You know the sound: a high-pitched ringing in your ears that just won’t go away. For some, it may be faint and temporary. For others, it’s debilitating and permanent.
Noise-induced hearing loss is becoming a huge public health issue, thanks to ever-louder environments and the widespread use of personal audio devices. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 50% of people aged 12–35 are exposed to unsafe levels of noise.
Paradoxically, listening to loud music today can hinder your ability to enjoy it in the future. But there are a few tools you can use to enjoy music and mitigating hearing loss, no matter the situation.
Why our ears ring
Ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus, is only one symptom of hearing loss. There are multiple causes for tinnitus and related conditions, but one of the most common is exposure to loud sounds.
Normally, sound waves cause thousands of tiny hairs inside our ears to vibrate. When these hair cells bend, they send electrical signals to the brain.
Unfortunately, loud sounds can cause these hair cells to break. When broken, the brain thinks the hair cell is responding to a sound, even when it is not. This is what causes tinnitus.
Tinnitus or not, you do not get the hearing back that you lost.
Unfortunately, unlike other hair on the human body, these hair cells do not regenerate. Once they are broken, they are permanently broken.
Scientists are working on treatments that could regenerate these inner-ear hair cells, but we are years away from widespread availability.
Sometimes tinnitus weakens or disappears. This is likely due to the brain remapping itself to ignore the dead hair cell. In many cases, however, the ringing can persist for years or decades. Tinnitus or not, you do not get the hearing back that you lost.
Personal audio devices
21st century etiquette mandates headphone use for personal audio devices in public places. If you purchase a new iPhone, it comes with a set of earbuds. You have no excuse not to abide by the headphones-in-public rule.
But the type of headphones you use in certain environments could make or break your hearing.
Earbuds, the type supplied with the iPhone and many other devices, are really only appropriate for environments with low background noise. In louder environments, such as airplanes and subways, you have to crank your personal audio to potentially unsafe levels to hear properly.
This is because most earbuds do a poor job of isolating outside sounds from entering your ears.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to earbuds. A cost-effective solution is to purchase a pair of sound-isolating headphones, such as in-ear monitors (IEMs).
IEMs typically have silicone tips that seal the ear from outside sound. Think of them as earplugs that can play music.
IEM-type headphones range from cheap to very expensive, custom-molded options. I am a fan of the Zero Audio Carbo Tenore*, which provides high audio fidelity for less than $50.
One thing to note with IEMs: you must ensure they fit and are inserted properly. You may need to experiment with different tips. If sound-isolating headphones are not fitted properly, they hardly have a benefit over regular earbuds.
Active noise-cancelling headphones
Another safe alternative to earbuds is a set of active noise-cancelling headphones. Although they tend to be pricey, over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones can be more comfortable than IEM-type headphones for long listening sessions.
Bose* is famous for their active noise-cancelling headphones, but other manufacturers have caught up. I prefer Sony’s sound signature over Bose—I care about sound quality but am not a trained audiophile—and my everyday driver is the Sony WH-1000XM2*.
Not only does this Sony wireless pair sound great, but I can wear it for hours—even during an entire overseas flight—and it still feels comfortable. I use the pair while walking, riding in all sorts of transportation, and working from coffee shops. The noise cancellation works so well that I often find myself playing music or audiobooks at the lowest volume level.
But you’re not always going to be in a position where it is appropriate to wear headphones. You might find yourself socializing with friends at a loud venue, or unable to sleep due to urban noise.
Thankfully, there are two types of earplugs you should consider owning. The first type is for events in which audio quality is important, like a concert. The second is for reducing as much sound as possible, such as when you are trying to sleep.
If you find yourself in loud environments occasionally, pick up a pair of Etymotic Research ER-20XS*. Musicians and concert-goers love these earplugs because they reduce outside sound by about 20 decibels without much impact to sound quality.
The Etymotic Research earplugs are great for preserving audio fidelity. But they are not great for when you just want to block sound, such as when sleeping. Additionally, the Etymotic pair are uncomfortable for side sleepers.
For total sound isolation for sleep, I recommend the Hearos Ultimate Softness 32 dB* foam earplugs. These disposable earplugs are very comfortable, and they will significantly cut down all sounds.
If comfort is an issue for loud environments, you might also consider foam earplugs. Note, however, that audio quality will be worse than a set of high-fidelity earplugs.
As with IEMs and high-fidelity earplugs, refer to an insertion guide to learn how to insert foam earplugs properly.
Decibel meter app
Finally, you should learn the thresholds for hearing damage and learn what those sound like. You can easily download a sound meter app for your phone, such as Decibel X for iOS and Sound Meter for Android.
Note that a decibel meter app won’t be as accurate as a dedicated meter, but it will give you a general idea of how loud different environments are.
Put it into practice
Be sure to keep earplugs with you if there is even a slight chance you will be in a loud environment. They are so compact and weigh almost nothing, so it is easy to leave them in a bag or jacket.
Whenever you visit an unfamiliar place, such as a hotel, bring foam earplugs. You never know what kind of sounds you will experience when trying to sleep.
If you need to listen to a personal audio device in a loud place, you should use noise-cancelling or sound-isolating headphones. If these are not available to you, it is probably better to avoid listening to music.
With just a few tools, you can protect your hearing in a number of situations.
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