Are Noise-Canceling Headphones Safe? Do They Really Protect Hearing?

A few weeks ago, one of my friends came to me with a question about whether it would be a good idea to get noise-canceling headphones rather than regular over-ear ones. Apparently, someone had told him that noise-canceling headphones might not even be all that effective when it comes to protecting his hearing. Well, today, we’re about to bust some myths. Long story short, noise-canceling headphones are completely safe.

But don’t just take my word for it. In this article, we’re going to deconstruct the whole argument that noise-canceling headphones might be dangerous. Moreover, we’ll go over the history of noise canceling technology and the different kinds we employ for noise-canceling audio equipment.

I’ll also share some tips on how you can protect your hearing whether or not you use noise-canceling headphones. But first, let’s start with the effect using regular headphones can have on our hearing.

Are noise-canceling headphones safe? Do they protect hearing?

When I was in college, I kept having to buy new pairs of headphones. The corded earbuds I used all started malfunctioning after a while, and we don’t even have to mention how tangled the cord got every time I put them away. I always ended up having to turn the volume up to the maximum to even hear the music. Obviously, any time you feel like you need to crank up the volume, the situation is less than ideal.

Now, you might think: sure, that’s inconvenient, but it’s hardly dangerous. Well, according to scientists, headphones can be dangerous for plenty of reasons. Granted, doctors seem to agree that earbuds are more dangerous than headphones. However, both kinds of devices can be dangerous if you turn the volume up too high.

In fact, you may experience hearing loss after only an hour of having loud noises channeled directly into your ears. The trouble with earbuds is that they can damage both the sensory hair cells inside the ear and the pathways that carry the sound to the brain. Over-ear headphones can’t achieve that kind of damage in as short of a time, but they can still seriously harm your hearing.

Clearly, the solution to this problem is simple — just stop turning the music up so loud! Well, that’s easier said than done. Even I used to turn my tunes all the way up, and I actually can’t stand loud sounds.

The thing is, I did it to drown out the noise. After all, if your headphones don’t have noise cancelation properties, turning the volume up is the only way to tune out surrounding sounds. So that’s the reason why we keep turning up the volume — now let’s see how loud is too loud.

Hearing Loss and Decibel Levels

As we have established, hearing damage can occur after only an hour of listening to loud sounds. In fact, according to the article I’ve linked to above, we shouldn’t even spend five minutes listening to music at maximum volume. Basically, the louder the environment, the shorter time you should spend in it.

Unfortunately, we can’t really control decibel levels in real life. Sure, you can soundproof your home to the best of your ability, but the noise will always be just beyond those walls. Our world is louder than ever — so we definitely shouldn’t be adding to that by pointing more noise directly toward our ears.

Just this year, the World Health Organisation published a report claiming that nearly 50% of people between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk of hearing loss specifically because of improper use of headphones and earbuds. The report also includes some specific suggestions for electronics manufacturers, some of which already exist in some form or another.

For example, they recommended that the electronics packaging include some guidelines for using the audio devices. Furthermore, they also suggested that the devices themselves have some kind of volume limit. Some of them do — in fact, most smartphones won’t let you max out the volume, and they play a message when you try to.

So how can we be sure that we’re being safe and avoiding possible hearing damage? Well, we can always rely on a sound meter.

Decibel System Comparison

I realize that the decibel system of measuring noise can be confusing for some people. In my past articles, I’ve done my best to explain it. But in case you’re not up to date, here’s a quick rundown of the basics.

In our daily lives, we want to stick to around 60 decibels at any given moment. For comparison, that’s about as loud as a normal conversation. If the music you’re listening to is around that level, you shouldn’t experience any negative consequences. Every additional 10 decibels on top of that will actually be twice as loud. So a vacuum cleaner that produces 70 decibels of noise is twice as loud as regular conversation.

As I have mentioned, the louder an environment is, the less time you’ll want to spend in it. For example, you could probably use the vacuum for a few hours before experiencing hearing loss. However, you shouldn’t listen to the sound of an ambulance siren for more than a minute at the very most.

How Noise Affects Your Health

Now that we know how loud is too loud, let’s talk about what exactly can happen if you spend more than 10 seconds at a rock concert without noise-canceling earmuffs. That may sound like an exaggeration, but prolonged exposure to loud noises can have pretty nasty consequences. If you start to hear buzzing or ringing noises after the experience or are unable to hear quieter noises clearly, you may have already damaged your hearing.

Aside from potentially damaging your hearing, noise exposure can also have a direct impact on your quality of life. Consequently, you can also develop insomnia and heightened stress levels — not to mention that it can negatively impact patients suffering from certain mental illnesses. In fact, some studies have also pointed to the link between noise pollution and an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Are Noise-Canceling Headphones Part of the Problem?

Finally, let’s get to the big question. As we have established, regular headphones can indeed cause serious hearing damage. However, we’ve also learned why that was the case. When the headphones allow external noises to pass through to our ears, we tend to want to increase the volume in order to block out those sounds.

