Which headphones are safest for my hearing?

Published 08-09-2016
Last Updated07-07-2020

Finding the best headphones for your ears and your hearing can be a complex matter. Should you get earbuds or over-the-ear ones? How do they affect your hearing? Can they cause hearing loss? Here’s a short Q&A to answer your most pressing questions. 

Can I get hearing loss from headphones? 

 A lot of factors play into the risk of hearing loss from using headphones, including:

  • How long you’re listening through headphones
  • The intensity of the audio (both volume and frequency) 
  • External noise which tends to lead to higher listening volumes

Unfortunately for your hearing health, the body is quite good at withstanding very high sound pressures without immediately telling us that something is wrong. We have a tendency to turn up the volume to block out distracting background noise, so when you’re using headphones, make sure that you keep an eye on the background noise level.

Also, remember that noise-induced hearing loss can be sneaky, especially for damage caused by prolonged sound exposure from headphones. Signals like ringing ears, difficulty hearing conversations, or being frequently startled when you’re wearing headphones are all signs you have the volume too high.

Which headphones are best for my ears?

First, it depends on what you prefer. But there are generally three types of headphones. 

  • Open headphones have perforated cups, which means some of the sound escapes the headphones into the environment. In theory, that keeps the volume from being too loud. But, in reality, people often turn up the volume in very noisy environments, reducing the benefit from this type of headphone. 
  • Closed headphones have good external sound isolation, which means you can control the volume level a lot better, because they shut out any background noise. However, the fact that the headphones are sealed around the ear means all pressure they produce gets applied to the eardrum. 
  • In-ear headphones, or earbuds, have very good external sound isolation. They are a safe choice, as long as you keep them at reasonable volume levels. If used incorrectly or at extensive volumes, they can cause major damage to your ears.

Are cheap headphones more dangerous for your hearing?

Most high-end headphones have had rigorous testing done and adhere to safety regulations and standards. This is not always the case for cheaper brands. Cheaper headphones may also lack clarity in certain frequency ranges. Wearers then then may turn up the volume to hear the finer details of the sound, which can eventually lead to noise-induced hearing loss.

Are there regulations for how loud headphones can be?

Yes and no – there are regulations in place for how loud “portable music players” such as iPods can be. But if you aren’t using the headphones that came with the device, you may be circumventing those volume limits, as some headphones will have a higher efficiency translating the electric impulses into sound waves (and others will have a lower efficiency). 

Even though regulations are moving in the right direction, they’re still not bulletproof. It is better to follow good common-sense practices rather than trusting headphones or music players to ensure the volume you listen at is safe.

3 things you should look for in new headphones

  • Comfort. Chances are that you’ll spend a lot of time with your new headphones. Make sure that you have a good comfortable fit. It reduces the need for excessive volume.
  • Audio quality. The better the audio quality, the more you’ll enjoy your headphones. You  won’t need to turn the volume up just to hear the details—and chances are good that they’ll have a longer useful life as well.
  • Intended use. Make sure that your choice of headphones matches the intended use – whether you are using them on-the-go, at home, or in a noisy place. If you’re likely to be using them in a noisy environment, consider closed-ear or noise cancelling headphones. If you’re listening to music at home, open ear headphones may be the right choice.

I have a hearing loss – which headphones should I use?

If you have a hearing loss, you’re probably wearing hearing aids.

Lots of hearing aids can connect to music players, radio and TV alike and deliver the sound straight to your hearing aids. This type of streaming will always reflect your hearing loss, so you get an optimal listening experience. Just remember to keep the volume at a safe level. 

Some headphones can also be adjusted from an app to give you more sound frequencies and compensate for the particular details of your hearing loss. That way you don’t have to turn up all the sounds to hear the ones you are missing, but you can focus on the frequencies you need. 

If you’re not wearing hearing aids yet, we recommend that you get your hearing tested at a clinic and get a hearing aid trial before you invest in headphones—you might just improve your hearing enjoyment in more situations than you anticipated!