How to protect yourself against noise-induced hearing loss

I’m sure I’m not the first person to warn you about the dangers of loud noises. Our ears are remarkably sensitive organs, and they can suffer permanent damage after surprisingly short exposure to sounds above 100 decibels (dB). This is why people who regularly work with heavy machinery wear hearing protection.

But for anyone who just lives their lives doing normal things like listening to music, the threat of hearing damage seems like a distant risk, not something to be wary of. And that is exactly wrong.

Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is a slowly growing epidemic. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimates that more than 40 million (about 12%) of American adults between the ages of 20 and 69 have some kind of hearing loss. Half of these people do not experience any loud sounds at work.

What makes NIHL so insidious is that it is almost impossible to detect in its early days. Because these are loud and repeated cumulative sound exposures, you decrease your ability to perceive the full range of audible frequencies. Like cancer, by the time you realize there is a problem, the damage is already done. Unlike some cancers, there is no treatment that can restore lost hearing. When it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Fortunately, with advancements in technology and greater awareness of the threat, NIHL can be reduced or eliminated altogether. Here are your best defenses against NIHL.

Start young

Tom Odulate / Getty Images

As an adult, you’ve probably been exposed to the types of loud sounds that cause hearing loss. Hopefully that’s okay and you can focus on preventing it from getting worse over time. But if you are a parent or guardian, it is essential that you protect your children’s hearing from the start. Think of it as an investment in their future health, like vaccinations and regular visits to the doctor or dentist.

Vigilance between the ages of 1 to 16 can ensure they start their adulthood with the best hearing possible.

Headphone design matters

Headphones that create a tight seal against our heads or ears are great for blocking out unwanted sound, but they can also pose a risk, says Lise Henningsen, head of audiology at Widex. “They get that full, immersive sound experience,” Henningsen told Digital Trends, “but they also put the full force of the sound pressure level delivered by the headphones into the ear canal.”

This leads to a double-edged sword situation. Good isolation of unwanted sound means we don’t have to turn up the volume to hear our sound, but it also means that the majority of that volume is absorbed directly by our ears instead of leaking out the sides of the headphones.

Sound quality matters

If you’ve ever wondered if a more expensive headset can be justified purely on the basis of its sound quality, Henningsen says the answer is yes. “The higher the quality of the headset, the better.” It turns out that lower quality headphones tend to introduce distortion and often suffer from poor frequency response. Both of these attributes can cause dangerous spikes in the high frequencies, which is the cause of most cases of NIHL.

When our music sounds muddy or rough, we sometimes respond by turning up the volume to compensate – a vicious cycle that simultaneously leads to increased distortion and an increased risk of dangerous sound levels.

“The higher the quality of the headset, the better.”

But not everyone can afford to drop a big pile of cash to get a great looking helmet, and even very expensive cans aren’t perfect. Dirac research is a company that tries to remedy headphone quality flaws by providing custom pre-compensation filters, which effectively clean up the sound you hear before you hear it.

“We are focused on improving the sound experience, by making the sound quality as good as possible,” Nilo Casimiro Ericsson, manager of mobile product management at Dirac Research, told Digital Trends. “I think that’s the key to not having to turn up the volume. So if you are in a noisy environment or have crappy headphones or the connection is bad, you can try to compensate for that by turning up the volume.

The Dirac system is now integrated into the chipsets of wireless headphones and earphones. I tried an early version of the Dirac system, which required loading the Dirac app on a smartphone or PC, and worked exclusively with the specific headset models that Dirac has in its database. It definitely changed the sound of the music I was hearing, but I’m not convinced it helped reduce the need for volume.

Consider active noise cancellation

One of the main reasons we turn up the volume on our headphones is to overcome competing sounds that seep into our ears. A very tight seal on a set of in-ear headphones or headphones can help by providing passive noise isolation, but if you want to give yourself a really quiet starting point for your tracks, Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) can be a big advantage.

By creating sound waves that are tuned to be the exact reverse of incoming sounds, the ANC neutralizes these competing noises. As with sound quality, there is usually a value for money with ANC. In our experience, the best ANC headphones start at around $ 200.

Adjustment levels

Research has shown that 85 decibels (dB) is the safe limit for exposure to sound over an extended period of time. More and more, headphone and personal audio companies are making efforts to help their customers stay in this safe zone.

Apple, for example, includes a way to track and Adjust headphone audio levels in iOS 14. You can set maximum dB threshold from 75dB to 100dB, and the app will show you detailed statistics for volume levels and exposure time. It’s more accurate when used with headphones made by Apple or Beats by Dre, but the app can use volume settings to estimate the exposure of other wired and wireless headphones.

Newer Android devices come with a similar volume limiting option, but there’s no way to see your exposure levels tracked over time.

In an ideal world, all headphones and earphones would have integrated circuits that could prevent this 85dB threshold from being exceeded. Some already do, like Puro Sound Lab’s headphones for adults and children.

A rule of thumb “too strong”

It would be great if we could just shift the responsibility for the volume exposure to our devices and forget about it all, but the technology just isn’t there yet. Instead, Henningsen says we should use a simple test when listening to headphones.

“The right level on your headphones is a level where you can actually hear me talking to you at a moderate level while you are listening,” she said, “because if you can’t hear me at a normal distance while I approach you and start talking to you – if you don’t hear a word of what I’m saying – then these headphones are too loud.

Henningsen passed this advice on to his own teenage sons, who gave him a predictable response, “Mom, you’re kidding me. I need louder music.

The only thing you can say about that is that yes sure you like it very much. But if you listen to this loud music for a long time, there will be consequences.

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