Listen Safely: Your Ears and Your iPod | iLounge Article


Listen Safely: Your Ears and Your iPod

So you’ve just received a new iPod - welcome to the family! More likely than not, you’re already planning to convert your CD collection or download iTunes Music Store songs, and you’re anxious to start listening with your own pair of Apple’s famous white earbuds. Of course, you’ll find virtually everything you need to start enjoying digital music inside the box.

But one thing you didn’t get with your iPod was a warning.

We’ve become accustomed to warnings - they come on cigarette packages, advertisements for wine and spirits, and many medications. Besides a note on addictiveness, which all Apple products most certainly earn, the iPod should come with a more serious advisory.


Warning: This iPod may be hazardous to your hearing.

That’s right. While the iPod offers excellent music playback functionality, most people don’t realize its potential dangers, or that they need to use it in moderation to protect their ears. Sure, if you listen to your iPod at a low volume level for short periods of time, you won’t have to worry much, but the louder you set the volume, and the longer you listen, the more chance you have of damaging your ears. iLounge isn’t interested in preaching to you, but we do want to advocate safe listening habits that will help you keep using your iPod (and ears) for a long time.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye!

Human ears are complex organs, and are quite sensitive; they have evolved to hear the softest sounds, from the rustle of a lion behind a bush in the savannah to the sound of a pin dropping in a quiet room. They can also hear the harmonics of an acoustic guitar, the subtle percussion in a jazz ensemble, and they can distinguish the pianissimo sounds of a flute among dozens of instruments in an orchestra. But assail them with heavy metal guitars, throbbing drum’n'bass music, or wailing saxophones, and they’ll get irritated. Any kind of music, if the volume is high enough, can cause hearing damage.

Most commonly, hearing problems begin as a ringing in the ears, or a feeling of fullness as though the ears are clogged. The ringing in the ears occurs when part of your hearing system becomes overexcited, and the fullness is a defense mechanism that your ears use to try and protect themselves from auditory assaults. But if you listen to too much loud music - or if you are assailed regularly by other loud sounds, such as jackhammers, leaf-blowers, lawnmowers or other machines - this damage can become permanent.

The medical name for ringing in the ears is tinnitus, and this, and other noise-induced hearing loss, occurs when the cilia, or hairs in the inner ear, become damaged from repeated loud sounds. As guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who has said, amongst many other musicians with similar complaints, “I have severe hearing damage. It’s manifested itself as tinnitus, ringing in the ears at frequencies that I play guitar. It hurts, it’s painful, and it’s frustrating.”

Under normal, quiet conditions, iPods and other portable stereos are largely safe for even extended listening. But they can be dangerous because of where you listen to them. If you listen in a quiet area, such as at home or walking in a park, you won’t need to turn the volume up very loud. But get on the subway, or walk along a noisy street, and you’ll instinctively crank it up to ensure that it is louder than the ambient noise you are trying to tune out. And that’s where the trouble begins. When music competes with other loud sounds, you lose perspective, and no longer realize just how loud the volume is; you just keep turning it up so you can hear the quiet parts.

Sound Levels and Danger

You may know that sounds are measured in decibels (dB). Decibels are a logarithmic scale, which means that each increase in 10 dB is a tenfold increase in power, or a twofold increase in perceived volume. So while a conversation may reach 60 dB, a subway, at 90 dB, is actually eight times as loud. Rock concerts range from 100 to 120 dB, and jet planes, at 100 feet away, reach 140 dB. [Ed. Note: This paragraph was edited by the author on 12-27-05 to correct a mathematical error.]

Music can range from very quiet to very loud - think of mellow ambient music on the low end and death metal on the high end. But the classification does not only depend on genre. A jazz album, with a brass section, may be as loud as a hard rock album, and a Mahler symphony can easily hit 120 dB. In fact, many classical musicians now wear earplugs that reduce the volume of sound without deforming it. Can you imagine what it must be like to be sitting right in front of the French horn (around 100 dB) in an orchestra?

