Why so much leakage?
February 18, 2011 10:01 PM   Subscribe

As a test, when I have music on loud, I take my earbuds out, hold them a few feet away from myself, and I can't hear it. Yet, I can clearly hear the words in the songs of people wearing headphones 20 feet away from me in the subway. Do their headphones have terrible leakage? Do they have their music on earsplitting levels?

Sometimes I think my fellow commuters are trying to get pumped up in the morning with loud music. Other times I think want to broadcast their music taste. Other times I think they are hard of hearing and don't realize how loud it is. Other times I think their headphones are horrendous and leak all the sound. Given that I will never ask these question to the actual people, some insight from you guys might help. It seems like a sort of recent phenomenon but I could be wrong.
posted by Jagz-Mario to Technology (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've found that a lot of people have poor quality earbuds and so turn up the volume to compensate for the subway noises that enter their ears.
posted by dfriedman at 10:03 PM on February 18, 2011

Use a bit of logic and your experience here. If you can't hear YOUR earbuds, but you can hear theirs, then, obviously, theirs must be turned up to a louder level. The reason can't be determined unless you ask.
posted by tomswift at 10:10 PM on February 18, 2011

If they're not wearing earbuds, the style of headphones may cause more leakage at lower levels. I hate earbuds (and I'm pretty sure they're worse for your ears), and I know some of my headphones leak the higher pitched sort of tinny sounds at fairly low levels. So I don't think it necessarily has to be a massive amount louder for you to hear it. If they're wearing earbuds, however, then obviously it's up quite a bit louder than your music. This has held true for headphones upwards of $70-80 for me, so it's not necessarily a crappy headphone thing, either.

Personally, though, I HATE that headphone leakage noise, so I periodically test certain songs on the subway to make sure I'm not doing it. But it is *really* easy for some songs to go over the leakage threshold...like my volume can be up 30-40% of the way, and some types of instruments/music are clearly audible. And I listen to music more quietly than most people I know.
posted by wending my way at 10:25 PM on February 18, 2011

I hadn't thought about how the type of song would affect leakage... that helps.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 10:31 PM on February 18, 2011

The earbuds that came with my ipod leaked music all over the place even at a medium level. People used to comment that I would ruin my hearing by listening to music so loud, when it wasn't really loud at all. It just seemed loud to them because they could hear it on the outside.

The new buds I bought fit a little more snuggly into my ear canal and hardly leak at all.
posted by batonthefueltank at 11:06 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

It really depends on a lot of things.

It has to do a lot with what kind of frequencies your music is blasting, highs pierce the air, while bass can't be heard beyond a few feet.

All headphones leak to a certain extent. My sonys sound like a pair of desktop speakers with no bass when I crank the volume up all the way on my computer. Its not like there going to be completely silent at that distance then magically start making noise when your ear is in the right place.
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 11:27 PM on February 18, 2011

With regards to the question of hearing music from someone else's headphones, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association cites this study:
Considering "If I can hear it, that means it's too loud!" as a screening measure for NIHL (Noise-Induced Hearing Loss) risk, Weiner conducted a study to see if overhearing someone's music—or not overhearing it—was closely related to levels above or below 85 dBA. Background noise levels were varied from a quiet sound booth up to 75 dBA of background noise, and PMP users were instructed to turn the music to the level where they liked it. Even in a listening environment with high background noise (where this "screening measure" performed best), the positive predictive value was only 0.42 (i.e., the screening measure was correct only 42% of the time).
Which is a long way of saying, if you can hear someone else's music, it might not even mean they're playing it that loudly. So, yes, it's probably crappy headphones.
posted by Zephyrial at 11:50 PM on February 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

I got tired of dealing with this (especially the annoyance of never being able to listen to quiet music on the subway because the jerk halfway down the car listening to the new Kanye album would drown out my own earbuds), so I got a pair of old school clunky over the ear headphones. The sound quality is great, and I'm fairly sure that not only can I not hear other people's music anymore, but they also can't hear mine.

They also double as earmuffs!
posted by Sara C. at 12:15 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't think they're even necessarily "crappy" headphones. My dad bought really spendy noise-cancelling ones recently. You can hear reasonable-volume music just as clearly 2 feet away from the headphones as you can wearing them. What's important (to him) is, he can't hear anyone else.

I pity his neighbours on long-haul flights.
posted by jaynewould at 12:50 AM on February 19, 2011

Also: some people don't wear earbuds, on purpose: I sat next to someone the other day whose earbuds could be heard several miles away. Part of the reason was she just had them sort of sitting in her ears, rather than snuggled in. I have also seen people loop earbuds over their ears and use them like mini speakers.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:27 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, some over-the-ear headphones are designed to block out all external sounds (useful for the audio team on movie sets, for instance) but most styles allow sound from the outside to reach the listener, and these obviously leak a little more sound out as well.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 1:58 AM on February 19, 2011

Headphones are designed to be either open or closed. In general, people believe that open headphones have better sound quality, but because of their open design they leak sound. Higher end headphones tend to have the open design. For example, if you read these reviews for Sennheiser HD555 headphones, you’ll find lots of people complaining about sound leakage.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 8:51 AM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

PSA: Please be careful when listening to music on the go. Due to auditory masking, what sounds like a normal sound level from headphones while in a noisy environment will actually be much louder than what one would listen to in a quiet room. In ear headphones help, but it's important to keep in mind that hearing loss can occur even at what seems to be a low volume level.
posted by Homo economicus at 9:29 AM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Because earbuds and headphones are different. Many headphones (most non-Apple?) are the open type (thanks, Jasper!) While listeneing with mine I can hear everything going on around me, and assume anybody around me can hear what I'm listening to, as well. IIRC these headphone (with the big foam pads) first came on the scene with the Sony Walkman.
posted by Rash at 1:00 PM on February 19, 2011

Here's another article that discusses the difference between open and closed headphones.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 5:45 PM on February 19, 2011

« Older Good foam or bad foam?   |   Protect Kindle DX from drops? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.