Are headphones, in principle, bad for your ears
April 3, 2009 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Are headphones and earphones inherently worse for your ears? In other words, is there a difference between listening to something live or through speakers, and listening to something through headphones or earphones at the same volume, in terms of damage done to your ears?

I've noticed that after listening to music on headphones for a while, my ears will occasionally hurt. I have noise-canceling headphones that do a passable job.

I'm wondering if the very fact that my ears are covered, or that the source of the sound is closer to my eardrums, is worse for my ears.

Or does it have more to do with the fact that people who listen to music on headphones will listen to it longer? In other words, is it the prolonged usage that poses a risk?
posted by dicetumbler to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is a pretty useless response really, but I just wanted to say that the damage done to your ears should be entirely dependent on volume (and frequency, to a much more limited extent) but that perceived volume does not necessarily correlate to actual decibel levels at the eardrum.

So at the same volume, no. You may well have the volume much louder to get the same loudness.

I don't know if there are issues with noise-cancelling specifically, so you may wish to wait until somebody with more of a clue chimes in.
posted by Dysk at 8:27 AM on April 3, 2009

The decibel level of the sound pressure wave and the frequency of the wave as it strikes the eardrum is what matters. How it got there is irrelevant.
posted by pmbuko at 8:32 AM on April 3, 2009

As for your ears hurting with headphones, perhaps you need a more comfortable pair? I use a pair at work occasionally, but I can't wear them for more than 15 minutes as they press my ears against my head a little too hard.
posted by pmbuko at 8:34 AM on April 3, 2009

Some may disagree, but I believe the problem is the volume at which you listen, not the proximity of the 'speaker', whether 12 inches in size or 12 mm.

Headphones sound really good when you kick up the volume - not much space between the emitter and the recepter, so bass sounds really full, highs are crisp, etc. I have this theory, though, that for a while after you don the 'phones, your ears are still 'adjusted' to all the noise in the real world, and so may be less sensitive to sound. However, if you purposely lower the volume on your source when listening with headphones, it won't be long before the sound seems to grow louder. You can keep lowering the volume, and your ears will continue to adjust its sensitivity.

It's important to keep the volume low to avoid irreversible damage to the ears, a caveat that fails to reach most people until it's too late. If the damage is already done, the volume will have to remain high to compensate for the loss in hearing, which will just cause more damage to the silia in the ear.
posted by DandyRandy at 8:36 AM on April 3, 2009

It's also likely that since people are more likely to be out in the real world with their headphones, surrounded by ambient noise, they're going to turn up their headphones so that they can hear their music. This would contribute to the problem. People don't usually walk around with their speakers.
posted by meowzilla at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2009

Yes, it's all about sound pressure.

But it *can* also be about acoustics. Because the sound wave is being created right next to the ear, it doesn't have a lot of air to go through and get muddied up. So even if it sounds like the same volume, the peaks and valleys can be "sharper".

Also, the noise cancelling effect might be causing your ears to adjust in an odd way. I find most noise cancelling to be annoying in a way that I can't describe. Just weird sounding, like when something is out of phase.* Like what happens when you are wearing glasses crooked. Your eyes adjust, but get tired more quickly.

* I had this issue with an Eagles concert that was on tv once. The horns were out of phase to the rest of the program. It was the weirdest thing- I actually put the sound into Audition so I could see what was going on. Sure enough, only the horns were out of phase. Sounded like there was a hole in my head.
posted by gjc at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2009

I'm sure you know that we detect sound via the vibrations of microscopic hairs suspended in a fluid inside the cochlea (inner ear). You also know that the volume of a sound is a measure of how powerful the vibration is. Hearing loss from loud noise happens because these hairs are forced to vibrate too much and thus get damaged.

Because we're talking about mechanical damage it follows that if a level of sound energy delivered to your ear is safe, it shouldn't make a difference how far it travelled to get there. So distance from the speaker doesn't matter. All that matters is the strength of the vibrations when they hit your ear.

Are you sure that you're not listening to the music through your earphones louder than you would through a speaker? I can't think of any easy way for you to measure this, but anyway I'd expect that the lack of background noise would make you tend to listen to music at a lower volume. So I doubt it's that.

