Earbuds vs. Over-Ear Headphones – Which Should You Use?

Hearing Health & Technology Matters
July 15, 2020

Diet and exercise aside, avoiding noise-induced trauma is arguably one of the best ways to reduce your chances of hearing loss. However, while everybody knows that explosive noise like construction equipment and jet engines can damage your ears, fewer people are aware of another, more common culprit. I’m speaking about music.

These days, I expect that most people own a smartphone that they use to listen to music. 

The advent of services like Spotify and Google Play Music makes that incredibly easy to do. And it’s a brilliant way to pass the time – whether you’re tuning out your surroundings on your daily commute, pumping yourself up at the gym, or passing time while you shop. Unfortunately, if you’re careless, it’s also a surefire way to suffer noise-induced hearing loss.

I’d like to submit a few facts for your consideration: 

  • The human ear can safely perceive sounds of up to 70 decibels (dB). 
  • Normal conversation averages 60 dB. 
  • Noises above 70 dB for a prolonged period of time can cause hearing damage.
  • Noises above 85 dB can result in permanent hearing damage.
  • Headphones are capable of emitting a maximum sound level of 85-110 dB,

Admittedly, most apps and devices include some sort of warning once your volume begins to range into the harmful end. Unfortunately, most of us tend to ignore that. If you take hearing protection seriously, this needs to stop – keep your headphones at no more than 60 percent of their maximum volume.

Aside from controlling noise levels, it’s also important to purchase the right headphones. Although earbuds seem to be all the rage lately, I’d actually caution you against using them too excessively, for a few reasons.

First, because they deliver sound directly into the ear canal, there’s a much greater risk of damaging your ears if the volume gets too loud. There’s nothing between your ears and the sound to protect you. Earbuds can also push wax deeper into the ears, causing blockages or impacted wax, conditions which, if severe enough, may require corrective surgery. 

Over-ear headphones are a much better choice. Not only do you not have to worry about funneling sound directly into your eardrums, but most over-ear headphones are also, as a general rule, more comfortable to wear than earbuds. Better yet, higher-end headphones often have noise-canceling functionality, further reducing your need to crank up the volume. 

It’s neither feasible nor reasonable to expect people to stop listening to music. It is an incredibly important element of our lives and shall remain so for the foreseeable future. That said, there’s no reason we can’t protect our hearing while we do so. Keeping the volume low is only the first step – staying away from earbuds is, in my opinion, the second. 


About the author

Dr. Pauline Dinnauer, AuD is the VP of Audiological Care at Connect Hearing, which provides industry-leading hearing loss, hearing testing and hearing aid consultation across the US.

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