While listening to loud music in a club or concert hall can be dangerous, piping it directly to your ears through earphones is even more so. Wired music is not dampened by walls and bodies, or the distance between you and the speakers, and goes straight into your ears. The most dangerous parts - sudden spikes in volume - can cause instant damage.

Most musicians who perform with amplification are aware of the problem, and, in recent years, have switched from using stage monitors (those black, angled speakers at the front of the stage that play the music back to the performers) to ear monitors (above). Fitted to each performer’s ear, they fit perfectly into the ear canals, creating a “seal” with the ear canal. These devices offer two features: they block out ambient sound, reducing it by as much as 30 dB, and provide a clear, undistorted input to the musicians’ ears that can be adjusted to the appropriate volume. By limiting outside sound, the inside sounds can then be heard at quieter levels. Ultimate Ears’ UE-10 Pro premium in-ear monitors, shown in this picture, is just one example of what musicians now invest in to protect their ears.

There’s only one caveat: premium ear monitors sell for $400 and up - the UE-10 Pros for $900. Thankfully, there are less expensive solutions that work almost equally well for average consumers.

How You Can Protect Yourself

The least expensive solution is to use your iPod responsibly. How can you do this? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has provided safety guidelines for people working in noisy areas, and suggests that every 5 dB increase in volume cuts the maximum permissible exposure time in half. Under OSHA standards, workers can only be exposed to 90 dB for 8 hours per day, 95 dB for 4 hours, 100 dB for 2 hours, and so on. While many hearing professionals say these guidelines are not strict enough, they make it clear that, to protect your ears, you should carefully limit the amount of time you spend listening to your iPod at high volumes.

Except for in Europe, the iPod’s maximum output level is 130 decibels, and most music files stored on your iPod will be between 95 and 105 decibels - variable from file to file. The iPod’s output volume also changes depending on the headphones you attach; some headphones will sound louder or softer when connected at the same volume as Apple’s. What all of this means is that there’s no exact spot on the iPod’s volume adjustment slider that’s guaranteed to be safe for extended listening at all times. So we can provide general recommendations, but you’ll have to play this all by ear - pun intended.

While a half-hour at high (80%) volume will not likely harm your ears, assuming that you give them time to rest before the next listening session, we’d recommend that you don’t turn your iPod up anywhere near this or its top volumes when using Apple’s included buds, or most others you might attach instead. Even at the iPod’s medium (50%) volume level, listening for several hours at a time, over long periods, may lead to hearing damage. We’d strongly recommend that you listen at the 40% or below level with headphones attached whenever possible.

If you live in Europe, and have purchased an iPod there, you’ll be protected from the most serious damage - iPods sold in Europe are limited to 100 dB. However, many people have applied a simple hack to remove this limit, letting their iPods jump up to 130 dB again. Think carefully about doing this; listening to the iPod at maximum volume is a sure-fire way to harm your ears, and the volume limit is there for your protection.

Turning down the volume is one way to protect your ears, but getting the right headphones is another - though it will cost a bit more. If you do listen to your iPod often in noisy environments, such as in the subway or on airplanes, consider getting in-ear earphones (above) or noise-cancelling headphones. The former enter your ear canals, creating a seal that helps you block out ambient sounds. While you can greatly lower the volume, these earphones can still be dangerous because they are much closer to the inner ear, so any sudden spikes in volume can have serious effects. (For this reason, make sure the volume is turned down before you start playing music with in-ear earphones.)

Some of the in-canal phones we’d recommend are ones with silicone rubber-tipped edges that go into your ears. The Etymotic ER-6i earbuds above provide excellent sound quality, but come at a higher price than many competitors.

For their lower price - now under $30 at some retailers, such as - Sony’s MDR-EX81 headphones (above) provide similar isolation and very good sound. Apple also sells a $40 pair of in-ear phones, shown in the second picture at the top of this article, but we strongly prefer these other options.

