Loud headphones are the number one cause of NIHL, but the time spent listening to music also plays an important part here. Do you know if your headphone volume is considered safe?
Listening to loud music is one of the main causes of noise-induced hearing loss, so we should all take precautionary measures to make sure our health is our number one priority.
As expected, volume is the main culprit here, but it’s vital to note that the time spent listening to loud music also plays a part in the overall equation. Listening to moderately loud music for an extended period can cause just as much damage as super loud music in short bursts, making it deceptively dangerous.
Still, there are many things we can do to make sure our headphones are safe, starting with keeping the volume below 60%.
You’ve probably had your parents yell at you for listening to music too loudly at one point in your life or another. This sentiment is often overlooked because it’s presented in the wrong way. “Will you stop listening to this **** so loudly!” or “Turn that **** down!” or something along those lines.
However, whether knowingly or unknowingly, you are being given good advice when someone tells you this, as listening to music at a high enough volume can be very unsafe. In fact, it can not only have negative effects but permanent effects.
This isn’t pseudo-science that we’re trying to mask in the guise of common sense. Research in this field and many papers written prove the negative effects of listening to loud music and how it can impact our sense of hearing. Sometimes, these papers will focus on occupational noise (power tools or worse), but the results always boil down to decibels, which can easily be achieved by headphones.
Fortunately for all of us who like our music loud, there is something we can do to enjoy music the way we like it without sacrificing much in the way of volume, so read on if you want to know more about the effects of listening to loud music.
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Negative Effects of Loud Music
You know how in video games, and especially shooters, when an explosion occurs near your character, you’ll hear that constant ringing with all the remaining sound dulled out? That’s actually a rather immersive way of depicting what our ears go through when they’re exposed to aggressively loud noise.
To understand why this happens and how dangerous it can be, let’s reflect on how our hearing works.
Our earlobes work a bit like satellite dishes. The outer ear picks up sound waves, which are then funneled through the ear canal until they reach the eardrum. These sound waves make the eardrum vibrate. The ossicles transfer these vibrations into the inner ear, which is where the magic happens.
The first stop inside the inner ear is the cochlea, which your biology teachers probably described as being snail-shaped. The inside of this snail-shaped cochlea is covered in thousands of hairs, which are responsible for sensing sound.
The eardrum vibrates due to the external noise, but it’s only when these vibrations reach the hairs inside our cochlea and cause them to move that we can actually perceive sound. (We skipped a few steps for the sake of brevity, so if that bothers you, check out this video for a rundown on how we hear.)
Another thing we need to mention about these hairs inside the cochlea – they stand straight.
When our first-person shooter protagonist is made subject to the loud noise of an explosion, these hairs lose sensitivity, which causes them to bend. The same thing happens to us when we’re at a concert or in a loud café. We feel like we need to shout for some time, even after the noise stops because these hairs got bent down. Until they get back up again, we won’t be hearing properly.
What we’ve just described is called temporary hearing loss. Here’s the most disconcerting part:
This loss of sensitivity can be permanent, resulting in permanent hearing loss.
If you’re constantly forcing these hairs to bend down under the weight of your music’s volume, at one point they’ll just stop trying to get back up again. At least they won’t ever stand as erect as they should. Once this happens, there’s no fixing it.
This is what’s known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
How Loud is Too Loud?
So, how can we prevent this from happening?
Well, the answer you’ll hear most often is to stop listening to loud music. But rarely does anyone go on to specify what exactly constitutes loud music? How loud is too loud? Where do we draw the line?
To answer this, we need to inject a dose of objectivity to sound, which can only be done by using decibels. Decibels are the unit of measurement used for determining loudness.
At 10 dB we have the loudness of breathing. 20 dB is compared to the rustling of leaves. Whispering generally tends to occur at around 30 dB. Skipping ahead, a conversation held at normal volume is typically rated at 60 dB. General traffic tends to be at 70 dB, with trucks causing a noise closer to 80 dB.
85 dB is the highest loudness you should be listening to music at for prolonged sessions if you want to stay safe. For children, this rating is even lower, since their ears are more sensitive and their hearing easier to damage. If you want to keep your kids safe, take a look at this buyer’s guide for some of the best headphones for children with built-in protection.
As another reference point, hairdryers are generally rated at 90 dB. We use them all the time, yet they don’t cause noise-induced hearing loss. How is this? Checkmate, science! Up with the volume!
It’s not just the volume of music that causes hearing damage, but also how long you listen to music at high volumes – loudness and time work together to harm us. And since none of us dry our hair for hours on end, it doesn’t matter that your hairdryer is louder than your music.
You could be listening to music at 100 dB (the noise of power tools) and you’d still be okay if you were to only listen to music for 10 minutes at a time. But who’s going to put their headphones on just to listen to two or three songs?
But us telling you to listen to music under 85 dB isn’t really going to help you, since not all headphones are equally loud. So before we start ranting about headphone sensitivity and such, we’ll just say that the golden rule is 60% volume.
As long as you don’t cross the 60% volume threshold you should be just fine for prolonged music listening sessions.
Why Do We Listen to Loud Music?
Another thing to consider is why we even listen to loud music in the first place. If we do this, we’ll see that in many cases it’s not the actual volume of the headphones that’s causing the issue but something else. Once we identify what the problem is, we can safely tackle it.
For example, we are often inclined to raise the volume of headphones if we’re trying to drown out background noise. You may not necessarily want your music to be loud, just louder than the TV or the AC or the conversation other people are having in your immediate vicinity.
In this case, buying a pair of noise-canceling headphones is the best thing you can do, as it’ll help you immerse yourself in your music without having to crank up the volume.
Headphones with noise-canceling features are generally not cheap, especially ones with active noise canceling, but if music is important to you, then they’re a worthwhile investment. Just think of them as medicinal headphones when making the purchase, if it helps.
On the other hand, we sometimes turn up the volume because we are having trouble hearing a particular instrument. Perhaps you hear the vocals, the drums and the guitar well enough, but you just can’t hear the bass line properly. You then raise the overall volume, just because you want to push the bass to the forefront. If this is your problem, you’ve got two solutions.
Firstly, you can use an equalizer. Equalizers let you tinker with the sound profile by manually deciding which frequencies are pushed to the forefront and which aren’t. In our previous example, you could simply pinpoint the frequency range where the bass guitar resides, slide that up and voila! You’re able to enjoy your music and hear all the instruments you want without needing to raise the overall volume.
Secondly, remember that not all headphones are made with the same kind of music in mind. This again circles back to equalization. Out of the box, some headphones will be better suited to certain genres of music than others. Don’t get Beats headphones if you don’t think music is all about the lows, regardless of how cool they look.
In conclusion, noise-induced hearing loss is a real issue that should be taken seriously.
Can headphones lead to hearing impairment?
But so long as we know how and why this happens, we can equip ourselves in such a way that we can still use headphones safely. The most important thing to remember is that it’s not just the volume that causes issues, but the amount of time spent listening to music at said volume.
Ideally, you shouldn’t cross the 85 dB threshold, in which case you can keep your headphones on for eight straight hours without causing any issues. But if you want to listen to louder music, you can. Just make sure to give your ears more time to rest by taking breaks.
Simply put, and since most of us aren’t equipped to objectively measure the loudness of our headphones, keep it safe by not raising the volume above 60% and you should be fine.