clearly, your headphones are too loud. This method works only in a peaceful environment and doesn’t give the right volume information in noisy places.
- If you are using open-back headphones, a good way to tell if your volume is healthy is the ability to have a normal conversation with another person nearby. As long as you can carry a conversation with open-back headphones on, your volume is low enough.
Headphone use on loud, busy streets is slightly different. A study conducted on music volume people use in a busy street showed many users increased the volume because of the environmental noise to higher than 80 dB (up to 80 dB is not dangerous). The majority of people use dangerous levels of volume in noisy, public areas.
What else can you do, apart from lowering the volume, to prevent hearing degradation:
- To save your hearing from cumulative damage, get a pair of noise isolating headphones or noise-cancelling headphones. These types of headphones are good at removing unwanted background noise so you can enjoy your music without hurting your ears.
- If you are using headphones for professional usage, an audio limiter is a smart idea since it will protect you from over-abusing your hearing in the long run, but you probably already know this if you are in the music business.
- The latter also applies to kids. Ensure they have special headphones with a volume limit, ensuring they can’t crank up the music dangerously loud.
- If possible, choose full-size headphones over earbuds. While true wireless earbuds are becoming more and more popular, their in-ear design can cause more harm than good. Because they’re closer to your eardrum, some frequencies can unwantedly amplify, damaging your hearing more quickly.
- Try a 60/60 rule. That means you listen to your music at 60 percent of maximum volume for 60 minutes at a time and then take a short break.
- Pick headphones with high-quality sound. Interestingly, when a headphone can produce a full range of sounds without getting muffled, we are less likely to increase the volume.
When to See a Doctor Immediately?
If you experience any of the following symptoms, it would be wise to seek medical help as soon as possible.
Severe hearing loss symptoms are:
- Acute or chronic dizziness
- Pain and discomfort in the ears
- Drainage from the ears
- Severe hearing loss from one ear (or both)
The doctor can, in many cases, prescribe medication that significantly reduces long-term hearing degradation.
Are Bluetooth Wireless Headphones Safe?
With every new technology, there is a chance it’s harmful to the human body. Bluetooth has been around for a while, but some people still question its safety. However, Bluetooth is perfectly safe.
According to the latest scientific research, no data shows a connection between using Bluetooth and any adverse health conditions.
In short, Bluetooth doesn’t affect your body’s health.
Using Bluetooth headphones might be even healthier for taking a phone call than using your smartphone. Because it only works in a short range, it actually emits less radiation than long-range mobile antennae.
Therefore, when you’re using your phone for calls, you receive more radiation than if you used a Bluetooth headset or headphones/earbuds with a microphone.
The Bluetooth emits a similar signal as a Wi-Fi (2.4GHz) except much weaker. And most users have no problem being in a Wi-Fi covered area, so you definitely shouldn’t worry about Bluetooth.
WHO’s (World Health Organization) International Agency for Research on Cancer report about phone use and cancer finds no connection between the two. Phone usage and radiation seem to have no impact on the higher occurrence of cancer.
While this technology is relatively new and proper scientific research requires more extended studies, only more time will give us a more definitive answer.
Remember that the studies that have been done until now don’t find anything harmful with wireless Bluetooth headphones. If you want to read more about wireless technology, check out our Bluetooth tech explanation.
Are Noise Cancelling Headphones Safe?
Some people might hear about the new so-called noise-cancelling headphones that use a new technology of “cancelling” noise. This technology is perfectly safe since it eliminates surrounding noise. Because of that, you don’t have to crank up the volume to hear your music.
Now, if you understand how the technology works, you’ll understand there is no way this tech could harm you.
To sum up how noise-cancelling headphones work:
The microphone picks up the surrounding noise and sends that information to the headphone’s circuitry. The circuitry then creates an opposite sound (reverses the phase) and sends it to the headphones so the sounds “cancel each other” before they reach your ears.
This way, you don’t hear all of the ranges that are actually present in your surroundings.
How to Use Headphones Responsibly
The solution is to be conscious of the fact that headphones can be dangerous to your hearing if used the wrong way.
Whenever you experience any hearing loss symptoms, remember listening to music at a lower volume or shorten the time you are exposed to loud music. We know it is not always possible to avoid high decibel noises.
When you listen to your favorite tunes on a busy street, keep in mind that overpowering the street noise isn’t healthy and will result in hearing loss over time. You can still enjoy your music with a pair of really good noise isolating or noise-cancelling headphones, which will help you keep the volume at healthy levels.
In the end, just knowing that hearing loss with headphones can happen will probably make you more careful about how you use them. Don’t be afraid to go “crazy” from time to time and turn up the volume level to the max, but keep in mind that this will affect your long-term hearing damage, so you also have to start adopting safe listening habits.
Nevertheless, headphones are a great piece of technology that makes it possible for listening to music anywhere you go in high quality. It would be a shame to get a hearing loss by not using headphones the right way.
Kyle, Jim, Causes of Hearing Loss, University of Bristol.
Occupational Noise Exposure, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Department of Labor.
Roland Mieszkowski, Marek, Common Misconceptions About Hearing, Digital Recordings.