The ever-popular earbuds used with many iPods and other MP3 players may be more stylish than the bigger and bulkier earmuff-type headphones, but they may also be more damaging to one’s hearing, according to a Northwestern professor.
“No one really knows for sure” the levels at which iPod users listen to music, but “what we do know is that young people like their music loud and seldom worry about any decline in hearing ability,” Dean Garstecki, chairman of Northwestern’s communication sciences and disorders department, told Reuters Health.
The earbuds commonly used by iPod listeners are placed directly into the ear and can boost the audio signal by as many as nine decibels — comparable to the difference in sound intensity between an alarm clock and a lawn mower, Garstecki said. Yet, the earbuds do not always fit snugly in the ear, but often allow background noise to seep in, which causes listeners to crank up the volume.
In turning up the volume to drown out background noise, however, people “don’t realize they may be causing some damage” to their hearing, Garstecki said.
This danger is not confined to MP3 users, such as iPod owners. Earbuds are also used with compact disc players and Walkmans. Audiologists have cautioned about the potential risk of hearing loss associated with such devices since the 1980s. The longer battery life and the greater music storage capacity of MP3 players, in comparison to Walkmans and compact discs, however, encourage longer periods of uninterrupted music listening.
“It’s the combination of high intensity and long duration that creates the unique problem with the iPod,” Garstecki said.
Various researchers have reported an increased risk of hearing loss associated with headphone use in the general population. Despite this, an MTV survey conducted earlier this year revealed that most teens and young adults do not think hearing loss from loud music is a big problem, even though over half of those surveyed said they experienced ringing in their ears after concerts. When told that the loud music may lead to lifelong hearing loss, however, most of the survey participants said they would consider protective measures in the future.
Eliminating iPod earbuds in favor of larger earmuff-style headphones as one of those protective measures may be an unattractive option for many style-conscious music lovers. Instead, Garstecki recommends adherence to the 60 percent/30 minute rule. Listeners should set their iPods and other MP3 players to sound levels that are no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume — i.e. just over halfway between “off” and “maximum” volume — and use their earbuds for no more than 30 minutes a day.
Those who use muff-style headphones at 60 percent volume can increase the duration to an hour a day, and those who listen at volumes significantly lower than 60 percent of the maximum can use their music players for many more hours. Also, newer, more snug-fitting earbuds are “likely to be safer” if they prevent users from turning up the volume to eliminate background noise, Garstecki said.
“It’s when you start cranking it up that you have to limit the dosage,” he explained.
Noise-canceling headphones are another option for those who desire to listen to music for an extended period of time. These devices, while a bit more costly and more visible than earbuds, partially or fully eliminate background noise so that users do not have to crank up the volume of their music for that purpose.