As we mentioned in our earphones vs headphones article, style, cost, convenience, comfort and performance all play a part when you’re deciding between personal listening devices. But what about safety? If you wear your device during your daily commute, while traveling or anywhere outside of your home, it’s definitely something to consider.
Even something as simple as a choice between headphones and earphones can have consequences for your personal safety and hearing health. But just to be clear, it isn’t the devices themselves that are inherently safe or dangerous, but rather the ways in which we use them.
A quick vocabulary refresher
As a reminder, when we talk about headphones and earphones, we’re talking about a wide variety of devices. “Headphone” encompasses listening devices that fit either on your outer ear—like Phiaton’s 900 Legacy and BT 460—or completely around your outer ear.
“Earphone” refers to listening devices that have some component that fits into your ear, and range from the free earbuds that come with your smartphone to wireless neckband style offerings like the BT 120 NC.
So, what does the design of these personal listening devices have to do with safety—specifically in terms of damage to your hearing? It all boils down to how loudly you have to play them to achieve an enjoyable listening experience. And much of that has to do with how well they block out external noises.
After all, if you’re in a loud environment—a subway station, an airport, a crowded city street—chances are you’ll find yourself reaching for your volume controls to turn up the sound of your music or podcasts. Needless to say, that’s not good for your ears. After all, turning up the sound on your entertainment doesn’t mean that the background noises go away. It simply means that you’re piling loud sounds on top of loud sounds. And that can result in permanent damage to your hearing a lot quicker than you might realize.
Follow the 60/60 rule
As a general rule, HealthyHearing.com recommends that you play your personal listening devices at no greater than 60 percent volume for no more than 60 minutes at a time—a guideline known as the 60/60 rule. Other experts recommend listening at no more than 85 decibels for no more than eight hours per day, but unless you know the exact specifications of your headphones and the amplifier output of your smartphone, that might be a harder guideline to follow. Then again, even the simpler 60/60 rule, easier as it may be to understand, can be hard to abide by if you live in a big city or spend much time in very noisy environments.
But picking the right listening device can help. In most cases, you’ll find that headphones provide great noise cancellation, or a tighter seal between your ears and the outside world. The result is that outside noises reach your ears at a lower volume, and you’ll likely find that you don’t have to turn your music up nearly as loud to compensate.
However, depending on the unique shape of your ear canals, you might find that the various rubber ear tips provided with most earphones provide perfectly acceptable noise cancellation from the outside world. You’ll likely also find that good active noise cancellation—in either headphones or earphones—is enough to keep out the din of the outside world. Noise cancellation is particularly good at drowning out noises like jet engines or traffic and keeping the volume of your smartphone or media player at safer listening levels.
But what about your personal safety?
Ironically enough, the choices that help protect you from noise-induced hearing loss could also put the rest of you in danger, depending on when and where you listen to headphones or earphones. Noise cancellation means you’re also blocking out noises that you need to hear, like a truck approaching an intersection from outside your line-of-sight. And if you wear headphones or earphones while driving, better cancellation means you’re less likely to hear the audible clues important to proper driving safety.
Just to reiterate: there’s nothing inherently safe or unsafe about the design of headphones or earphones. It’s up to you to apply good common sense to keep your ears, along with the rest of you, safe while you’re listening to your device. Make sure that if you’re in a public space where you need to keep an ear out for potential danger, the noise cancellation of a good pair of headphones could work to your disadvantage.
By Dennis Burger
November 22, 2017