Let’s talk a little bit about how headphones came to be in the first place. Headphones were developed in 1910 by Nathaniel Baldwin in Utah. According to Smithsonian magazine, he sold the first pair of headphones to the U.S. Navy, who found them to be a vast improvement over the mechanism that Naval radio operators were using. Fast forward to just after World War II: John Koss, jazz musician and the founder of Koss Corp., developed the first headphones designed specifically for music, closely mimicking the sounds of a concert-filled hall and quickly attracting music-lovers.
For about 30 years, headphones looked the same until Sony came up with little earphones that fit in your ear to accompany its Walkman. They didn’t reach their peak of popularity until 2001 when Apple and Steve Jobs introduced the iPod and shipped each one with white earbuds — instantly recognizable in the ears of millions of Apple-using teens and adults today.
Headphones always have been a danger to our hearing, especially if you listen to music with them too loudly for too long. But earbuds bring with them a whole new aspect of hearing loss because they don’t work to cancel out outside noise as well as regular headphones do. And because they fit inside your ear, they are blasting that loud music directly into your ear canal.
Earbuds enter the scene
So what kind of damage do earbuds do exactly?
The ears are delicate. When sound enters our ear, it causes the ear drum to vibrate. These vibrations then travel to the cochlea, where fluid carries them to fine hairs that stimulate auditory nerve fibers that travel to the brain and interpret the sound.
Hearing loss occurs when the hair cells inside our ears are destroyed. The damage is done when we listen to loud noises for a long time. With the invention of earbuds and portable music players that can hold lots of music and have a long battery life, more and more people are listening to loud music for hours. At what level is loud noise damaging to our hearing? Typically at 85 decibels, about the level of a hair dryer or a food processor.
Watch those decibels
Compared to traditional-style headphones that rest over the ear, earbuds can have a higher output level of sound by about 7-9 decibels. An audiologist at Wichita State University who pulled earbuds off students to find out how loud their music was discovered that most students were listening to music at 110-120 decibels, well over the recommended volume. At that level, loud noise can cause permanent hearing loss after just an hour and 15 minutes. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that the number of teens with hearing loss has jumped 33 percent since 1994, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.
So what to do if you want to preserve what hearing you may have left? If you are going to use earbuds, the American Auditory Society’s rule of thumb is 60/60 — to not listen for more than 60 minutes at a time at 60 percent of the maximum volume.
If you want to go one better, you can even opt for better quality noise-canceling headphones that go over the ear. Since these headphones work better at blocking out outside noise, you won’t have to listen to your music as loudly. Find out more on how to preserve your hearing even — and especially — if you’ve already experienced some hearing loss.
Related stories on MNN & Treehugger:
- 1 in 5 teens have hearing loss
- How to snap iPhone photos with your Apple earbuds
- Ear implant powered by the ear's 'natural battery'