Earbuds And Aural Health

By Catherine McNulty

November 26, 2014 5 min read

Exercising is hard, but there is scientific proof that music makes it better. In a recent article in Scientific American, writer Ferris Jabr notes that "music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance... When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster." In today's world full of smartphones, MP3 players and apps to help you find the perfect play list, working out with music is a no-brainer.

But not so fast. The earbuds you use to deliver those tunes might be doing more harm than good.

Your aural health may not be something you spend much time thinking about, but you should. As the world we live in gets ever louder, noise-induced hearing loss is becoming more of a problem. To understand how this can harm your hearing, you first need to understand how your ear works.

The ear is a complex organ. It has three main parts: the outer ear (what you see), the middle ear and the inner ear. Within the inner ear is the cochlea, which contains fluids and tiny hair cells that help interpret sound and pass it along to the brain for further processing. Loud sounds can damage these delicate parts. Any damage to the cochlea and its hair cells is permanent.

How loud is too loud? Sound is measured in decibels, and according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, prolonged or repeated exposure to sounds at 85 decibels can cause hearing damage. For perspective, a normal speaking voice measures between 50 decibels and 60 decibels. A vacuum cleaner is 70 decibels. A hair dryer is 85 decibels. And a jet taking off measures 100 decibels. It should be noted that decibels are a unit of measurement based on human hearing and increase by a factor of 10. So zero decibels is near total silence; something 10 times louder than that would be 10 decibels; something 100 times more powerful would be 20 decibels.

So how do earbuds damage something buried so far in your head? Earbuds are essentially speakers you insert into your outer ear. Because they are inserted, they are that much closer to all the sensitive stuff: the eardrum, the cochlea. Not only that but how often do you thoughtlessly turn up the volume when the world around you gets louder? Earbuds can easily exceed 85 dB, and you can go hours and hours before you need to recharge your player.

This doesn't mean you need to give up your earbuds or your favorite workout mix. It just means you need to be aware of how and when you use them. The best way to do this is to set a maximum volume (about 60 percent of the possible volume is recommended by hearing experts) and never exceed it. Yes, this will be hard, especially if you're used to blasting your favorite songs during the tough parts of your workout. Definitely don't try to drown out the outside world; you'll only be hurting yourself.

One of the reasons earbuds soared in popularity is because they are relatively cheap. Any iPod or smartphone comes with a complimentary pair, and beyond that, replacement pairs can be had for as little as $10. But you get what you pay for. The cheaper the earbud the more ill-fitting and the more likely you are to turn up the volume to compensate for that.

As with so many things in life, you get what you pay for. If you're willing to spend some money, you can get noise-reducing earbuds that will fit your ears better and deliver a better quality of sound. Bose is by far the industry standard, but also the most expensive. The Bose QuietComfort 20i acoustic noise-canceling headphones are $300, and they even come with an aware mode to help you know what's going on around you. If that's too steep, Sony's MDR-NC13 noise-canceling headphones offer many of the same benefits at a fraction of the cost -- about $70, though a little sleuthing turned up the same pair for $40.

The best option is to get a pair of noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones. The outside world will be almost entirely shut out, and you can listen to your music at a reasonable volume. Bose noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones retail for about $300, and Beats by Dre has a pair of professional headphones that are $400. But it can be awkward to work out with over-the-ear headphones when you're used to earbuds.

Whatever you choose, don't sacrifice your aural health!

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