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Headphones, earbuds and healthy ears

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Listening to your favourite music can give that extra lift you need on the way to work, at the gym, or during a long walk. To do this without bothering other people, we need either headphones or earbuds, so here’s what you need to know about your headwear choice and how to protect your ears from damage.

There is a temptation to keep that volume pumping in order to totally immerse yourself in the experience, allowing every drum roll, guitar lick or vocal to really shine. However, there’s something we don’t often consider, mainly because it doesn’t affect us immediately – and that’s the damage we may be doing to our ears. Will the next generation of ageing Australians be partially deaf well before their time? And what is the best way to get sound from your device to your ears: headphones or earbuds?

Related: Hearing, an unregulated industry

How sound affects your hearing

Sound moves in waves, and the intensity of these waves are measured in decibels. The louder the sound, the more forcefully these waves move. When the waves reach our ears, it causes vibrations in the eardrum that eventually reach our brains. This is happening all of the time, whether we are aware of it or not. But when noise is particularly loud, it can cause damage to the delicate structures that allow us to hear. Sustained and repeated exposure to loud noise can result in tinnitus, a permanent ringing in the ears, and even partial deafness.

25% of 18-35 year olds have experienced tinnitus, according to Australian Hearing.

What are the safe limits?

In order to avoid hearing issues farther down the track, you can follow the recommended guidelines using decibel guides for standard music devices. The following table is also a great place to start:

Noise limits for MP3 players & smartphones
% of max volume Decibels Safe duration
30% 68 Indefinite
40% 73 Indefinite
50% 81 Indefinite
60% 87 4.5 hours
70% 92 1.6 hours
80% 98 23 minutes
90% 106 4 minutes
100% 111 1 minute
Source: vicdeaf.com.au

There are several ways to protect your ears from damage:

Only 17% of Australians under the age of 35 considered themselves at risk of hearing loss, as stated by an Australian Hearing report.

How healthy are earbuds?

Although earbuds are fantastically portable, cheap and convenient, professional bodies are unequivocal – they are almost always worse than headphones for listening to music from a portable device, as detailed here. The reasons for this revolve around the amount of outside sound that that still hits the eardrum, tempting the listener to creep the volume up in order to drown this extraneous sound out. Earbuds can also impact the wax in your ear, causing a blockage.

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If earbuds remain your preferred way of listening, it is always best to restrict the volume to 60% of the maximum, which is less than 90 decibels. Even those who rely on earbuds for exercise can get a decent pair of headphones for other situations.

How healthy are headphones?

Headphones can partially cover the ear (supra-aural) or completely enclose it (circumaural). Both are superior to earbuds in both sound quality and blocking background noise, according to this well-researched piece. They can be purchased for as little as $20, right up to several hundred dollars for top-quality noise cancelling headphones. These will block out a vast majority of extraneous sound, allowing the listening to keep the volume down. If you’re a regular listener, it could be worth investing in a better quality pair of headphones.

Protecting kids’ ears

Parents may be concerned about the volume of listening devices used by children, and rightly so. Kids are often extra sensitive to loud noises because their auditory system is still developing. According to this review of the relevant literature, parents should assist in finding a sensible volume level for kids when they use headphones or earbuds. A good indication of volume is whether you can hear the music when you stand next to them – if so, the volume is too loud for their sensitive ears.

When to seek medical attention

An audiologist or your GP can address any issues you have with your hearing, including:

At the first sign of trouble, make an appointment with your preferred specialist and find out exactly if and to what degree your hearing is damaged. But until then, remember that prevention is better – and cheaper – than a cure.

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