With personal listening, it has never been easier to listen to music or audio content whenever and wherever people want. But…science shows personal listening is associated with permanent progressive hearing health damage.
The hearing system falls out-of-tune, and there is distortion for pitch and loudness perception. This means people can develop tinnitus, hyperacusis or decreased sound tolerance, and speech understanding problems, especially in noisy environments. This is called hidden hearing loss, because hearing problems hide behind “normal” hearing on a standard audiogram. With repeated unprotected sound overexposure, these problems get worse, and permanent noise-induced hearing loss develops.
There are currently no limits on devices, earbuds, or headphone volume output that are strict enough to be safe for personal listening (e.g. 70 dB sound exposure limits). It’s up to each individual to limit volume to protect their hearing, music appreciation, and social interactions.
Always use personal listening volume below 50%, assuming you have typical or normal hearing. Scientists believe this is likely safe for hearing health whether you use headphones, earbuds, stock earbuds, noise cancelling earbuds or headphones, or loudness limiting headphones.
Earbuds and headphones with noise cancelling or noise isolating features are safer, because users can listen at a lower volume even when in ambient or background noise environments. These work best for background noise or hum from taking public transit, office noise, or similar situations.
Earbuds with deeper fit in the ear canals are safer than flat stock earbuds because volume doesn’t need to be turned up as loud to listen comfortably, even if earbuds are not specifically advertised as sound isolating.
If you have to turn the volume up above 50% to hear at a noisy job (e.g. construction, mills, manufacturing), it is better to use hearing protection like earplugs or earmuffs. Hearing protection is available with built-in wired or wireless radio, music, or personal listening connectivity for safe listening at work while screening out harmful noise.
Maybe one day, public health authorities will require sound exposure limits for personal listening system manufacturers. Imagine if bicycles had 10 gears, but if you went above 5th gear, pieces of your toes were cut off. Manufacturers would probably have to fix the problem. Maybe one day protecting hearing health will be valued as much as preventing other bodily injuries. And an inherently unsafe consumer product will be made safer. I love personal listening. It would be nice for everyone to enjoy the benefits without sacrificing their hearing health. Even if they just want to listen louder for their favourite song.