I have some noise-cancelling headphones that slide a little way into the ear canal; they're basically ear-plugs with a driver in the middle. I noticed that prolonged use made my ears ache a bit, so I tried wearing them for a few hours with no music playing. My ears still ached after wearing them with no music playing, so in my case the ache seems to come from just having these things jammed into my ears for too long. I assume my problem is the constant slight pressure against the inside of the ear canal.

So while I don't have a solid answer to your question, I suggest an experiment: try wearing your earphones without playing any music. No need to worry about looking daft, no-one can tell! This seems the easiest way to tell whether, in your specific case, the ache comes from more sound getting in there.

As a slightly depressing end note, I have a friend who works in an aural health research lab. According to a conversation I once had with him, practically everyone who uses headphones sets them loud enough to cause gradual hearing damage. So while I doubt the ache comes from youe headphones being too loud, consider turning them down a bit anyway. Your 70-year-old self will thank you!
posted by metaBugs at 8:55 AM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

First of all if your ears are hurting that is a bad sign and you should see a doctor.

I think meowzilla and it being about pressure is on the right track. I suspect it's about the concentration of the sound waves. Live music can be dissipated in a hall where as you raise the volume with headphones or standing right next to a speaker is concentrating all the sound.

"the “MP3” generation of youths may be heading for hearing impairment in later life. ...Users listening at high volumes for more than an hour a day each week risk permanent hearing loss after five years. ...Personal stereos and portable phones with a music-playing facility are considered a particular threat because ear-bud type earphones lead to a greater sound exposure than other types of listening devices."
posted by scazza at 8:56 AM on April 3, 2009

You almost never listen to headphones at the same volume as your do speakers. Headphone users almost always turn it up. It may be because we dont expect distant speakers to give great sound so we just accept a certain level of distortion but with headphones we expect good sound and if we dont get it, we just turn it up.

If youre at the point where your ears have started hurting then thats natures way of telling you to turn it down. If you listen to speakers and your ears dont hurt its because they are quieter.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:10 AM on April 3, 2009

There are several factors at play here:

1 - Noise Canceling headphones - This may very well be part of your issue. These headphones cancel noise by putting out a sound that is out of phase with the noises around you. It is working to keep your ear drum from vibrating, but by doing this, it can cause your ears to ache.

2 - Volume - Unless you are using earphones that actually plug your ears (the kind that work like earplugs when no music is going through them), you are much more likely to have them turned up too loud. If you are using the kind that plug your ears, you can get more perceived volume, since there is less background noise to contend with. This lets you listen at lower volumes.

3 - Type of music - Modern music is highly compressed, which makes it sound "louder" at lower peak volume levels. This, however, is more tiring to the ears than music which is not as compressed. Instead of your ear drum flexing back and forth in a relaxed fashion, it is continually jarring back and forth. This can cause ear fatigue much quicker. When wearing headphones this is much more of an issue, since the ear drum will be responding to every movement of the sound wave. When transmitted through speakers, the natural acoustics of the sound bouncing around the room, in addition to other background noises, helps to lessen the effect of this.
posted by markblasco at 10:52 AM on April 3, 2009

When I got sound-isolating headphones from Shure (the SE210's, with foam inserts that stick in your ears like earplugs), I noticed that I got a little ringing in my ears. Turns out I had been listening to music way too loud for many years, and these headphones were so good and they blocked out all other noise so well that I didn't need them to be loud at all to hear everything really well. I now listen to my music at what I used to think was a really low level, but because the sound isn't competing with any other noise, it doesn't need to be that loud. I'd suggest ditching the noise-canceling headphones and going with an in-ear sound isolating design, like the Shures. It'll make a big difference.
posted by incessant at 12:25 PM on April 3, 2009

The issue with headphones is that is much easier to reach damaging volumes since the drivers are so much closer to your ears. I think (just my opinion) that there is a secondary problem in that headphones cannot create the body shaking bass that would help to trigger a reaction so people just keep cranking the volume.
posted by chairface at 10:28 PM on April 3, 2009

In my experience, if I'm listening to music w/ my stereo through the speakers, and then switch to headphones, it's always much too loud. So, I wouldn't judge the loudness by the volume setting on your ipod or stereo or computer or whatever, but by how loud the music actually sounds.
posted by reddot at 6:18 PM on April 13, 2009

« Older Can I transform puffy dough into a thin crust?   |   Help needed beating a mission in SimCity Creator Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.