Earbuds vs. Headphones: no right answer

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Healthy, published by Readers Digest, recently put out an article titled “Earbuds vs. headphones: Ear doctors reveal which is better for you.” The article discusses things like bacteria in the ear, earwax buildup, and yes, hearing loss.

I think the only answer to this question is, “Neither!” The article discusses measures like limiting listening volume and taking breaks from using earbuds or headphones. Unfortunately, these  measures won’t protect personal device users from noise-induced hearing loss. Why not? Because to overcome ambient noise levels in most settings — walking down the street, riding in a bus or subway or even sitting in a coffee shop — the sound level has to be turned up dangerously high. As I wrote with noise colleague Jan Mayes, personal listening devices are unsafe at any sound level. 

Looking for safe earbuds or headphones is like looking for safe cigarettes. You won’t find any. A study of high school juniors in Belgium found that more than 90% reported having tinnitus. Since 90% of those with tinnitus also have hearing loss, this means that about 80% of these young people already have hearing loss. Early hearing loss presages future hearing loss. I’m fairly sure these young people and others around the world will need hearing aids when they get older.

Humans have lived for millenia without a constant personal sound track to entertain us for most of our waking hours. To avoid noise-induced hearing loss, we should go back to talking with others, reading, or observing the environment as we walk or ride through it. If the sound level is high enough to overcome ambient noise levels (to understand the lyrics of a song or an audiobook) it’s too loud and your auditory health is at risk.

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