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 Amazon.com – 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.