We all know that listening to music at high volumes is bad for our ears. But what type of headphones should we be wearing to avoid maximum damage? And should we be taking any other sort of care to make sure we keep our eardrums as happy as possible into old age?
We were concerned about our own headphone use both in and out of the office, so we spoke with Dr. Brian Fligor, an audiologist -- that is, a professional trained in hearing problems -- who specializes in this issue.
Fligor, who holds a doctorate from Boston University, first gained attention as a headphones expert back in 2004, when he published a study on hearing loss specifically related to earbuds. You know the type -- they became incredibly popular after iPods launched:
Since then, Fligor has done a lot of research on both over-the-ear and in-ear headphones. He previously served as a director of audiology at Boston Children's Hospital. Now, he's involved with Lantos Technologies -- a company that's developing a 3-D digital ear canal scanner to create custom in-ear headphones.
We spoke with Fligor about the best ways to listen to music while making sure we don't damage our ears.
Q: Okay, let’s start it easy. Are headphones just the worst thing ever?
A: Oh my god, no.
Q: Think of me as just your average consumer. How should I be listening to my music?
A: It’s not the headphones [that can cause damage], but it’s how people use them. How they use it depends on the environment they’re in and their own personal preference. There is a substantial majority who do listen too loudly -- 15 percent to 25 percent -- which we’ve found from multiple studies me and my colleagues have done.
Q: Can you dispel the myth for me -- well, if it is a myth -- that if the person next to you can hear your headphones, that means it’s too loud?
A: That only works in one scenario where there’s not too much background noise. It’s kind of like there’s a tiny little balance between enough background noise and not too much. So most of the time that rule doesn’t work.
Back in 1999, I saw a 15-year-old who came in saying he could not hear out of his right ear. I cleared the wax out of his ear ... but it was the not-plugged ear where there was hearing loss. So, the only source was his headphones. He told me that he didn’t listen to it all the way up. But when he showed me his CD player, the level was 9.5/10. So I told him that you need to listen to it at a lower level.
Q: So then how loudly can I listen without damaging my ears?
A: Roughly about 80 percent of the maximum volume control and listening for an hour and a half at a time or less. So, I tell my clients to follow the “80/90 rule.” [80 percent and 90 minutes.] With CD players, the rule was seen as 60/60 since CD players produced louder sounds. So you see, it wasn’t the headphones that can be the issue but the players themselves.
Q: What about over-the-ear headphones versus earbuds? Should I toss my earbuds?
A: One of the studies that I did -- one of my Ph.D. students also replicated -- compared over-the-ear headphones and earbuds. We asked, if you’re using an earbud or over-the-ear headphones, do you listen at the same level? And yes, people chose the exact same level.
Think of it like driving a sports car. Just because it can go faster doesn’t mean that’s the speed you’re going at.
And when you use a headphone that blocks out the background noise or a headphone that is a canal-sealing earbud, that causes people to listen as softly as they would in a quiet environment.
Q: How much should I be spending on headphones then?
A: You can get a good pair of headphones for $100. That's a lot of money, but think about the money you’re spending on the product to hold the music, and then you spend nothing on what you need to listen to it.
Q: All right, what do you use?
A: I have full custom in-ear headphones. Those are $2,500.
Q: Whoa, I couldn’t really afford that. Is that really worth the investment?
A: I’m a huge fan of customized options. They provide you with the most comfortable headphones. They block out the background noise consistently and conveniently. You’re able to listen as quietly as you choose to. You can get customized headphones by seeing an audiologist -- like the $100 ones that I mentioned.
Q: But is using noise-cancelling headphones like that all the time really a good plan?
A: Good question. Don’t go jogging in Central Park at night with sealant headphones in. Noise-cancelling ones are much better for working at your desk or if you’re running on the treadmill. There are headphones that do have microphones that allow you to mix the ambient noise in.
Q: Okay, let’s say I’m going for a 20-minute run on the treadmill, and my favorite song comes on, and I want to blast it. Can I, without permanently damaging my ears?
A: For 20 minutes? I wouldn’t recommend listening at full blast, but going 80 percent for 20 minutes is fine. I do turn my favorite song up loud.
Q: Are there reasons I shouldn’t use earbuds though? What about earwax? Is that gross?
A: Earwax is a defense mechanism in your body. We don’t always love it and don’t think that everyone should share it, but our ear cleans itself out. It’s not necessary to use Q-tips for the majority of people. Earbuds should not contribute to bigger buildup of wax. For rock stars that use in-ear monitors, the tip goes so deep into the ear, so yes, they do need to come in to see an audiologist to have them cleared out.
Q: What about sharing earbuds? Is that something you should never do?
A: It’s not likely that another person is going to have some type of bacterial or fungal infection, but it’s not a zero percent chance. I use my own headphones, and I personally don’t share. It’s almost always fine, and it’s not a concern about earwax because, again, the wax helps to keep the ear healthy.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.