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5 tips for preventing hearing loss caused by headphones

Thanks to remote work and school, and ever-increasing amounts of smartphone and tablet use, we spend a lot of time wearing headphones. Let us help you protect your ears with five tips to reduce or eliminate the long-term hearing damage these devices can cause.
Written by Michael Gariffo, Staff Writer on
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Selectstock -- Getty

Many of us spend a good portion of our lives working to preserve and improve our health and the health of our children. We safeguard our long-term wellbeing, whether it's through taking vitamins, eating right, applying sunscreen, or something else. But despite our diligence, we often are unaware of some health hazards we encounter every day. One such threat is the unsafe levels of sound we subject our ears to on a daily basis. 

Any overly loud sound can be dangerous, whether it comes from sources such as live concerts or your surround sound speakers. But a more common contributor to hearing damage are headphones. These accessories once were limited to our use of Walkmans and MP3 players. Now their presence is ubiquitous, and headphones provide constant audio from our smartphones, laptops, gaming consoles, and tablets. Kids even use them to tune in to online classes, and we adults wear them during online meetings.

Also: Jabra Enhance Plus review: Compact earbuds for people with mild hearing loss

So, if we can't avoid using headphones because of how intrinsic they've become to our lives, how do we prevent the damage they can cause? Follow these few simple, easy habits listed below, which will greatly reduce any damage you may do to your ears, even if you spend all day, every day, wearing headphones.

Preventing permanent hearing loss 

We have described how difficult it can be to avoid wearing headphones entirely, so let's focus on the factor that actually causes the damage: excessive audio volume. Unfortunately, most people don't know how to determine what is an unhealthy volume level. This is true for adults as well as children, who often don't even know sound can hurt them. So how do we avoid subjecting our ears to unhealthy sound levels? 

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A closeup of the open-backed Philips Audio SHP9500 HiFi Precision Stereo Over-Ear Headphones (linked below)

Philips -- Amazon

1. Use the right type of headphones

Quick tip: Skip the earbuds

Headphones come in many shapes and sizes. The term covers everything from tiny wireless earbuds to over-the-ear headphones so big they look like you strapped speakers to your head. While all of them have the potential to cause hearing damage, differences in design determine how easily they can produce lasting harm.

Earbuds are among the worse offenders because most are designed to create a seal when inserted into the ear canal. Those little silicone and foam tips amplify the bass such tiny devices produce. But they also greatly increase the sound-induced pressure on your eardrums and delicate inner ear anatomy by sealing in all of those soundwaves.

Instead, consider using open-backed headphones. This type of headphone allows free airflow into and out of the earcups, reducing the pressure applied to your ears by allowing soundwaves to escape elsewhere.

It's a fairly intuitive difference, if you think about it. Imagine a few pounds of pressure being applied to your body within a point as small as an earbud tip. Sounds uncomfortable, maybe even painful, right? Now, imagine that same weight being dispersed over the 3- to 4-inch-diameter area most open-backed headphone earcups encompass. Much less intimidating, and in this case, less damaging to your ears.

Also: Beyerdynamic DT 900 PRO X headphones review: Brutally honest sound for under $300 

There is one pitfall to be aware of here: The impulse to turn up the volume of your music or audio to compensate for an ambient sound that can leak into open-backed headphones. You should never use high volume to compensate for noise from your surroundings. This leads us to our next tip... 

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Matthias Kulka -- Getty

2. Don't use louder volume to drown out ambient noise

Quick tip: Use ANC headphones instead

We've all been subjected to noisy public transit, a coworker with an annoying laugh, or a dog that is trying to tell the mailman who's boss. Often, we reach for headphones to drown out those distractions with even more sound. This means you're taking a situation that's already dangerously loud and adding even more noise to it. Just because that new noise comes in the form of your favorite music doesn't mean it isn't going to damage your hearing.

In situations like this, it's much better to use one of two things: active noise canceling (ANC) headphones or simple earplugs.

ANC headphones eliminate incoming sound waves by creating opposing waves that meet them in the middle, resulting in the incoming waves being weakened or eliminated before they reach your ears. This process allows ANC-equipped earbuds and larger headphones to block out sound without blocking all outside air. Even if you don't feel like listening to music or a podcast, you can still use a pair's ANC feature, with nothing playing, to greatly reduce any damage loud ambient noise might otherwise cause.

If you just want some peace and quiet and prefer an economical option, use plain old foam earplugs. These can be had for as little as $9 for 50 earplugs, and they can block out between 32 and 38 decibels worth of sound, more than enough to turn audio bombardments capable of long-term damage into a minor background hum.  

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The Audio Technica M20X corded model (linked below)

Audio Technica -- Amazon

3. Use good quality, clear headphones

Many of you probably saw this tip and immediately thought, "They're so expensive!" Sure, there are headphones that cost as much as $50,000. But that doesn't mean good, clear audio must be expensive. There are great, cheap options available that provide clear sound. This is important because we're less likely to raise the volume to unhealthy levels if the audio is clear at a lower volume.

