Are Headphones Killing Your Hearing?

hearloss center

“Turn down that bloody noise!” is a refrain teenagers are used too, but parents just got an extra clause to their dislike of rap/pop/ Bieber.  Recent studies show that hearing loss is on the rise, specifically in the 11-19 year old age bracket. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that one in five teenagers have some type of hearing loss. Researchers have been monitoring adolescents hearing since 1988, and spotted a 31% increase in problems.

This averages out at around twenty percent of teens today experiencing a problem.

This report has caused a lot of concern, understandably and in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has decided to heavily invest in the sound of the future. He has committed to spending $250,000 to deter teenagers from playing their music at a high volume, a cause which isn’t thrilling everyone. Think about it- the city has 50,000 people sleeping in homeless shelters every night,  and is highly underfunded, and this money is being used to treat teens who like rap music?

If it’s a numbers game, it’s important to look at just what The New York Health Department considers important- funding hearing loss problems later on, or addressing them now. They clearly are convinced by JAMA’s data- in a statement they said. “Nationally, hearing loss is rising among adolescents. Hearing loss increased more than 30% between 1988 and 2006, according to data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Exposure to loud sound can cause hearing problems – both hearing loss and tinnitus.” The cost of the campaign now may actually save NYC money in the long run.

It’s not just teens who are at risk from hearing loss, the baby boomer generation is suffering too. Approximately 44% of people have some significant hearing loss by the age of 69. Think about it. That means around one in two people will need hearing aids if we continue at this rate.

Bloomberg is serious about changing this and is instigating  The Hearing Loss Prevention Media Campaign. This is intended to target a youth demographic and utilize social media in a bid to save their hearing. One of the main targets of this initiative is headphones but earbuds (in-ear headphones) specifically. What is the source of this? Bloomberg clearly believes it’s the use of headphones that have become so eponymous with everyday life but is that fair?

How Sound Works

Sound is measured in units called decibels. Looking on the decibel scale, an increase of 10 means that a sound is 10 times more intense, or powerful. To your ears, it sounds twice as loud. The humming of a refrigerator is 45 decibels, normal conversation is approximately 60 decibels, and the noise from heavy city traffic can reach 85 decibels.

Randy Judson, AuD, clinical director of audiology services at the New York Ear and Eye Infirmary said that there are three types of hearing loss. “There is conductive (CHL) – typically due to problems in the middle ear such as a ruptured eardrum, water in the ear, ear infection, abnormalities with the hearing bones, “ she said. “Also there is sensorinueral hearing loss (sometimes referred to as noise induced hearing loss -NIHL) nerve problems, and can result from loud noise exposure, certain medications toxic to the ear (certain antibiotics like gentamicin, or chemotherapy drugs), genetic, and aging.” Finally, there is mixed hearing loss, which is a combination of the first two.

Sources of noise that can cause noise induced hearing loss include motorcycles and small firearms, all emitting sounds from 120 to 150 decibels.

On top of this, length of time is also an issue, as repeated exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can also cause hearing loss.

We’ve already noted the safe decibel range is below 85 decibels, but what happens when you go over that? Well, high decibel ranges can damage hair cells in the inner ear. These cells are what converts sound into electric signals recognized by the brain. When the hair cells get damaged, there’s no way of regrowing them. Result? Hearing loss.


An Example of Decibel Ranges

  • Refrigerator — 45 decibels
  • Conversation — 60 decibels
  • Heavy traffic noise — 85 decibels
  • Vacuum cleaner — 85 decibels
  • Rock concerts — 115-120 decibels
  • Motorcycles, firecrackers — 125 decibels
  • Jet engine — 130 decibels

Judson said that the primary culprit of this type of hearing loss is “Little electronic devices that expose our ear to noise pretty much anytime, anywhere.”

Judson also said that you need to be careful when making choices with your headphones.

“Earbuds are more likely to cause hearing damage than headphones that sit over the ear as they can also be up to 9 dB louder than over-the-ear headphones. Preferably, teens should select headphones rather than ear buds that are usually provided with most  iPod and iPhones.”

She does give Apple a little credit though. “Apple offers a volume limit setting for some iPods.  You can restrict the maximum volume of a song in “options” tab of any song in iTunes.”

Val Kolton, CEO of V-MODA, a brand known for high quality headphones is hyper-aware of this issue. A trained DJ before he got into the headphone manufacturing business, Kolton remembered reading the decibel in his DJ booth. “The booth actually had a decibel reader which showed us how loud it was.”