Noise canceling headphones (above) use a special feedback system that listens to ambient sounds (through tiny microphones) then cancels it by sending inverted sound waves. So you can listen to your iPod on an airplane at a much lower volume without having to hear the “whoosh” of the plane’s air-conditioning. The version shown above is by Macally, but there are also options from companies such as Bose, with its noteworthy QuietComfort II series phones.

Updated reviews of these types of earphones and more can be found on our Reviews page, with specific top recommendations in our free downloadable publications, the Holiday Buyers’ Guide and Free iPod Book.

Your Ears are Not Replaceable

It’s easy to ignore the potential for hearing damage until it’s too late, so it’s up to iPod users (and, for younger users, their parents) to take proper precautions early on. While this may sound preachy, your ears cannot be replaced, and hearing damage is permanent. If you love music, you’ll want to listen to it for your entire life; if you lose your hearing, you’ll be missing one of the greatest joys of this world. With that in mind, if you develop any of the symptoms mentioned above, see an ear specialist and have your hearing checked to make sure there is no damage. And, don’t forget, hearing aids cost a lot more than iPods and don’t look as cool.

Additional Resources:

Hearnet is a great place to find more information about hearing problems faced by musicians and music lovers.

Information Week’s article on iPods and Hearing Loss discusses recommendations from Northwestern University professor and audiologist Dean Garstecki.

OSHA’s Noise and Hearing Conservation Technical Manual discusses exposure levels and appropriate safety measures at great length.

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Thanks so much for this article! It is really important for people to know about hearing damage.  Once you get it, you can’t reverse it.  I love my ipod but I am careful to listen to it at low enough volumes.

Posted by james00 on December 24, 2005 at 11:34 PM (CST)


Does anyone know of a way to limit the iPod’s output level for non-European iPods? I try to be responsible about my listening levels but this sounds like a good extra safety measure.

Posted by bwahahax on December 25, 2005 at 12:35 AM (CST)


I would be interested how to limit the volume like in the European iPod too.

Posted by mopar212000 on December 25, 2005 at 11:26 AM (CST)


For older, non-European iPods, the solution is usually to download a European iPod Firmware updater. (I’ve never tried this, though I’ve thought seriously about it since my hearing started being affected.)

I’ve had a distinct ringing in my right ear for at least a year now. I never noticed it at all, except when it got very quiet at night, and I’d hear this incessant ringing. For over a year, I’d have a fan on at night to create enough background noise to drown out the ringing. I didn’t realize it was tinnutis until I read about it on the BBC newspages.

I’d advise getting your hearing checked out by a doctor, but please learn from my initial experiences. The doc will tell you of three things that cause hearing loss: (1) excessive exposure to sound, (2) damage from an infection, or (3) from a rare kind of benign tumor near the ear. Since my hearing loss was on my right ear only, the doctor didn’t think the iPod was the cause, since the damage would likely have been in both ears. To satisfy his curiosity, he prescribed an MRI scan.

WARNING: Don’t blindly agree to an MRI scan, ESPECIALLY if you’re not made of money. It cost me $100 for the scan, which I learned only after the fact. I thought my employer’s insurance would pick up the tab (and my college has a pretty good medical coverage!) Without the insurance, it could cost you $250 or more.

But it’s not only the cost that’s prohibitive. The chances of it being caused by a tumor are rare, and the doctor will tell you two things: (1) If they do find a tumor, there’s not much they’ll do about it since it’s benign, and (2) If they don’t find a tumor, there’s not anything they can do for your hearing anyway. That means you’ll be saddled with unnecessary charges for something they can’t fix one way or the other.

Ultimately, I found two possible causes for my hearing loss. One was from the fan I kept at my bedside, which blew towards the affected ear. After I measured it with a device our school’s safety manager lent me, I discovered outputted about 87 decibels at its loudest setting, which is three decibels short of the number necessary to cause damage. I haven’t ruled out that the phone I use at work as a culprit of the damage.

