As a musician with bilateral hearing loss (that was not noise induced) I can tell you two things about me. One, I am very happy to be listening to and performing music again after almost 40 years away from it thanks to technology, auditory training, vocal work, and endless practice. And two, I am very careful about how much and for how long I listen to music and through what technologies I feed my music habit. Too many of us – young and old – are not exercising this type of caution when it comes to protecting our precious sense of hearing. Today’s amazing technologies provide a large variety of listening options, but also more sound exposure, and more ways to trigger noise induced hearing loss (NIHL)
Anyone at any time in life can all be exposed to harmful noise by a one-time, intense “impulse” sound like an explosion, or by continuous exposure to loud sounds over an extended period of time. That means noise-related hearing damage can be caused by playing in a band or attending a musical performance that is way too loud.
Recently, even superstar guitarist Eric Clapton divulged that he is going deaf from NIHL from his years of playing loud music in recording sessions and live performances.
But NIHL can also happen through the use of music streaming apps and MP3 players played through earbuds and headphones. Perhaps surprisingly, those tiny earbuds can do as much damage as any other noise infused activity or experience. In fact, often more.
Earbuds and hearing loss
Many doctors are on record saying that loud noise through ear buds is “compromising the hearing of an entire generation.” The World Health Organization says that 1.1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of personal audio devices such as smartphones and the damaging levels of sound cranked up by electronic dance music festivals, for example, where noise levels can top 120 decibels for hours. Today, hearing loss among teens is running about 30 percent higher than in the 1980s and 1990s. One in five teenagers have hearing loss (especially high frequency loss) which experts believe is in part due to listening to loud music through earbuds and headphones.
In the US alone, the number of 20+ year-olds with hearing loss is expected to reach 44 million by 2020.
How listening to music through earbuds is different
When music is played at high volume, earbuds deliver louder sound exposures than over-the-ear headphones. And they deliver them directly into the ear. That’s why the music may sound incredible but still carries greater risks when it comes to damaging hearing. The unfortunate news is that hearing loss from loud sounds isn’t recoverable, meaning that once you damage the little hair cells deep in your ear they don’t grow back and that part of your hearing is lost for good.
One piece of good news is that noise-isolating earbuds are a great alternative to the loose earbuds that often come packaged with new MP3 players and smartphones. Research has shown that people generally prefer to listen to music at louder levels when background noise competes with their music … so isolating your ears from background noise is a great way to reduce your overall noise exposure while listening your favorite tracks on the go. More good news? There are thousands of cheap noise-isolating earbuds available on Amazon.
The bad news? Every ear canal is different, and standardized noise-isolating earbuds don’t create a robust acoustic seal on every ear. Your chances of getting a good acoustic seal are pretty good, since most off-the-shelf noise-isolating earbuds come with alternative speaker domes (the soft silicone tips that fit on the earbuds), but if you have an oddly shaped ear canal, you might be out of luck!
One company’s solution
One company that’s paying attention and addressing this health crisis is Lantos Technologies in Woburn, MA. Made up of a team a team of audiologists, music lovers, engineers, and hearing health experts, they are marketing their solution to the earbud challenge. One of them is Dr. Brian Fligor, an audiologist and musician who has worked with musicians for years.
Full disclosure – Dr. Fligor has fitted me for ear monitors that I use in the studio and for live performances that allow me to hear and play and sing to music (My hearing loss does not allow me to use headphones any longer). He and his colleagues at Lantos have launched UVERO earbud technology and products that they claim combine “the best custom fit, sound quality and ear protection.”
The Uvero product line was launched when a 3D scanner developed at MIT was put into commercial use to create custom-fit consumer audio and hearing protection products. The scanner provides a unique, personalized digital ear-mapping. that can capture 100,000 data points from the outer ear to the eardrum. The data is then used to create products for various ear needs.
The Lantos 3D Ear Scanning System is already being used to produce a variety of in-ear, noise-isolating, soft-silicone earbuds. Most of these can slip onto existing earphones to create a tight seal and a comfortable fit that is customized for each individual.
- Uvero Vented and Unvented Earbuds – This is a Professional audio headset with custom made in-ear, noise-isolating, soft-silicone earbuds and microphone with inline phone controls. The fit is long wearing and won’t fall out – even when you’re exercising and it offers professional sound quality. Unvented allows for sound isolation so you can listen with a more immersive experience and heavier bass. Vented provides for situational awareness to hear what’s going around you and provides a flatter frequency response.
- A Recreational Hearing Protection Set – This product is good for the hobbyist at home using power tools and for use with motor sports, e.g. It’s crafted of flexible, soft silicone that conforms to the ear even as you move, and provides superior protection and want-to-wear comfort with a secure fit and excellent seal to prevent them from falling out. Lantos claims that they are better than disposables which are prone to shallow or inconsistent placement that reduces their effectiveness and increases potential for hearing damage.
- The Magnum Hearing Protection Set – Provides the strongest attenuation of all Uvero earplugs when you’re looking for the maximum amount of protection with features similar to the recreational hearing protection set.
- The Musician Earplugs – Uses an advanced sound filter that provides uniform volume reduction across all frequencies, from bass to treble. The result is an accurate listening experience plus hearing protection and clarity. Comes with interchangeable filters.
Lantos Partner Products
Lantos is now assisting partners with implementing the scanning technology to improve function and fit of their own ear products including: Etymotic ER4XR earphones and ER4SR Earbuds, hf3 Earbuds and hf5 Earbuds; Bose SoundSport Wired Earbuds; Jaybird Freedom Wireless Earbuds and X2 Earbuds; Beats PowerBeats3 Wireless Earbuds; Apple EarPods Wired Earbuds and Wireless Earbuds (Vented and unvented). See the full list here.
Five Hearing Conservation Tips
- Have your teen screened – The Seattle Children’s Hospital recommends that you start them young and prepare your children for this noisy world. Have him or her checked for hearing damage at higher tones at ages 11 to 14, 15 to 17, and 18 to 21. The American Academy of pediatrics recommends that this should be done at a regular well child check-up.
- Enforce the 60/60 Rule – Volume should be less than 60% and you should take breaks every 60 minutes. Long exposures to loud sounds do more damage so taking breaks between listening does save hearing. Other ways to help with volume — your children should be able to hear what’s going on around them while listening to the music. Also, if you’re walking by and can hear their music coming out of the headphones, it’s too loud.
- Invest in good noise-canceling headphones (and earbuds) – these allow you to listen in loud locations (i.e. the airplane or busy school bus) without turning the volume up pat 50%. The noise-canceling mechanism helps drown out outside noise mitigating the need for super high volumes.
- Make sure earphones/earbuds (of any kind) are a proper fit – Better fit can help prevent sound leakage, so the volume does not have to be turned up as high and thus exposure to loud sounds can be avoided.
- Use earplugs when attending live music events – Check Amazon for cheap music earplugs, and give them a try next time you’re at a noisy concert or event. If the noise is still too loud, consider purchasing custom-made musician’s earplugs. They cost a little more, but a perfect acoustic seal in your ear canal is guaranteed (you can typically return custom earplugs that don’t work, but check with your supplier). Here’s a list of nearby hearing experts who fit musician’s earplugs.
No one should live without music and no on should lose their hearing enjoying it. Be a smart shopper and listener and get yourself and your children the best hearing protective ear bud products available today.
Stu Nunnery is a writer, speaker, recording artist and hearing activist. He has recently returned to making music after a 35-year hiatus and presents workshops and performances about his journey with bilateral hearing loss. See more from Stu.
Last modified: February 12, 2018