Most of you have missed a line while watching TV, thanks to the tinny, small speakers built into the set. What do you usually do? You rewind the show, raise the volume, and listen again. This habit extends to headphones as well, and you may not even realize you're doing it if you've never been exposed to clear, precise sound reproduction.

Too many modern headphones are designed to produce loud, overly bassy audio. Opt instead for a pair that prioritizes vocal and instrumental clarity. You'll appreciate your music and audio more, and you'll be able to listen at lower volumes while still experiencing the same level of audio richness.

Below we've listed a few budget-friendly options for users looking to follow this tip.

Inexpensive open-backed headphones

While open-backed headphones tend to be on the higher price end of the audio equipment market, two notable standouts come in at the affordable price of $75. Both punch well above their weight class for clarity, quality, and precision.

Inexpensive on-ear/over-ear headphones 

Audio Technica's ATH has long been a favorite of budget-conscious audiophiles, and the M20X Professional Studio Monitor Headphones follow that trend for just $50, or $80 for a Bluetooth version.

Inexpensive truly wireless earbuds 

Anker has been at the top of many "cheap but good" lists for years. That holds true with its Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Wireless Earbuds, which for less than $40 provide sound quality far superior to similarly priced competitors (wired or wireless).

4. Take a break

Most sources on hearing preservation will tell you that taking breaks from auditory assault allows your ears to recuperate. While that's absolutely true, there's another reason to take a break that most advice ignores: volume creep.

The longer we listen to music or video, the more likely we are to gradually, mindlessly turn up the volume. Maybe there was a quiet moment, or a particularly low volume music track came on, or a noise distraction from outside. Whatever the cause, we often gradually raise the volume to compensate... and then leave it there.

Also: This wearable actively helps you relax and sleep better

Being exposed to louder volumes often makes us perceive the quality of the quieter sound as inferior. But that same reduced volume will sound absolutely perfect if you just take a short, quiet break.

Many times I've watched TV at night, turned it off, and turned it back on in the morning only to be shocked at how loud I'd had it the night before. This is a perfect example of how easily we can damage our hearing without realizing it. Breaks allow our perception and physical anatomy to reset to the point where we can recognize when we've allowed volume creep to get us to unhealthy levels of sound. 

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iOS' built-in volume limiter as seen on iPhone

Michael Gariffo

5. Use software or hardware to limit your volume 

There are many ways you can limit the maximum volume of almost any electronic device, though the method will vary depending on the type of device and the operating system, if any, it's running.

Windows PCs 

Windows, regardless of which modern version you're using, doesn't offer a great way to limit volume. We suggest downloading a free third-party app to do the job. Some great options include Quiet on the Set, which lets you set a limit locked behind a password, so your kiddos can't go turning it up to 11 while you're not looking; or Sound Lock, which provides a simple volume limit toggle that lives in your taskbar. Both work for any connected audio output device, including headphones and speakers.

Macs 

macOS makes this task a bit more complicated. The easiest option is a paid app called Earsafe. This $5 download adds a volume limiter with individualized limit sliders for each type of sound output (speakers, headphones, etc.). You can get your volume under control using the command line and some AppleScript, as detailed in this Medium.com post.

iOS 

Apple has been much more conscientious about adding hearing protection features to iOS than to macOS, making this a breeze. Open your iPhone or iPad Settings app, tap Sounds & Haptics, and Headphone Safety. In this section, you'll see a toggle named Reduce Loud Sounds (seen above). Simply turn this on and use the slider to choose your preferred volume limit.

Android 

Android's more divergent nature means some manufacturers include volume limits on their smartphones and tablets while others don't. For that reason, we'll focus on third-party solutions that any Android user can download. Some of the most well-reviewed on Google Play right now include Voli: Volume Limiter for Kids, which allows for password-protected volume limitations parents can control, and Volume Limiter, which provides similar functionality for all ages.

For everything else 

Unfortunately, not every device supports software to limit maximum volumes. Gaming consoles, especially, are guilty of not providing easy ways to control the maximum volume outputs of connected headphones, despite their target audience including plenty of younger users who may not know they should be guarding their ears.

For situations like these, we recommend considering headphones with built-in volume limitations. Options like the iClever HS14 Kids Headphones include a switch that allows for 85dB or 94dB limitations, and they come in a variety of colors your kids are likely to enjoy. Bluetooth options like the JuniorJams Volume Limiting Headphones for Kids are also available, as are many other models with volume limits

Wrap up

Hearing is a precious thing for those of us lucky enough to have it. Unfortunately, once the delicate anatomy that makes it possible is damaged, it's often impossible to regain what's been lost. That's why it's so important to be careful with how we treat our ears. If you make a habit out of using even a single suggestion in this guide, it will help protect your lifelong auditory well-being. 

Please note: The information provided here is for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be read as health or medical advice. Always consult your physician or a qualified healthcare professional to obtain information about any questions you may have concerning medical conditions or healthcare goals. 

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