What is Safe Volume with Headphones?

In this guide you’ll learn about safe volume levels, how to avoid hearing damage and still enjoy your music.

We live in the age of consumer electronics and personal audio. While headphones are not a new thing, they’re used more than ever before. They are perfectly safe, as long as you are using your headphones responsibly.

Some people speculate the epidemics in hearing loss is caused by listening to headphones too loud. While this may be a little sensationalist, it’s vital to know your limits and stop the volume from damaging your hearing.

The sound should be pleasant, but not drowning out background noise and cranking your cans as loud as possible.

Recommended Decibel Levels for Headphone Use

It’s important to become familiar with the term ‘decibel’. Decibels are how we measure volume.

Scientists recommend that prolonged use should be between 60 and 85 decibels.

But young people need to be more cautious because they have more sensitive hearing. Children’s headphones should be kept to max 82 dB long term to avoid hearing loss.

If you’re new to the term decibel, these numbers will mean nothing. Let’s put it into context.

The volume of normal conversation is about 60 decibels (dB for short). An alarm clock sits at around 80 dB, though this can be misleading as alarm clocks are sudden, so feel louder. Heavy traffic in a city would be around this level too. These sound levels should be comparable to your headphones while listening.

Concerts are often loud and if you’re close to speakers you can hear 100 dB which can lead to hearing loss after 2h.

For a little more frame of reference on other noise levels, the sound of a soft whisper is about 30 dB. A wristwatch is at around 20 dB.

On the other extremes, firearms are at about 150 dB. This is way too loud. At these volumes, we wear hearing protection to stop damage to our ears, so cranking your music this loud is a big no-no.

The graph below shows everyday loud noises and the decibel levels they reach.

Most MP3 players, phones, and other listening devices go above the recommended decibel levels with headphones when you turn up the volume. They can usually reach about 105 dB. If you’re going to listen to these levels, it should be for brief periods of time (10 minutes).

It’s tempting to drown out ambient noise by cranking the headphones up, but it isn’t worth the risk.

Generally, listening at half the available volume is safe for most headphones, reaching around 60-80 dB.

Taking Accurate Decibel Measurements is Hard

Taking decibel measurements from your headphones can be a challenge. This is not ideal if you are trying to figure out whether you are listening at a safe level.

A sound meter is sometimes used, but the accuracy is not perfect. It relies on a microphone to pick up the volume of sound, and even when placed up close to your headphones, it’s not an exact science.

You will be better off checking the manufacturer details for your device.

For instance, Apple devices max out at 102 decibels. This means that at around 70% volume, you know you’re at a safe level.

If you need to listen close to 100%, you know you’re getting into dangerous territory.

Headphones and earbuds sometimes advertise the sound level they are capable of reaching. This is usually limited. Don’t rely on devices and headphones to keep your volume safe, though. Some are able to go far higher than what is safe.

Risks of Using Headphones at High Volumes

What’s the fuss about? Why should you worry about the volume of your headphones? Can loud music really cause issues?

The truth is that there are plenty of risks to using your headphones at dangerously high sound levels.

Earbuds sit within the ear canal and their proximity to the eardrum makes them a particular threat. Bone conduction headphones and open-back headphones can put less pressure on the ears, but the decibels still shouldn’t be too high to cope with.

We hear sounds by the vibration of the eardrum. This vibration then runs to the cochlea via tiny bones in our ear. The cochlea has thousands of hairs within it to sense sound. The loud vibrations move them. Eventually, if the sound is too loud, they lose sensitivity. Loud noises can cause the hairs to bend, and this can cause hearing loss.

source: Audicus.com

Sometimes, hearing loss is temporary. Cells can recover, but not always. If they are damaged permanently, they will no longer play a part in your hearing. There is no cure for this, either.

Your hearing health should be a priority as you can’t repair it.

In the short term, listening too loudly won’t cause instant damage. Over time, though, it can cause hearing loss.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration only allows workplace noise levels of up to 90dB, this also assumes an 8-hour workday. Exposing yourself to louder sounds and for longer periods of time can cause hearing to degrade over time. It’s also almost impossible to notice as it happens gradually.

