Listen up: Tips for iPod and hearing safety

“If it’s too loud, you’re too old” used to be the rallying cry of young music lovers everywhere. But these days, a more fitting saying might be “If it’s too loud, you’re taking a big risk.”

The reason? Cranking up the volume on your iPod, stereo, or other entertainment system to eardrum-thumping levels can lead to long-term hearing damage. Although there are many factors that can lead to a sudden or gradual loss of hearing—from injury to age—the most common is noise. And noise can include everything from loud, unwanted sounds around us to the music we enjoy every day.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) happens in a variety of ways. It can be sudden and instantaneous, such as when you are exposed to an extremely loud burst of sound—an explosion or an air horn, for example. Or it can happen gradually from working on a loud construction site or—in perhaps a more relevant example—frequently listening to loud music, either live or on an iPod or other audio-playback system.

The National Institutes of Health notes that prolonged exposure to sounds over 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. To get a rough sense of how loud that is, if you turn your stereo up to the spot where the sound is loud but not uncomfortable—you can still hear conversations in the room—that’s approximately 85 decibels. (But don’t think you need to crank up your stereo to be exposed to such sound levels—even a very noisy restaurant will do it.) By way of comparison, a lawnmower puts out about 90 decibels.

So what’s the maximum volume of your iPod when using Apple’s stock earbuds? Just north of 100 decibels, well into the red zone where you could cause damage. In fact, at such sound levels, you can damage your hearing in a matter of minutes. Simply put, if you frequently listen to your iPod—or any music player—at loud volumes, you’re likely to damage your hearing.

Does that mean that the entire nation is gradually going deaf due to all the iPods and other portable audio sources in our connected society? Not necessarily, says Patty Niquette, an audiologist with Etymotic Research. Niquette cited research showing that hearing loss has actually remained stable over the past 30 years or so. In fact, some studies have shown that hearing loss has declined among young adults entering the workplace, down from 19.4 percent in the late 1980s to 14.4 percent in the first half of this decade.

“It may be that prevalence of hearing loss has not increased, but our awareness of it has,” says Niquette.

Indeed, high profile musicians, such Roger Miller of Mission of Burma—a seminal post-punk band that broke up for many years largely due to Miller’s hearing loss—and rock icon Pete Townshend of The Who have undoubtedly raised awareness of the issue. Townshend, especially, has been out front on the dangers of hearing loss. In a blog post last year, Townshend cautioned that his hearing loss came about not from playing music onstage, but rather from headphones worn while making studio recordings. He claimed to be fearful for the legions of iPod users who may today be causing similar damage to their own hearing, possibly without even being aware of it.

And there’s the rub: even with increased awareness, the “it’s not happening to me” attitude is still prevalent. “Noise-induced hearing loss is painless, progressive, and permanent,” says Niquette. “Most people are not aware of the problem until the hearing loss becomes significant enough to interfere with communication.”

Keep it low

So what can be done? Unfortunately, there is no cure, and no real “fix,” for damaged hearing. However, as the National Institutes of Health succinctly puts it, “NIHL is 100 percent preventable.”

iPod Volume Limit feature

How? For starters, turn down the music. Last year, Apple released iPod software updates that added a Volume Limit feature to iPod nanos, iPod shuffles, and fifth-generation full-size iPods; subsequent iPod models also include this capability. Using this feature to keep your iPod’s maximum volume at a safe level is a good first step.

Unfortunately, the iPod doesn’t tell you how the limit you set equates to actual sound levels—and it really can’t, considering that a given headphone-output level produces different sound levels depending on the headphones you’re using. That said, common sense is an important skill here: when using normal earbuds or headphones, if you can’t hear yourself clearly when talking at a typical conversation level, chances are your iPod’s volume is set too high to be safe.

Ear3 Sonic Threat Indicator

For a more empirical approach—especially if you listen to music frequently or if you find yourself monitoring the listening levels of, say, a class of students (or even just your own family)—the non-profit Hollins Communications Research Institute has developed a useful device that lets you measure the output level of most headphones: the $60 Ear3 Sonic Threat Indicator, pictured right, is a small (2.4-by-3.6-by-1 inches and 4.1 ounces), easy-to-use, audio-level monitor that approximates the effective volume level at the human ear.

