With the advent of technology and its widespread accessibility, music lovers everywhere have taken to listening to their favorite songs and albums on their headphones. Whether in the car, at work, or even while running, we spend more time than ever with our ears covered by headphones (and earbuds). 

But how much time do we spend with those headphones on? What if our ears are exposed to sound levels that could damage them permanently?

Research from Harvard Medical School suggests that limiting sound levels to 85 decibels (dB) can extend the length of time you’ll be able to hear well into old age, so your headphones should be capable of producing sounds no louder than this to be safe.

Let’s discuss some more facts and figures to discover how loud is the safe volume for headphones.

How Loud Is Too Loud?

Sound will affect your perception and mood in many ways, so it’s important to keep it at a safe level. A one-minute exposure to 120 dB or greater can damage your ears. Most experts agree that exposure should be less than 60 minutes daily, which translates to 75 dB. Noise-induced hearing loss develops over time. 

With enough exposure, you’ll experience ear ringing and a dulled sense of hearing; when left untreated, it can lead to full deafness. Prolonged exposure to loud sounds can also cause tinnitus (ringing in the ears), sleep problems, anxiety, fatigue, and more. 

So how do you know if your headphones are too loud? First, take note of how long you’re listening. If you listen for more than an hour, try to lower the volume by 15 decibels every 15 minutes. 

It may seem strange that higher volumes could protect your hearing, but there’s some logic behind it: Loud noise triggers the body’s defense mechanism against sound waves, but low frequencies like those created by bass make it harder for the body to react quickly enough. 

As such, these sound waves can penetrate deeper into the ear canal and potentially harm hair cells – leading to permanent damage. 

It’s not always easy to tell how loud your music is on its own. Consider using online tools like Level Streaming and adjusting your phone settings to use louder alerts. 

The average person listens to music for about two hours each day. Knowing how much exposure can lead to irreversible damage might change how you enjoy this popular activity! 

One common misconception is that turning up the volume makes things louder. In reality, high noise levels can simply drown out other noises around you, including warning signs from your environment. 

Furthermore, if you’re trying to hear something else while wearing headphones, the background noise can add up to the music and amplify it unnecessarily. 

However, this doesn’t mean we need to avoid listening entirely! Using technology responsibly will allow us to enjoy our favorite activities without feeling guilty or experiencing negative consequences.

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The 1/1000 Rule

The next time you wonder how loud is too loud for headphones, stop considering these basic truths about how our ears process sound. The louder the volume, the less we can hear what we are listening to, a phenomenon called audio masking. 

Audio masking happens when louder sounds cause your ear receptors (hair cells) to fire more quickly and make it difficult for them to return to their original position before being stimulated again. 

With enough intensity and duration, these hair cells will become permanently damaged. One-thousandth of an audio level was determined by scientists as a good general reference point for safe sound levels. 

At this level, there’s no hearing damage even if you listen eight hours per day every day- which means you’re probably fine at 1/1000th too!  

If you want to be extra cautious, though, here are some ways that might help:

Use noise-canceling headphones or remove any other sources of loud noises from the environment.

Avoid prolonged exposure to high volumes.

And listen with equalizer settings below 85% or 120 decibels.

About Decibels

According to NIOSH, The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets an action level for noise exposure at 85 decibels (dB). 

Above this limit, hearing protection must be worn. 

Here are some sound levels and times that you can play them without violating safety regulations: 

  • 40 dB can be played for over 100 hours before reaching OSHA’s action level. 
  • 55 dB can be played for four hours before reaching OSHA’s action level. 
  • 80 dB can be played for about 20 minutes before reaching OSHA’s action level. 
  • 90 dB can be played for two minutes before reaching OSHA’s action level. 110-115 dB can cause hearing damage after just one minute of exposure per day. 
  • 120 dB can cause hearing damage after 10 seconds of exposure per day. 
  • 130 dB or higher may result in instantaneous deafness or death.

Protect Your Ears On Airplanes, Concerts, And Other Places

Your ears can be subjected to dangerously high sound levels during your normal daily routine. Here are some easy things you can do to protect your hearing: 

Fly with the window open for at least part of your flight. – Don’t stand in front of speakers at concerts or events. 

Limit exposure to loud sounds like power tools, loud music, and noisy crowds. And here are some other steps you can take to promote healthier hearing and keep long-term damage from high noise levels from happening: 

Wear earplugs when attending concerts or using power tools that are likely to cause significant exposure to sounds over 85 decibels, which is louder than a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer but softer than a jackhammer or rock concert. 

You should also use them when mowing the lawn, leaf blowing, and doing other yard work because these activities involve loud machinery. 

If you’re listening to an mp3 player on a bus or train or in any situation where there’s traffic noise around you, make sure it’s set on low volume; as an example, if your volume were set at 75 percent (which would correspond to 94 decibels), it would be better to turn it down so that it was around 45 percent (around 82 decibels). 

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Reducing Exposure Through Better Technology

There are many ways to reduce our exposure to sound, most through better technology.

Open-back headphones allow for some level of outside noise, which can help keep us grounded and aware that we’re on a bus or walking by a noisy street. Noise-canceling headphones dramatically reduce outside noise levels, making them especially good at blocking background noise while traveling.  

With earbuds, we have to take care not to turn up the volume too high because they don’t create much space between our eardrums and the speakers. It’s easy to forget how loud it is when wearing them.   

The general rule of thumb is that if you hear someone talking five feet away from you, your headphones’ volume is too high. 

And make sure to invest in a pair with an inline mic so you can still take calls without removing your headset (remember: phone conversations will also be louder than usual). 

To make things even easier, wireless models now come with their own built-in audio amplifier and integrated batteries. Pairing with a wireless transmitter means less fumbling around trying to plug in a cord – but since Bluetooth devices aren’t as loud as wired ones, this could pose an issue for those who need to listen at higher volumes.

To increase the intensity of these models, consider investing in an aftermarket headphone amplifier (and please do research before buying one!).

It’s always better to err on caution regarding safety – traffic lights or how much time you spend listening to music daily!

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There are many opinions on how loud the volume is too much, and they all vary. In my opinion, what matters most is finding a good balance between safety and convenience. Loud volumes have been proven to have negative effects on your hearing, such as hearing loss and tinnitus, so it’s important to keep an eye on your volume levels while also giving into your needs.

The best advice I can give you is to stay around 60-80% of the max volume for maximum safety. If you’re listening to music or watching a movie and notice that the sounds are starting to sound distorted or muffled, you might want to turn down the volume or even take off your headphones for a while.  

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