Headphones and Hearing Health: Safe Practices

Table of Contents

Last Updated on February 7, 2024 by Muisc Pro Editorial Team

The escalating use of headphones and earbuds, particularly at unsafe volumes for prolonged durations, has become a significant contributor to hearing loss worldwide. The World Health Organization highlights a concerning trend, with an estimated 1.1 billion young people at risk of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). This type of auditory damage, often accompanied by tinnitus or persistent ringing in the ears, underscores the critical need for adopting safe listening practices to mitigate these risks.

Key Strategies for Safe Listening

To protect against hearing loss and maintain auditory health, it is essential to embrace several core strategies:

  1. Volume Control: Ensure that the volume on your devices is kept at a safe level, ideally not exceeding 60% of the maximum volume. This simple practice can significantly reduce the risk of NIHL.
  2. Listening Breaks: Regularly scheduled breaks from headphone use can prevent prolonged exposure to noise and give your ears time to recover, further safeguarding your hearing.
  3. Appropriate Headphone Selection: Opting for headphones designed with volume-limiting features or those that offer noise-cancellation can enhance your listening experience without compromising your hearing health.

Understanding Headphone Types and Their Impact

Selecting the right type of headphones is a pivotal step in practicing safe listening. Earbuds, on-ear headphones, and over-ear headphones each have unique characteristics that can influence sound exposure levels. For instance, over-ear models with noise-cancellation capabilities are effective in reducing the need to increase volume levels in noisy environments, thereby offering a safer listening experience. Conversely, earbuds that fit directly into the ear canal can increase the risk of hearing damage if used improperly or at high volumes for extended periods.

By prioritizing volume control, taking regular listening breaks, and choosing headphones wisely, individuals can enjoy their favorite audio content without compromising their hearing health.

Safe Listening Levels and the Hazards of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sounds at or below 70 decibels (dB) are deemed safe for hearing. However, it is noteworthy that the majority of personal audio devices, such as headphones and earbuds, can exceed 100 dB, a level that can permanently damage hearing within minutes. While workplace regulations typically restrict noise exposure to a maximum of 85 dB over an eight-hour period, these limits do not account for recreational noise exposure outside of work, which can cumulatively exceed safe daily sound exposure levels.

To safeguard our hearing throughout our lives, it is recommended to set headphones or earbuds to no more than 50 to 60 percent of their maximum volume. Listening breaks are advised to prevent temporary hearing loss and promote recovery from loud sounds.


Prolonged exposure to high volumes through personal listening devices can pose significant risks to the inner ear, potentially leading to irreversible damage. Sound pressure levels are measured in decibels (dB), with sounds below 75 dB typically considered safe for extended listening. However, exposure to levels above 85 dB can permanently harm the hair cells in the cochlea, which are crucial for hearing. Listening to music at safe volumes and taking regular listening breaks can help reduce noise exposure.

Once damaged, these specialized hair cells, unlike many other types of cells in the body, do not regenerate, resulting in permanent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). NIHL often first affects the ability to hear higher frequency sounds, complicating the clarity of speech against background noise. Continued exposure to loud noises further extends the loss to lower frequencies. It’s important to be aware of the warning signs of hearing damage, such as difficulty understanding speech, temporary hearing loss, or a ringing in the ears after exposure to loud music or other loud sounds.

In addition to headphones, NIHL can result from exposure to loud environments such as rock concerts, machinery, emergency vehicle sirens, and other persistent loud noises. However, the close proximity of noise cancelling headphones to the ears allows for potentially dangerous levels of sound intensity to be delivered directly to the cochlea for extended periods, exceeding safe listening durations and highlighting the importance of avoiding unsafe listening practices.

Safe Headphone Habits for All Ages

Children’s ears are still in the developmental stage, necessitating extra caution to protect their hearing. Many headphones marketed as safe for children cap the volume at 85 dB, aligning with workplace standards for adults but failing to consider the duration of exposure suitable for young ears.

Parents are advised to personally monitor their children’s headphone usage. Starting with the volume at zero, gradually increase it to find the lowest comfortable volume level, which may be well below the 50 percent guideline. This practice should be repeated with children at the age of 13 when they transition to using earbuds. Although occasionally turning up the volume for a favorite song is permissible, it’s crucial to recognize that if sound seems too loud, it likely is too loud. Indicators of excessive volume include the need to shout to be heard by someone nearby, or if music is audible from someone else’s headphones, it indicates that the listening level is harmful to their hearing.


In light of the increasing risks of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), it is imperative for educators and parents to guide students in adopting responsible headphone usage habits. This involves selecting headphones equipped with volume limiters to prevent excessively high sound levels and configuring volume restrictions on associated devices. Encouraging students to take periodic listening breaks every hour helps in mitigating cumulative noise exposure and allows the auditory system to recuperate. Additionally, ensuring that headphones or earbuds fit properly is crucial to achieving optimal sound quality at safer volumes, while opting for closed-back models can minimize sound leakage and reduce the need to increase volume to overpower background noise. Exercising caution with noise-cancellation features is advisable, as they may inadvertently lead to prolonged exposure to unsafe volume levels. Demonstrating and modeling safe listening practices, as well as supervising headphone use to ensure adherence to these guidelines, can significantly contribute to preserving students’ hearing health.