You simply press the center of your earbud or headphone earpiece gently against the Ear3’s small Sound Port; the Ear3 begins measuring the sound level. A small LED to the right of the Sound Port indicates the safety of the current volume level: solid green means Safe (85 decibels [dBA] or less); alternating green and red means Danger (up to 90dBA); steady red means High Danger (up to 100dBA); and flashing red means Immediate Danger (over 100dBA).

Using the Ear3, you can quickly test your earbuds or headphones—or those of your children or students—to see if the volume is too loud for safe listening. And since the Ear3 is a live monitor, you can adjust the volume level of your iPod or other audio source while the Ear3 is monitoring and its LED will immediately reflect this change; turning the volume down until the Ear3’s LED turns solid green means that volume level is safe to listen for extended periods of time.

Unfortunately, the Ear3 doesn’t work with in-ear-canal headphones (discussed below ), and it doesn’t measure headphones with very large drivers as accurately as it does smaller headphones and earbuds. On the other hand, the Ear3 works quite well at measuring ambient noise levels; for example, at a concert, sporting event, or loud work site. You just press the edge of the Sound Port ring with your finger and watch the Sound Level light to see if some sort of hearing-protection device is warranted (see “Keep it out” ).

A complicating factor here—and a big reason many people turn up the volume while listening to music—is your environment: Traffic noise, conversations around you on the bus, the rumble of a train, the roar of a jet, or other outside audio can tempt you to raise your music volume so you can hear it clearly over this noise. But if your listening environments are so loud that you can’t hear your headphones at safe levels, you need new headphones—ones that help reduce this external noise so you can reduce your iPod’s volume and still enjoy your music.

In-ear-canal headphones

Although some larger, over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones block a decent degree of ambient sound, it generally isn’t enough. Instead, consider either in-ear-canal headphones or a noise-canceling model. In-ear-canal headphones, also known as canalphones, fit in your ear canals like earplugs, blocking out an impressive amount of external sound. Canalphones have advantages and disadvantages, which we covered in our comprehensive primer, but the key here is that by blocking so much noise, in-ear-canal headphones let you enjoy your music at much lower volume levels.

“High-fidelity insert earphones that block out ambient (background) sound allow the listener to use lower playback levels and still hear the full dynamic range of the music,” says Etymotic’s Niquette. (It’s worth noting that Etymotic is one of the more prominent manufacturers of such headphones. However, there’s little debate about the company’s position. In fact, iPod owners can now choose from among a slew of high-quality canalphones from vendors such as Etymotic, Future Sonics, Sensaphonics, Shure, Ultimate Ears, and Westone. You can even get custom-fit earmolds, similar to those made for the musician’s earplugs covered below, for in-ear-canal headphones.)

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7 noise-canceling headphones

Noise-canceling headphones, on the other hand, physically block some external noise, but focus more on “canceling” external sound: one or more microphones built into the headphones sample external noise, and the system’s circuity then feeds an inverse audio signal immediately back into the headphones to cancel out that noise. Again, these models have advantages and disadvantages, laid out in our recent review of nine noise-canceling models, but good ones let you listen to music at much lower volume levels than you would otherwise be able to in a noisy environment.

One of these products—in-ear-canal or noise-canceling headphones—is a must if you often find yourself in environments where you have to turn up the volume to drown out the noise.

Keep it out

Although concerns about dangerous noise levels have become widely publicized in recent years, much of that publicity has focused on headphones. But the truth is that hearing loss can also result from attending loud concerts, cranking your boom box or home stereo, and even the increasingly-loud environments of today’s state-of-the-art movie theaters. And it’s not just listeners who are affected: performers, from rock guitarists to clarinet players, suffer hearing loss from being exposed to the same audio sources. Finally, let’s not forget the hazards of a noisy work site. If you want to keep enjoying music into your later years, you need to take steps to preserve your hearing now.

Ear plugs and muffs

Hearing protection comes in a number of forms. The most basic products are standard earplugs, such as the the Hearos foam plugs you’ll find at many stores; and over-the-ear “muffs,” such as the various earmuff models from E-A-R, that look like bulky headphones but instead seal around your ears to block noise. Foam plugs reduce external noise levels by as little as 12dB or as much as 33dB; muffs provide approximately 20dB to 27dB of noise reduction.

