earbud headphones - permanent hearing damage?
January 3, 2012 10:09 PM   Subscribe

A few years ago I heard a popular scientist on the radio discussing the effects of listening to music via earbud headphones. He said that if someone can hear the music I'm listening to, I am doing permanent damage to my ears. Is this true? I would appreciate reference to any peer-reviewed scientific research on this topic, if available.
posted by paleyellowwithorange to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Earbud headphones are increasingly considered risky as a general principle. Research is not that hard to find, for example, this.

I know people in their 40s who have hearing loss, mainly from attending lots of band concerts years ago. It's nothing to mess with.
posted by dhartung at 10:34 PM on January 3, 2012

Forty-year-old here... I had my hearing tested ten years ago, and I am partially deaf in my right year (lower bass tones mostly, although I have difficulty following conversation in a crowded room), most likely because of listening to music in headphones and attending too many rock concerts. Anyway, here is some peer-reviewed literature.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:57 PM on January 3, 2012

Noise isolation is key. The stock headphones that come with iPods have next to none, such that listening volume must be increased to overpower outside noise.

Here's a fun thing to try: Check your volume level while you're listening to your earbuds on the street. Just normal walking-down-the-street kind of stuff. Then go someplace absolutely silent and try listening at that same volume. It's LOUD!!! Then think about all the times you've cranked the volume to drown out airplane noise.

It certainly doesn't help that the default EQ setting on iPods is ludicrously top-heavy, with the high frequencies at piercing levels when the mids (where the vocals are) are at normal levels.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:12 PM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: I should add, though, that the lack of noise cancellation is a two-way street in terms of the "if others can hear it, you will go deaf" thing. If you're listening to earbuds in a library, yes, people will hear the music, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's playing at dangerous levels, just that you've got leaky headphones in a quiet room.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:17 PM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: Loud sounds do damage to the ears long term. Outer hair cells (OHC) in the cochlea are most susceptible to damage at the peripheral level. While they usually "rejuvenate" over a period of a few days, sustained loud sounds will result in permanent damage and contribute to hearing loss. OHCs play an important role in hearing, they amplify sounds to the extent that we can hear them using the inner hair cells (IHC). Even though we use a linear scale for measuring loudness/intensity, the actual variation in sound pressure level is exponential. So, for example, going from 120 dB to 130 dB is a ten fold increase and causes a lot of trauma to the hair cells in the cochlea. And yes, when you lose OHCs, you lose the ability to amplify sounds and so you are less sensitive to sounds than usual or IOW you need sounds to be louder, words to be repeated etc...

When you listen to music (especially using open headphones) loudly in such a way that a person near you can hear it, you are putting a high intensity sound on your ears, thereby causing trauma. The problem is exacerbated in open headphones (such as iPod headphones) because they allow sounds from outside. This means you have to increase the song volume so that you can hear it above the outside noise, thereby causing even more trauma to your ear. In-ear (or canal) headphones are slightly better than open ones in this respect. However limiting listening to an hour or less a day and at low volume using in-ear headphones are the best things you can do to preserve hearing.

Hearing thresholds change short term after listening to say an hour of loud music. Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a very common problem.

Here (pdf) is a document talking about OHCs and IHCs and how you can protect against NIHL.

We do otoacoustic emission testing (non clinical) in our lab and even among college-aged people we see more and more occurrences of impaired or non-existent otoacoustic emissions, (primarily DPOAEs) mostly as a result of listening to iPods and music players several hours everyday. Otoacoustic emissions are mostly a result of OHC function.
posted by ssri at 11:28 PM on January 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

However limiting listening to an hour or less a day and at low volume using in-ear headphones are the best things you can do to preserve hearing.
short of not listening through headphones or to loud music, of course.

posted by ssri at 11:31 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

If somebody else can hear your music, all things being equal, you could put your headphones on the other person and *you* would be able to hear your music. Headphones supposedly send more sound into your head than away from it, and your ear parts are mere centimeters from them, presumable the other persons ears are further away and on the less-sound side of the headphones. You are either already hard of hearing and have your music blasting to compensate or the other person has super snowflake hearing powers or your headphones are broken and sending more sound away from your ears than into them.
posted by zengargoyle at 1:31 AM on January 4, 2012

Best answer: People aren't being too explicit about this so far, but the safest earphones for listening in loud environments are the kind that actually make a seal in your ear canal. In other words, the kind that block outside noise so well that your audio's volume can stay down at healthy levels. (A couple of choices.) The default earbuds that come with audio players (whether Apple or otherwise) don't seal at all.
posted by kalapierson at 4:55 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's not about earbuds or iPods but about VOLUME (see all the responses above). It's an important distinction in response to your question. Use buds correctly, and they are as safe as any source. Put your head up against any driver at a high level for extended periods and it's bad.

Sys Rq is spot on here. Use noise isolating buds, the kind that seal in your ear (not "noise cancelling", which is a different concept). Noise isolating buds can actually reduce volume exposure, because you can use them at a low level. This is a huge part of why musicians now wear in-ear monitors when possible instead of stage monitors. Control the sound, and you can control the volume and reduce exposure.

The wire service article you mention makes the round on slow news days. Yes, hearing damage is a real danger for anybody exposed to long term volume, but by focusing on ear buds the article is designed to create topical hysteria instead of focusing on providing you with information.
posted by quarterframer at 6:54 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a meter of potential hearing damage, other people being able to hear your music really depends on the nature of the headphones you are using. I've had some of the ear bud style that I think I could use to bore a hole clean through my head and no one around me would know the music was on, and some that leaked sound so badly, you'd think I had them in backwards.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:10 AM on January 4, 2012

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