Are headphones unsafe? No. Not when used sensibly. As I write this on the glorious District Line, I can hear the music coming from the headphones of somebody who is sitting 2 seats away from me. I like the song but this is simply too loud.
Brief education on noise-induced damage
We have a daily noise exposure limit – this is the limit that your ears can withstand before it starts to damage your hearing. Our daily limit is cumulative and includes listening to music on your commute, the sounds of public transport, the siren of the ambulance that just went past, the fire alarm test at 11am, the music blaring from the speakers of your car. You can imagine that this exposure could be easily enhanced if your day-to-day work involves working as a musician or in construction.
According to the EU guidelines, exposure to 85 dB for a maximum of 8 hours is considered safe. (For more info on this, see previous post: ‘How noisy is London?’). We cannot help hearing some of these loud sounds, however there is some exposure that we can control e.g. when using our headphones.
How loud should I listen to my headphones?
As a rule of thumb: you should listen to music via your headphones at 60% of the maximum volume for a maximum of 60 minutes a day. If you’re listening to it at maximum volume, really after 5 minutes of use, you could be putting your hearing at risk.
Potential consequences of excessive noise exposure
- Hearing difficulties in noisy places
- Diagnosed hearing loss
- Tinnitus (hearing sounds in your ears/head)
- Hyperacusis (hypersensitivity to everyday sounds
3 things you can do to protect your hearing
1. Noise cancelling headphones
The main reason people increase the volume is because the background noise is too loud. By using noise cancelling headphones, you can reduce the external sounds and have your volume at normal limits. Here are a couple of my favourite products:
Bose QuietComfort 35 (more expensive option, but worth it!)
Sony MDR-ZX110NA (a cheaper but good alternative)
As you can see, both of these options are over the ear headphones. Sounds decrease with distance, so the further away the headphones are from your ear drums, the safer the sound is.
2. Set the volume limiter on your phone
The volume limiter prevents you from increasing the volume on your phone past the EU-recommended safe levels. If you can’t hear your music when you have applied the volume limiter, you need to look at purchasing noise cancelling headphones, go to a quieter area, or consider a hearing test.
3. Monitor your hearing health
The Health App provided by Apple allows you to check your hearing health and lets you assess your headphone habits. Click here to see my Instagram post showing how to access this information.