In those kinds of situations, noise-canceling headphones can only help. After all, if you don’t feel the need to block out the noise, you won’t need to increase the volume either. The same was confirmed in a 2012 study in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, which compared three different pairs of headphones to find out which of them would perform the best in several different environments. Naturally, pricier noise-canceling headphones always performed the best, since they actually used technology that was developed for airplane and helicopter headphones.

During my research, I have discovered only one potential danger of noise-canceling headphones. According to one study, the increase in people wearing headphones on the street between 2004 and 2011 has already lead to fatal accidents. Presumably, those numbers continued to climb in the years that followed. Even though that study was probably talking about regular headphones, I’d say that that kind of carelessness in traffic would only increase with noise-canceling ones.

Still, other than that personal gripe, I can’t really see how anyone could say that noise-canceling headphones are unsafe. In fact, being able to shut off outside noise will allow you to play your music at a much more reasonable volume. That will only help preserve your hearing, not damage it.

Passive Noise Isolation vs. Active Noise Cancelation

Before we proceed, I ought to note that there are some clear differences between the various models of noise-canceling headphones that are currently available. For one, most of the low-end noise-canceling headphones use passive noise isolation.

That basically means that they either surround the ear with padding or that they plug the ear entirely. Either way, they are creating a physical barrier between the outside environment and your ear. So they can be over-the-ear headphones (not on-ear headphones, those are usually pretty bad at isolation) or they can be earbuds.

Products that promise active noise cancelation can also be either headphones or earbuds. However, that technology is much more sophisticated than passive isolation. In fact, it’s the same kind pilots use — and I’ve even seen that some car manufacturers have started using it in their vehicles, to cancel out road noise. So how does active noise canceling work?

Basically, noise-canceling headphones with this kind of technology have microphones that are recording the frequencies of the surrounding noise. Then the speakers of the headphones play the opposite frequencies in your ears. Because the two sounds are opposites, you’ll end up hearing nothing at all. Well — you’ll hear your music if you decide to play it.

Still, the noise cancelation technology can actually work independently from your phone or whichever device you use to play your music. Typically, the recording device also has a separate power source, a battery you’ll probably have to charge. That means that the headphones will have noise-canceling properties even if they’re not connected to a smartphone or a laptop.

How to Protect Your Hearing

Lastly, I wanted to share a few tips on what you can do to protect your hearing in loud environments. What can you do to avoid permanent damage, whether or not you have noise-canceling headphones?

Take Note of the Warning Signs Early

As I have mentioned, prolonged exposure to loud sounds can immediately cause symptoms of hearing damage to appear. If you’ve ever left a concert and entered a quiet environment right after, you may have noticed:

  • Ringing sounds or tinnitus
  • Muffled noises
  • A sudden urge to clean your ears
  • That you have to turn the volume up in order to hear sounds as well as you did before the concert

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but all of these things are signs of hearing damage. In order to make sure that you can bounce back from the experience of the concert, you need to give your ears a break. According to some doctors, you ought to relax for at least 16 hours after spending a few hours in noisy environments.

Furthermore, you could also be predisposed to hearing loss, so you should also ask your family if that’s something you should expect. If you can’t get a conclusive answer, you can always check with your doctor. Additionally, some health conditions, medicines, and injuries can also lead to deafness. Either way, you might as well implement some preventative measures to preserve your hearing.

Use Ear Plugs in Loud Environments

Ideally, you should have something to protect your ears on you at all times. If you can’t afford good noise-canceling headphones or earmuffs, you can always go for simple earplugs. Personally, I like to carry a pair in my backpack every day in case of emergency.

Trust me, you don’t want to find yourself on a noisy train or bus without them. Besides, you can buy a whole pack of them for the price of a cup of coffee. They’ll certainly last longer.

Keep the Volume at a Comfortable Level

Remember, we want to make sure that we don’t spend much time hearing sounds that are over 70 decibels. As we have established, hearing loss can occur after prolonged exposure to louder sounds. But do you know how loud your maxed out headphones are?

Most headphones can actually go up to 110 decibels. If you’re listening to your music on your way to work, that can be an hour of that playing directly into your ears. So listen to doctors’ recommendations and try to keep the volume at a moderate level. That’s actually where noise-canceling headphones would come in handy since you wouldn’t feel the urge to turn the volume up.

So Are Noise-Canceling Headphones Safe?

Ultimately, the real problem in asking whether noise-canceling headphones can really protect your hearing isn’t in the noise-canceling technology. As we have seen, that feature works well enough. In any case, if it’s good enough for airplane pilots, it’s definitely good enough for me.

However, not all noise-canceling headphones are created equal. The ones that work on the principle of passive isolation can fail if you happen to pierce the seal they create around or in your ear.

Conversely, active isolation is certainly the more sophisticated technology. Still, you’ll need to charge the device in order for it to work. So if you forget to charge it, you won’t get to enjoy that particular feature.

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