Are your headphones too loud?

Do you have a similar experience that when you put on your headphone, your parents start shouting “DON’T wear your headphone all the time!” ?

I often got super angry about my parents’ endless arguments on the harmfulness of the headphone when I was a little boy. However, I totally changed my mind after I read several scientific articles talking about this as I grew up. I love music, which is my life. Every time when wearing a headphone, I start wondering – are headphones so dangerous? Is there a safety level of using headphones? How long can I wear and how to know if it is too loud?

How dangerous is the loud sound?

First, we must know the function of our ears. External ear is like a megaphone (click to check image) which receives the sound, passes sound through auditory canal, and stimulate the eardrum to vibrate. After that, the ossicles (three tiny bones) convey it to the inner ear which contains sensory nerves connecting to the brain.

One of the most important functions through the process is the cochlea, which is a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear and where the organ of corti located. Organ of corti is the sensory receptors for hearing.

So, if it was damaged, the result would be that you cannot hear others well. Most importantly, this process is irreversible!

Damaged organ of Corti from a guinea pig. Left image shows healthy organ of Corti from a guinea pig. Right image shows a noise-damaged organ of Corti from the same pig exposed to sound at a 120-decibel level (similar to that experienced at a heavy metal rock concert). Cells are permanently damaged or dying. Credit: Robert Preston and Joseph E. Hawkins, Kresge Hearing Research Institute, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich.

You might think turning down the music could be helpful. However, it depends on whether you can tell which sound levels are too loud or not. So, let’s see a sound decibel chart showing average sound level from different sources that we can hear in everyday life.

Common sounds with decibels and typical response (own graph). Date source from: U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Apart from the loudness, according to World Health Organization (WHO), the safe listening levels also depend on the length of time and frequency of the exposure. The total sound level that a person can be exposed is limited to a constant: 8 hours a day at 85 dB is the limitation and higher than 85 dB will cause hearing loss in certain hours or minutes. A report from U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reveals when exposure level higher than 110 dB, your hearing loss is in seconds. That means, even if you listen to music for 30 minutes a day at 95 dB, you may be still suffering hearing impairment in two or three years.

Do you often use headphones to listen music on trams, buses or planes? And do you always feel like you should increase the volume in these circumstances? If so, that would be a huge problem for you. When you can hear the music in the same level you expected, the decibels are much higher than you thought.

What can be done to make listening safe?

The first thing you can do is to ensure your volume lower than 60% according WHO advice.

If it is possible, a noise-cancelling headphone is the best option when you are in noisy environment, which will cut down the external sound exposure.

Another option is to measure the sound level. There are lots of sound meter apps on smartphones or computers available for you to measure the decibels you are hearing.

Of course, other good options include to take listening breaks and to enjoy music in a quiet place.

My headphone (own photo)

8 Responses to “Are your headphones too loud?”

  1. liyawang says:

    Hey Liujun. Interesting topic and really informative! As someone who can’t live a day without music, I clicked on your post the second I came across the title. I’m well aware of me spending maybe way too much time wearing both earphones and headphones on a daily basis. The thought of possible hearing damage did come across my mind often. I just couldn’t resist the enjoyment of blasting music with a volume that’s high enough for me to block out the rest of the world. But after reading your content, it seems like I’m not doing too bad since I do take breaks and rarely set volumes over 60%. Thanks for helping relieve my worries.

  2. yuzongc says:

    Hi Liujun, the topic is very interesting and relevant to my daily life. I’m a fun of the earphone and I will use my earphone on the way to the school. Sometimes I will raise the volume to minimise the noise and I do believe this would affect my hearing, but I don’t really take it as a deal. This blog may help to pay attention to the music volume and the use of earphone. Thank you!

  3. Zongdong LIU says:

    Hi Liujun, it’s a very nice post and I really enjoyed reading your article! I studied music technology (music production, mixing, and audio engineering) before. Actually, for every kind of music, such as pop, jazz, rock – you name it, we will process a procedure called “mastering” after mixing, in other words, mastering boosts up the volume of audio into a decent level (the ceiling value is set to -0.1db or 0db generally), or you can call it normalization, to make sure every track is loud enough for listening and seasoning the whole song. Hence, 50% – 55% of the total volume is an ideal value for listening, and at this level of volume, you can enjoy every detail and will not screw your ears!

  4. Liujun Wang says:

    Yes, but it really depends what condition you’re in. For your first question, I think it’s truly dangerous, not only for someone using headphones, but also other people around. What I suggested in article is basically a health issue about hearing loss, it should be under the case that you can keep everyone completely safe from external environments. Let’s say, if you sit on a tram use that listing music, that would be fine as long as you know when you should get off. One the other hand, a noise cancelling headphones will not cut all noise out (only 6dB to 10dB from various articles). But, for people who are crossing roads still listening phone, it’s riskful behaviour whether they use a normal headphones or noise cancelling one. For your second issue, I would say it’s good when their headphones aren’t too loud (you can check I respond on the first question). When you talk about overall safety problems, I want to say that’s the same story with the first one who crossing roads.

  5. shahada says:

    There are some interesting facts in this post, Liujun I really enjoyed the read as I stopped listening to loud music a while ago myself as I felt the damage right through. But you also suggested to use the noise cancelling headphones that will pretty much cut the external noise out. Isn’t this life threatening itself? I mean from what I’ve seen, the majority of people crossing roads are distracted by mobile phone, but they would still somehow hear a car beeping,. Now if we cut that noise out, these people will be completely out of focus from their external environments. Same thing for other forms of emergency in the household I suppose. Not only that, but I’ve noticed many of my friends attend a “silent disco” instead of the loud noisy nightclubs, would you say that listening to music with a headphone on is a safer option?

  6. Natali says:

    I think this is a nice topic to discuss about. This is good advise who listen music so loudly which destroys hearing capacity.

  7. Liujun Wang says:

    Thanks for your comments Sophie! The concept can be applied to in car music, but the data I cited mainly based on the experiments through headphones (expect first two pictures of corti organ). Yes, the headphones have greater impact to ears than speakers in same volume. However, if we talk about the decibels into ears, they have same effects. You always need to increase the volume of speakers to have same decibels with your headphones (or say same loudness you can hear).

  8. Sophie Wilson says:

    Great read Liujun! It was certainly eye opening (or should I say ear opening) to read how sound level can impact your hearing so easily! I wonder, does the same concept apply to listening to music loudly in the car? Or do headphones have more of an impact because they are directly on your ears?