Science Tells Us Something Our Mothers Already Knew: Portable Listening Devices Are Gonna Make You Deaf

Oct 13th, 2008 // 13 Comments

A few weeks back my headphones died after getting crushed underfoot by an oblivious houseguest. So I went to Best Buy and purchased what seemed to be a fairly decent new pair for not too much money. (Times are tight, etc., etc.) It turned out they were, in fact, complete garbage–tinny and hissy to the point of being all high-end and no bass at all. So what do I do to compensate? Return them? (No, that would be the smart thing to do.) I crank them louder than usual. (Baltimore being a fairly noisy place already.) Now I’m an observant guy, so I’m not too worried about getting taken out by a bus because I didn’t hear it, and I always turn them down when I’m in elevators, on buses, etc., out of respect for fellow humans. But there’s always the aspect of using headphones (and/or keeping them at eardrum-obliterating volume) that I seem to purposefully overlook: the fact that they are undoubtedly killing my hearing. Now when my mom reminds me about my grandfather’s tinnitus any time she comes to my house and sees my iPod sitting on my desk, she has even more hard data to wield while admonishing me. Warning to headphone users/abusers: you’re probably well-familiar with the findings of this spanking new European study, but you still might not want to read the following if you’d like to remain un-paranoid about the health of your ears for the rest of the day.


The report said that those who listened for five hours a week at high-volume settings exposed themselves to more noise than permitted in the noisiest factory or work place. Maximum volume on some devices can generate as much noise as an airplane taking off nearby…

“Regularly listening to personal music players at high-volume settings when young,” the report said, “often has no immediate effect on hearing but is likely to result in hearing loss later in life…”
But older people may also be vulnerable. In the 27 countries in the European Union, an estimated 50 million to 100 million people out of about 500 million may be listening to portable music players daily, the report said.

Users listening at high volumes for more than an hour a day each week risk permanent hearing loss after five years. This is equivalent to 5 percent to 10 percent of the listeners, which may be 2.5 million to 10 million people in the European Union, the study concluded…

The report refers to a 2004 study that recommends limiting listening time to one hour per day and setting the volume to no more than 60 percent of maximum sound output when using headphones that are placed over the ears — and even less when using ear buds.

It said another study suggested restricting the maximum output level of personal music players to 90 decibels.

Ah, there’s nothing like science confirming something you instinctively know (or reconfirming something you’ve already read about repeatedly) to shame you into changing your unhealthy ways. Looks like I need to once again add “stop playing your music so loud, dummy” to my list of New Year’s resolutions. For recovering headphone junkies (or recidivists like myself), I recommend reading David Toop’s essential Haunted Weather: Music, Silence, and Memory, a key book in making me rethink my relationship with the ambient sound level (and ambient sounds) of the 21st-century. Who knows, soon you might be once again be able to marvel at the natural/industrial soundscape of your neighborhood rather than burying your head in hip-hop singles played at inappropriate volume.

Study Warns of Hearing Loss From Music Players [NYT]
Haunted Weather [Amazon]

  1. Ned Raggett

    I pretty much just use my phone for conversation rather than all the music that’s on it. Shortly after I got it I spiked my own low-key case of tinnitus noticeably and thought “Hmm, better not make it any worse.”

  2. How do I say this ... THROWDINI!

    I also have a bit of tinnitus, and so I finally started wearing earplugs at concerts after years of concert going and dancing in loud clubs. But I don’t wear them all the time, instead doing a “am I willing to go deaf to hear this band” calculation in my head. I’d say 99% of opening acts and about 40% of headliners get the earplugs.

  3. Audif Jackson Winters III

    I blame this squarely on Metallica.

  4. Christopher R. Weingarten

    Get cans, Jess. You look like a backpack geek, but they naturally drown out A LOT of the noise. Not even noise reducing ones, just regular cans.

    I never have my ipod on maximum anymore. Plus, I’ve been playing drums for 20 years and my ear doctor says my hear-holes are in perfect working shape.

  5. Audif Jackson Winters III

    If live gig noise is damaging your eyes, I can’t reccomend more highly the ear plugs made by Etymotics. Fantastic results for about $10. Great for gigs and nightclubs.

  6. Thierry

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: How loud does a band have to be to damage your eyes?

  7. Audif Jackson Winters III

    @Thierry: Oh, loud. Real loud.

  8. moomintroll

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: hmm… eye protecting ear plugs? I could’ve used those at My Bloody Valentine. Not only was it unimaginably loud, but they had to go and strobe us to death too! I thought they were gonna have someone come out and punch us all in the face…you know for the full sensory effect.

  9. RaptorAvatar

    @How do I say this … THROWDINI!: I do the same calculation. Some of it has to do with the circumstances as well. There’s a world of difference between seeing a band outside and seeing them in a tiny club where brick walls refract everything into coachlea (sp?) scorching clamor.

    @Christopher R. Weingarten: Agreed, wouldn’t back the idea for biking because then you’re at risk of getting hit. However, my hugeass monitoring headphones were great for walking/bus.

  10. Al Shipley

    Jess, I’ve seen you on Charles Street 3 or 4 times in the past few months, and every time you walked by with his earbuds on, oblivious to me yelling and/or waving at you. I don’t gather you mind the ‘anti-social coccoon’ aspect of headphones as much as hearing loss, though.

  11. Michaelangelo Matos

    I paid nearly $200 for my Bose headphones in January and will never, ever be going back. Save those pennies, kids.

  12. Christopher R. Weingarten

    I wanna get those Dr. Dre headphones, which cut off a HUGE amount of outside noise and sound fucking amazing.

    But then you’re risking getting jumped for a set of headphones. I saw some dude walking home from the subway with them, and I was seriously considering jacking him myself

  13. asleeponthefloor

    i already have tinnitus. too many shows. also it’s probably way more likely that my lifestyle choices will kill me long before i go completely deaf, so i think i’m good for now.

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