Posted by yarudora on December 25, 2005 at 12:05 PM (CST)


until now i used to think that..80% volume on ipod is normal.but after reading this article i realized that this also can be harmful & i aways used to listen to music at 80% or sometimes more, which now i have realized is the reason for my frequent headaches n ear pain…really helpful article

Posted by umang_d on December 25, 2005 at 3:24 PM (CST)


Nice job iLounge. Why doesn’t Apple do more to educate its users? Apple could very easily list the decibels as each song plays and as you adjust the volume along with the other song information—there’s plenty of real estate on the screen. I just bought my first iPod, which I plan to use primarily in my car and as my bedroom alarm clock. I doubt I’ll use headphones much.

Posted by Rockr on December 25, 2005 at 11:11 PM (CST)


This is helping me a lot. I knew not to listen to music too loud, but this is very informal.

Posted by Pghmyn on December 26, 2005 at 12:04 AM (CST)


Excellent article, but I think something that probably should’ve been adressed by iLounge earlier, however it is of course better late than never. I always listen to my iPod at about 40-60% volume but most of my friends listen at 80-100% regularly, and as this article says, one of the main problems is using the white iPod pack in earphones, as they really don’t block out background noise at all, so listening in even a mildly noisy environment (e.g. classroom) requires the volume to be up above 70% to hear all elements of the music. Obviously this gets much worse in an environment like a train. The solution is as the article says, to get some in ear or noise cancelling headphones.

I recieved the Sony MDR-EX81’s (pictured in the article) this christmas and they’re great, offering noise reduction similar to that of earplugs, so you can listen at 40-50% volume in almost any environment. Previously I owned the Macally Podpro over the ear headphones (also pictured) but they broke after 15 months with a 12 month warranty *grrrrr*.

Top effort again iLounge

Posted by Nuke666 on December 26, 2005 at 3:36 AM (CST)


Wonderful article, iLounge! I have a pair of Etymotic 6Isolators and they work wonderfully for blocking the noise while keeping great sound quality. I use volumes around 10-30% with these headphones and the music is plenty clear.

However, recently I’ve been letting my dad use these headphones while we work out at the gym (where they of course have obnoxious music playing and there’s a lot of ambient noise) and I have used my stock earbuds. I’ve had to use volumes around 60-70% and I work out for around 1.5 hours. I will definitely look into getting him his own pair so we can both protect our ears and still listen to the music we like.

Thanks for the great information, iLounge!

Posted by CaptainValor on December 26, 2005 at 11:27 AM (CST)


What about cans? Earphones are the worst headphones to use if you are attepting to preserve your hearing. Any old cand are much better than earphones and they don’t require any gimmicky features like ‘noise-cancellation’. I got a pair of those headband headphones and my ears never hurt.

Posted by -i2i- on December 26, 2005 at 1:51 PM (CST)



There’s a very big problem with using old style cans: the good big ones require more omf than a portable device like the iPod can give. You can remedy this with a good portable headphone amp, but that’s an extra thing to carry around, fiddle with, and worry about batteries. I have a pair of AKG 240Ss I use at home and love, but when just plugged right into my iPod they really don’t sound that great. Etymotic ER-6is, however, do, and actually block out more sound than my AKGs (which are, admittedly, semi-closed). Old style cans do have the best sound of any headphone, but they’re really not designed for portable devices. Plus, they’re big and bulky, my Etymotics live in a Altoid tin in my bag, safe and sound, and hardly taking up any space.

Posted by TeeteringSilence on December 26, 2005 at 2:16 PM (CST)


In the article is states “You may know that sounds are measured in decibels (dB). Decibels are a logarithmic scale, which means that each increase in 10 dB is a tenfold increase in volume. So while a conversation may reach 60 dB, a subway, at 90 dB, is actually thirty times as loud.

