How to Protect Your Hearing on the Plane

If You Find Noise-Cancelling Headphones Too Bulky, Earbuds With Noise-Reduction May Do the Trick

Whenever I travel on a plane, I look around the cabin to see how many people are using over-the-ear headphones, and how many are using earbuds. Before Apple’s AirPods came along, most people used over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones from Bose. That was always good to see because, whether they knew it or not, those passengers had taken an important step in protecting their hearing.

AirPods on Airplane

AirPods are common on airplanes these days. But if you want to protect your hearing, make sure to get the new AirPods Pro—or some other type of intelligent earbuds—with noise cancellation.

But, ever since AirPods became a best-selling status symbol among professional travelers, I see more and more people using AirPods on the plane, and less and less using the noise-cancelling headphones offered by Bose and other companies. Many passengers spend the entire duration of their flights with AirPods in their ears.

Why the switch to AirPods, and other in-the-ear options, over more traditional over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones? I think there are four important reasons:

  1. Earbuds are smaller - With space at a premium in cramped airplane cabins these days, it’s nice to be able to slip your hearing gear into your shirt pocket rather than having to find room for a set of headphones in your purse or briefcase.
  2. Earbuds are multipurpose - If you use your AirPods all day long for phone calls, listening to music, and other activities, why bother with a redundant set of headphones for air travel?
  3. Earbuds are less expensive - Very high quality wireless Bluetooth earbuds cost anywhere from $150 to $250, whereas the top-of-the-line Bose Quiet Comfort over-the-ear noise-cancelling headphones retail for $399.95.
  4. Earbuds are in style - This may be the most important reason. The Apple-effect strikes again! Despite early criticism from stylistas, the AirPods have become another classy Apple status symbol.

Until very recently, there has been one major downside to using earbuds on airplanes—the lack of effective noise cancellation. And continuous exposure to overly loud noise can damage your hearing.

These days, if you want a headset that is easier to manage than over-the-ear headphones—and that will also protect your hearing—there is a growing number of more intelligent earbud solutions for you. They’re a little more expensive, but they provide high-quality audio along with hearing protection. The new Apple AirPods Pro and products from Nuheara, Sony, Beats and Amazon aim to give you the best of both worlds. They are smaller and easier to handle, and they offer enough noise reduction to help protect you from average levels of airplane cabin noise.

Cabin noise can be hazardous to your hearing health

Has anyone you’ve known ever complained of some ringing in the ears after a long flight? That’s tinnitus, and it’s a warning sign that you’ve subjected your ears to too much noise over too long a period of time.

Airplanes can assault you with so much loud, continuous noise that it can cause hearing loss. The major carriers usually make a commitment to keeping noise below 85 decibels while cruising, a level that OSHA suggests will cause permanent hearing damage after 8 hours of continuous exposure. But takeoffs and landings can be much louder. And many other noises in the cabin, ranging from the public address system to the crying infant in the seat behind you, can add to noise-related stress.

Unfortunately, most standard Bluetooth earbuds don’t offer noise suppression. In noisy environments, like airplanes, people typically increase the volume of their wireless buds to drown out the background noise. This exacerbates the risk of noise-induced hearing loss. Noise-cancellation technology is typically most effective when cancelling steady-state (constant) noises, like the rumbling of an airplane engine, so noise-cancellation technology offers a legitimate solution to limiting your sound exposure. Of course, it is up to you to limit the volume of any media you are consuming!

Noise-cancelling earbuds - An alternative to noise-cancelling headphones

There’s no doubt over-the-ear, noise-cancelling headphones effectively reduce stress and protect your hearing. But there are some drawbacks that make them less appealing than earbuds for many passengers. Their bulky form factor is one issue. And noise cancellation, while extremely effective, also makes it harder to have a conversation or talk to a flight attendant. Even if they let you escape into a blissful world of music, podcasts, or movies on your tablet, noise-cancelling earbuds can also cut you off and make you feel isolated from absolutely everything else going on in the cabin.

Nuheara IQbuds

Nuheara IQbuds and IQbuds Boost are wireless earbuds that provide enough noise reduction to protect your hearing from cabin noise.

The good news is that a new crop of intelligent earbuds offer enough noise reduction to help protect your hearing. They’re a little more expensive than standard wireless Bluetooth earbuds, but they provide hearing protection along with high-quality audio.

New noise-cancelling earbud options

Nuheara’s wireless IQbuds ($199/pair) and IQbuds BOOST ($499/pair) fit neatly in the ear and offer sophisticated sound processing, including noise cancellation. The associated app even has a “plane” mode tuned to suppress engine whine and noise from wind rushing over the wings. Apple’s AirPods Pro, available on Oct. 30 at $249/pair, provide noise cancellation along with a fit that’s more snug than the $149 AirPods.

Sony (1000X M3 $229/pair), Beats (Solo Pro, $299.95/pair), and Amazon (Echo Buds, $129.99/pair) also offer noise reduction that can help protect your hearing.

One thing to keep in mind: You’ll need to ensure your earbuds are sealed tightly in your ear to keep unwanted background noise out. This will maximize the effectiveness of any noise-cancellation technology.

Neck-worn earbud headsets work well, too

Bose also offers a product that is easier to handle than its big noise-cancelling headphones. The $499 Bose Hearphones feature two high-tech earbuds wired to a neck-worn collar. They are a little more complex than the nifty Nuheara earbuds that you pop in your ears. But the collar that hangs from your neck provides room for a long-lasting rechargeable battery as well as the electronics required for noise reduction and other sophisticated sound processing features.

Bose Hearphones and Alango BeHear Now

Bose Hearphones ($499) and the BeHear Now headset from the Alango Technologies Wear&Hear store ($249) both provide noise reduction and sophisticated sound processing.

And if the Bose Hearphones seem pricey, you can order a BeHear Now headset from Alango Technologies Wear&Hear store for only $249. BeHear Now is very similar to Bose Hearphones and is priced aggressively to compete against the market leader.

Hearing aids are a high-tech solution for those who already have hearing loss

Of course, if you have hearing loss and have been fitted with a pair of premium high-tech hearing aids, chances are good you already have a “headset” with advanced noise-reduction technology. In fact, the top hearing aid manufacturers pioneered the directional microphones and sound processing algorithms that enable amplification of speech with reduction of environmental noise.

The only catch with hearing aids is their cost. While the Nuheara and Bose products are only several hundred dollars, a good set of hearing aids with advanced sound processing usually cost several thousand dollars. And as with noise-cancelling earbuds, you’ll want to ensure your hearing aids are sealed tightly in your ears if you’re hoping to protect yourself adequately from noisy environments like airplanes.

Earplugs are a low cost—but not-so-low-tech—solution

Finally, if hundreds of dollars for hearables or thousands of dollars for hearing aids are beyond your budget, there’s always the original low-tech solution to noise reduction: earplugs. The past few years have seen real advances in earplugs. You can still buy simple foam inserts at the pharmacy (or online shops like Amazon) for a few dollars. But you can also get “intelligent” earplugs that are tuned to filter out certain sounds or cut off volume of sound above certain thresholds.

Etymotic Earplugs

Etymotic earplugs are available from the manufacturer for $19.95 each.

If you Google “earplugs,” you will see literally hundreds of earplug product choices, starting at less than $20 a pair. I recommend looking at Etymotic, because its founder, Mead Killion, was a pioneer in hearing aid technologies, including low-cost, high-tech hearing protection solutions. Etymotic has a broad family of earplugs for musicians, the military, hunters, and anyone else who needs them—including air travelers.