Here’s a study on hearing loss due to headphone listening over time.

Ears Ringing? Turn it Down!

If you’ve ever been to a rock concert or sporting event and your ears have been ringing afterward, it’s because of the excessive volume. This is your cochlea telling you that cells have been damaged. Noisy environments like that are meant to be enjoyed, and if you don’t do it every day, won’t leave permanent consequences.

They may recover, but ringing ears is a sign that you have been listening to something too loud. If your ears are ringing after listening to earbuds or headphones, you definitely need to reduce the volume.

If you are using your headphones to drown out other sounds, you are overloading your ears. Try noise-canceling headphones as an alternative, which cancel out the unwanted noise, so you can listen at lower volume.

You should also check noise cancelling earbuds or passively isolating headphones.

Signs That Your Headphone Volume is Too Loud

As it is hard to get exact decibel readings, you might rely on certain signs that your volume has crept up too loud. There are tests you can do or other signs your headphone volume is too loud.

The most obvious sign that your headphones or earbuds are too loud is noticeable hearing damage. Ear ringing muffled voices and struggling to hear people in the conversation can be a sign you’ve had your headphones too loud.

When you crank up the volume, you might even get a slightly painful reaction to the volume. That’s your ears telling you to lower the volume.

How to know it’s too loud?

If you’re listening to your music around other people, they shouldn’t be able to hear it. Set it to a comfortable level, and then put it in your ears. Ask others nearby if they can hear the sound bleeding out.

The only time sound leakage is okay is with open-back headphones.

There is a simple test you can carry out if you’re not around others. Set the headphones at the volume you normally would listen at. Then hold them in your hands at arm’s length away from you. If you can still hear the audio, it’s too loud.

Make sure the place you do this is away from loud sounds, so you have a fair test. This isn’t a scientific method, but it is a good way to see if decibel levels are above where they should be.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Damaging your hearing instantly by listening to headphones is rare. However, it is always good to know when you should go to the doctor. Protect your ears as a priority as it’s not repairable.

If you experience:

  • sudden hearing loss that lasts more than a few seconds
  • intense pain in one or both ears
  • ringing that doesn’t go away (tinnitus)
  • drainage or seeping coming from the ear

In all these cases, seek medical help immediately to avoid and possibly remedy the problem.

Safe Headphone Volume for Kids

More and more children are using headphones with tablets and other mobile devices. Monitoring your kid’s headphones is vital as they won’t always be able to spot the signs of hearing loss on their own.

Children are still developing and hearing loss occurs at lower decibels than in adults.

Kid with headphones

Kids should use special headphones with volume limiters to protect their hearing.

The world health organization provides a guideline of decibel exposure. For adults, they recommend never being exposed to 140 dB or above. For children, this maximum volume is 120 dB.

Short exposure to loud noise is fine.

But keep in mind loud music is more damaging to children’s hearing than adults. If you notice them listening to headphones loudly, then try to explain that it isn’t good for them.

Some toddler headphones allow you to limit the sound levels from creeping up to dangerous levels, so you don’t have to supervise them all the time.

How to Ensure Safe Listening for Kids?

You don’t have to constantly monitor the volume if you get special headphones for kids.

These come with volume control or limiters that you set up before giving them to your kids. That way, they’ll never expose themselves to dangerous volumes.

BuddyPhones models come with a limiter at 75dB for toddlers, 85dB for older kids, and 94dB for studying or traveling.

An effective volume limiter is the best way to protect your children’s hearing and development.

You can check for the best kids headphones here.

Conclusion

The truth is that as long as you know the basics of responsible listening, you don’t need to worry too much. Just be aware prolonged exposure to higher volumes is damaging.

If you’re listening to music for many hours at a time or work in an environment where it’s loud, be aware that your ears need a break and time to recover.

And when you feel you need some loud music to get your rocks off, keep it to a couple of minutes.

Occasional exposure to loud sounds probably won’t do you any damage, just make sure you aren’t constantly putting pressure on your ears and causing long term issues for your hearing. Your ears are sensitive and precious. Be sure to look after them.


Don’t know what headphones to pick. As a starting point, check our buying guide.