“I remember it often being 123 decibels. I’d go home and all the girls would say that they couldn’t hear a thing, that their ears were ringing.”

Kolton would wear ear plugs whilst DJing, and this lead to him creating the V-MODA Faders, a $20 pair of earplugs that can be worn under large headphones. “I developed them to create awareness of hearing loss,” Kolton said. “We’re trying to get them in market to give consumers a taste of it. The costs are high to make them, but we are trying to get it out there as a non-profit division to help the world.” The Faders Earplugs are specifically designed to lower audio nose whilst preserving clarity, and they reduce noise 12db across the spectrum.

In terms of the earplug market, twenty dollars is extremely low.

Its not enough just to have earplugs, realistically, you need to look at the earphones as well. Kolton is well aware of this.

“I call it the Earpocalypse,”

“There are two problems when looking at headphone usage, “ he said. “First is that what it says on the box isn’t necessarily true. There is no standard for hi-def headphones, it’s not like you’re getting 1080p. Each unit is different, as factories don’t have proper quality control. Different brands might have a 10 decibel variant from headphone to headphone, so even if you think you’re protected, you might not be.”

Varying decibel issues means that consumer will turn up the volume to hear ‘higher trebles or more bass’, something which wouldn’t be an issue if each headphone showed the  same decibel range. There would be no need to raise the volume for overcompensation.

So, it looks like if you opt for V-MODA, at least you know you’re going to be getting the exact sound they promise. Kolton wouldn’t name shame other brands, but said that his research and testing showed only a few others were consistently accurate.


Griffin is a brand that aims to be safety conscious, and has designed a line of headphones specifically protect younger ears.  “We designed the Crayola MyPhones with a built-in, always-on sound circuit to cap peak volume levels at 85 decibels. This level was chosen because it is the maximum level recommended by many auditory health organizations in the US and worldwide,” a spokesperson told me.

“We created them in response to many parents that were concerned for their children’s safety as the adoption rate of mobile audio devices continues to grow among young children.”

Am I Losing My Hearing?

I was concerned about my own hearing after researching this story, though I’m more sensible now, I’ve never worn earplugs at music concerts, and I’ve been known to hug a speaker or two to ‘feel the bass’ reverberate through my body. Nowadays, when I’m editing video or in a noisy room I sometimes have trouble understanding people – could I be one of these statistics?

In Manhattan, The Center for Hearing and Communication is currently offering free hearing screenings as part of an initiative to make people more aware of  their hearing health.

The audiologist took me into a small soundproof room, a white box like structure and peered into my ear with a small light. After being criticized for using cotton ear buds (guilty) she placed headphones on my ears and left the room. She re-appeared in a small window, her voice echoing through my headset. “Raise you hands when I play tones,” she said.”We will do both ears.” A succession of beep and hums whistled through my ears as we tested frequency ranges, from 250Hz to 600Hz. The ear is supposed to pick up 25 decibels in each bracket to constitute as ‘normal’ hearing, and I passed on all levels, minus an aberration at 600Hz in my right ear. This was mentioned as possible low level tinnitus, and I was referred for another meeting.

Not an ideal outcome, but given the recent data, I feel lucky.

If you don’t have a center near you, another option is to try a hearing test app. There are many free options from Android and Apple and these offer you a brief overview into the frequency ranges, and allow you to feel comfortable/ paranoid depending on the results.

What are the Symptoms?

Dr Hae-Ok (Ana) Kim, MD,  from New York Eye and Ear Infirmary said that signs you may have hearing loss are, “Tinnitus (ringing noise even when the room is quiet), aural fullness (feeling that your ear is clogged or full),  and having to ask people to repeat themselves.”

One easy way to try and avoid this is to aim for safer music listening. Kim suggested that to listen too music safely, “Don’t turn up the volume knob more than half-way, regardless of how it’s marked.”

It pays to take preventative measures now if you want to preserve your hearing in the long run, and it would be great if we could have more confidence in the people who are creating headphones as well.





  1. Not sure what the point is- any noise which we can control (musice) should simply stay under 80db. If its out of our control, simply use hearing protection. also, repeated or prolonged exposure to loud noise is the real issue. Not earbuds. Not music. It’s common sense.

One Ping

  1. Pingback: