Don’t Turn It Up to 11: Hearing Loss and You

Are headphones hazardous to hearing? Headphones are defined by Wikipedia as “a pair of small loudspeakers, or less commonly a single speaker, held close to a user’s ears and connected to a signal source such as an audio amplifier, radio, CD player or portable media player.”  Knowing that exposure to loud noises are related to noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), many users of earphones understandably question the impact the technology may have on their hearing.

According to Peng et al., “It has been shown in many reports that the use of a personal listening device (PLD) has damaging effects on hearing” (181). The study was done in order to investigate the large number of NIHL in young adults and to increase the awareness of hearing damage from PLDs. Peng et al.’s results “showed that the hearing loss occurred in 14.1% (34 of 240) of ears following long-term use of of PLDs” (183). Some symptoms of hearing damage are ringing or buzzing in the ears, difficulty in understanding speech, slight muffling of sounds, and difficulty understanding speech in noisy places or places with poor acoustics. However, it’s important to remember that all hearing damage from excessive noise exposure is not permanent.

How can we prevent this damage without giving up earphones entirely? An article on Headwize offers some pointers. Moy says that “Anyone who listens to loud music or is exposed to loud noise on a regular basis should test hearing periodically, because hearing loss can be cumulative, very gradual and virtually symptomless. In cases of temporary hearing loss, such tests can ensure that there has been adequate recovery time. While headphones can damage hearing if played too loudly, they are also a good means of testing hearing.” Artist Lee Ranaldo of the band Sonic Youth also has a suggestion: “[S]et the volume of your radio to a level where you can barely hear the words. A talk show works best, as sometimes it is hard to understand lyrics in music. After [listening to loud music], turn on the radio to the same setting. Can you still hear and understand the words? If not, you’re experiencing a form of short term hearing loss called temporary threshold shift. When this happens too many times, the damage can become permanent.”

Another important thing for users of earphones to remember is to avoid damaging their ears via an auditory effect called “masking.” Masking describes the tendency of earphone wearers to turn up the volume of their music player if they are in a naturally noisy environment, like a metro car or in a large crowd. While the music player competes with background noise, the music coming from the earphones sounds normal to users — sometimes it even sounds a little low, if the earphones happen to be losing the competition. But in reality, masking is occurring: what sounds low to normal in volume is actually high, which can damage the ears over the course of many years.

In short, understanding and combatting the potential hazards of listening to loud noises through PLDs is essential to having healthy and happy ears. If the right preemptive measures are taken, people can rest assured they can use their earphones without risking temporary or permanent deafness. The key is to practice safe listening — not too loud, and no masking. The scientific evidence suggests that earphones don’t cause hearing loss. Rather, improper use of them is what does it.

Headphones – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.).Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from

Moy, C. (1998, December 16). HeadWize – Article: Preventing Hearing Damage When Listening With Headphones (A HeadWize Headphone Guide).HeadWize – Breaking News. Retrieved March 31, 2011, from

Peng, J.H., Tao, Z.Z., & Huang, Z.W. (2007) “Risk of damage to hearing from personal listening devices in young adults.” Journal of Otolaryngology, Vol. 36, No. 3, 181-185.

2 Responses to “Don’t Turn It Up to 11: Hearing Loss and You”
  1. Markus says:

    Interesting. This seems to lead to a conclusion that in-ear active noise canceling headphones reduce the likelihood of ear damage due to lowered masking effect.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] levels — good news for people concerned about “masking” and hearing loss (see our blog post), and good news for people who want to hear the low-volume features of music in greater […]

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