Understanding Headphone Styles and Their Functionality

To grasp the potential risk headphones pose to hearing, it’s crucial to comprehend the various types available and their operational mechanics. Headphones come in three primary styles: earbuds, on-ear headphones, and over-ear headphones.

Earbuds are compact earpieces that fit directly into the ear canal, often accompanied by silicone or foam tips in various sizes to ensure a snug fit. Preferred for their portability and lightweight design, earbuds are a common choice among students.

On-ear headphones have padded earcups that sit on the ears without entirely encasing them. These headphones project sound directly into the ear and are designed to fold inward, making them convenient for storage in backpacks or lockers.

Over-ear headphones feature larger, cushioned earcups that completely envelop the ears, enhancing sound immersion and reducing external noise. Models with noise-cancelling technology use built-in microphones to actively eliminate ambient sounds, making them ideal for focused listening.

Regardless of style, all headphones convert electrical audio signals into sound waves through mini speakers located within the earcups, causing air particles to vibrate and producing sound.

Hands-On Experience with Safe Listening Devices

In the quest for preserving hearing health without sacrificing sound quality, users have shared their firsthand experiences with various headphone models designed for safe listening. Among the popular choices, the Edifier W800BT Plus and the Soundcore by Anker Q20i, both boast built-in volume governors and ambient sound modes that have significantly enhanced user listening habits.

Edifier W800BT Plus Wireless Headphones Over-Ear Headset

Jacob, a freelance graphic designer, mentioned, “Using the Edifier W800BT Plus during my long editing sessions has been a game-changer. The volume limiter prevents me from accidentally blasting my ears during those moments of deep focus, and the sound clarity is still top-notch.”

soundcore by Anker Q20i Hybrid Active Noise Cancelling Headphones

Similarly, Maria, a high school teacher, found the Soundcore by Anker Q20i’s ambient sound feature perfect for maintaining awareness of her surroundings while enjoying her music during jogs.

These stories highlight how incorporating user reviews and experiences can offer valuable insights into the real-life benefits of headphones designed with hearing health in mind.

Comprehensive Comparisons of Safe Listening Headphones

When it comes to selecting the right headphones for protecting hearing health, a detailed comparison of the leading models can provide deeper insights. The table below compares models focusing on features such as volume control, noise cancellation, and price.

Model Volume Control Noise Cancellation Price
Edifier W800BT Plus Yes Advanced $150
Soundcore by Anker Q20i Yes Basic $100
PHILIPS A4216 Yes None $80
Bose Sport Earbuds No Advanced $120

The Edifier W800BT Plus stands out for its advanced noise cancellation and volume control, making it a premium choice for those prioritizing hearing health. The Soundcore by Anker Q20i offers basic noise cancellation at a more affordable price, suitable for users seeking a balance between functionality and cost. The PHILIPS A4216, while lacking noise cancellation, is praised for its effective volume control at a budget-friendly price point. The Bose Sport Earbuds, lacking volume control but excelling in noise cancellation, caters to users who prioritize a quiet listening environment over volume regulation.

For those interested in diving deeper into how these models stack up against each other, more detailed analysis and comparisons can be found in the article titled Best Headphones for Music. This comprehensive guide offers an extensive look at the nuances of each model, ensuring readers can make an informed decision.

Warning Signs of Hearing Damage to Watch For

Monitoring for indicators of potential headphone-induced hearing impairment is essential. These signs include difficulty hearing soft sounds, speech appearing muffled, experiencing ringing in the ears (tinnitus) following headphone use, frequently requesting repetitions during conversations, and feeling pain or discomfort in the ears after using headphones. Given that hearing loss from headphone use tends to progress gradually, early detection of these symptoms is critical for timely intervention and preventing further auditory damage.


Taking Action if Hearing Loss is Suspected

Should there be any suspicion of hearing loss in a student, immediate cessation of headphone use is recommended to halt further auditory damage. Consulting a physician, who can refer the individual to a pediatric audiologist for comprehensive hearing assessments, is the next step. These evaluations will ascertain the nature and extent of the hearing loss. Exploring options for hearing aids or other amplification devices might be necessary for mild to moderate hearing impairments. Additionally, discussing classroom accommodations, investigating other potential causes of hearing loss, and considering speech therapy or lip reading lessons are vital steps in addressing and managing the condition.


Headphones serve as a valuable educational tool, yet their use demands a conscientious approach to safeguard students’ auditory health. Fostering safe listening practices and promptly addressing any signs of hearing loss are essential measures in protecting the auditory well-being of students. Through collaborative efforts, we can ensure the responsible use of headphones, preserving the hearing health of students for years to come.


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