(For extreme hearing protection, hearing-protection manufacturer E-A-R notes that using both earplugs and muffs “provides approximately 5-dB gain over the more protective of the individual devices at most frequencies.” The Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration provides a similar rating for combined use.)

These solutions are effective if you simply want to block external noise. But what if you want—or need—to hear what’s going on around you? For example, to enjoy a sporting event, to be able to engage in conversation, or for reasons of safety? Or what if you need to reduce volume while preserving sound quality—say, to enjoy a concert, or to perform at one? Although some foam earplugs provide lower levels of noise reduction, they do so unevenly; higher frequencies are attenuated to a greater extent than lower frequencies. The result is muffled, unnatural sound.

EAR Hi-Fi Earplugs

For as little as $12, you can get “high-fidelity” earplugs, which use silicon eartips and a special acoustical design to reduce external audio while preserving much of the original frequency response of that audio. For example, Etyomtic’s Ety-Plugs (formerly the ER-20) provide approximately 20dB of attenuation, and E-A-R’s Hi-Fi Earplugs provide around 12dB. With these products, you get moderate protection while still being able to conduct normal conversations or enjoy the sounds of a concert or movie.

If you find yourself in such situations frequently, or if you’re a musician who wants hearing protection while performing, custom-made musician’s earplugs are a worthwhile investment. These products are generally made of soft silicone and are designed to provide the same sound quality as an unobstructed ear, but with a significant reduction in noise level. They require a visit to an audiologist, who takes a mold of each of your ears; the earplugs are made based on these molds, and thus fit your own ears perfectly. (Don’t let the word “musician” throw you off; these products are for anyone who wants comfortable hearing protection that doesn’t cut you off from the rest of the world.) Prices on musician’s earplugs vary, but are generally between $150 and $200 (including the cost of the visit to an audiologist).

Etymotic Musicians Earplugs

We tested a pair of Etymotic Musicians Earplugs for this article. These earplugs use removable filters that provide different levels of attenuation based on which filter you choose to purchase: 9dB, 15dB, or 25dB. (The 15dB filter provides the most natural frequency response, followed by the 9 and then the 25.) We visited Musician’s Hearing Services in San Francisco to get earmolds taken; a few weeks later we received the earplugs themselves along with a set of 15dB filters. (Musician’s Hearing Services charges $165 for this Etymotic model with all necessary services.)

If you’ve ever used standard foam earplugs, musician’s earplugs feel a bit odd at first. In addition to the fit—which is comfortable, but unusual in that most people have never worn a custom-fit earplug—the attenuation is also not what you might expect. For starters, unlike inexpensive foam earplugs, which reduce external sound by as much as 33dB, our musician’s earplugs provided only 15dB of noise reduction; we could still hear most sounds clearly. In addition, most of that audio did indeed sound normal; there was a slight amount of “muffling,” but overall things sounded like they should. As a result, the first impression we had was that the earplugs weren’t working very well. Yet they were doing exactly what they should: reducing audio levels enough to make listening safer, without making it sound as if they were reducing levels significantly.

Many music-focused audiologists also sell custom-fit in-ear-canal headphones and monitors, as well as custom earmolds for many of the in-ear-canal headphones mentioned above. For example, Musician’s Hearing Services sells custom-fit molds for Etymotic and Shure canalphones for $150 including services.

You’ve got only two...

The following sites have more information on preventing hearing loss:

  • Better Hearing Institute
  • E-A-R Hearing Conservation
  • Etymotic Research Library
  • National Hearing Conservation Association
  • An unfortunate irony is that those who love music the most often end up being unable to enjoy it. By listening too much, at volume levels that are too loud, the hardest-core fans find themselves denied the pleasures of music-listening itself. But nowadays, thanks to better understanding of the causes of noise-induced hearing loss, as well as effective technologies for protecting your ears, there’s no reason anyone has to endure this curse. Still, it’s up to you to put this knowledge and technology to use—and the sooner you do, the better your chances of being able to rock out into old age.

    [ Mathew Honan is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Dan Frakes is a senior editor at Macworld .

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