Posted by Trijicon on December 26, 2005 at 3:27 PM (CST)


I have a pair of Sensaphonics’ ProPhonics Soft 2X in-ear monitors.  (  Much like Ultimate Ears’ UE-10s, they severely cut down on background noise (as well as severely cutting down the balance in your bank account).  They also have the added bonus, since they penetrate so far into the ear canal, of allowing you to play the ipod at extremely low volumes.  I rarely ever need to have mine above the 25-30% mark and I live in NYC (which is not exactly known for its quiet, peaceful streets & subways).

However, perhaps the best guide to volume control is this: If you find you have to turn the volume up in order to hear the music better, don’t.  Nearly always, it’s a sure sign that, between the ambient noise surrounding you & the music playing through your earphones, things are already too loud.  Leave the volume where it is and deal with it—or temporarily turn off the ipod.  Being conscious of your hearing in this manner, while admittedly frustrating when it comes to listening to music, will help to preserve your hearing in the long term.  Personally, I’d much rather deal with a little frustration here & there than a hearing aid down the line.

Posted by eben on December 26, 2005 at 4:23 PM (CST)


actually, a 10db increase will have a 2 times increase, so a 30 db increase will have 2^3 times increase, or 8

Posted by onbox on December 26, 2005 at 7:33 PM (CST)


using shure e4c with flanged plugs.
Listening to 50% volume on european ipod g5. Sometimes 60% sometimes 40%. Never for more then 1 hour at a time.

When I go to concerts etc. I always wear ear protection which lowers the volume but does not distort the sound.
Safe your ears!!

Posted by GermanJulian on December 27, 2005 at 11:55 AM (CST)


After just gettin my new ipod 5g for xmas ive constantly had the drone of parents nagging at me for the volume being too loud. after checking this out im amazed to actually read that i have been listening too loud these past few days after all. Thanx ilounge b4 it became too l8

Posted by Samputer on December 27, 2005 at 11:56 AM (CST)


Many who have lost their sight, and then later their hearing have
commented how much more devastating hearing loss is.

You lose your ability the hear the subtle nuances of speech
while socializing.

Just another iPod user :)

Posted by Skkyup on December 28, 2005 at 2:17 PM (CST)


With a pair of my Shure E3c’s ( I’ve never had to set the volume level of my 3g iPod above 15% even on the noisiest subway.  Of course I can’t hear the conductor’s announcements, but it’s a small price to pay for the safety of my hearing.

Posted by Chahk on December 28, 2005 at 3:43 PM (CST)


I use the Griffin Ear Jams on the standard Apple earbuds at work.  I ususally listen at 20-25% volume.  Best $10 accy. out there. They still allow some ambient sound in but provide a good seal.  I was listening at 40-50% without them.  I also have some Bose Triports head phones which sound great without overloading the iPod.  Does the author have any thoughts on the Ear Jams?

Posted by Elcoholic on December 29, 2005 at 6:32 PM (CST)


One thing you can do to limit the overall volume of the iPod is to turn down the maximum volume of the song itself through iTunes.

    If you right clik on the tunes in your library you are greeted with a dialog box with several options. Select Get Info. This will bring up the Info screen for that song. Click the Options tab. Near the top of the page you will see a slider bar labeled Volume Adjustment. You can slide the bar to the left to limit the maximum volume level for that song.

    This can be time consuming depending on the size of your library. But not to worry, you can adjust the overall volume of multiple songs at the same time. Just highlight multiple songs from your library, right click, then select Get Info. You will be asked “Are you sure that you want to edit information for multiple items?” Select yes and a similar Info screen will open up with several options. Near the bottom, you will the see same slider bar for the Volume Adjustment. Just slide the bar to the desired position and select OK.

    It will take some fine tuning to get the volume where you want it, but it may help limit the potential damage to your hearing.

Posted by trickster504 on December 30, 2005 at 11:15 AM (CST)

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