Do Earbuds Damage Your Ears More Than Headphones?

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Do earbuds damage your ears more than headphones? Maybe, maybe not. Stay tuned because we’re about to find out!

In the recent years, hearing problems seem to occur more often than during the previous decades, and it also seems that it is hitting a much wider and younger population. Who could be the culprit? We decided to play detectives and do our little research. Of course, it didn’t involve any of the cool stuff like getting into a taxi and saying: ‘Follow that car!’, and so on, but we did come across quite a few interesting facts. There seems to be a dispute between doctors and scientists alike, that one of the aforementioned items causes more harm than the other. To our great surprise, both sides have plausible claims. But, before we do go on, think about it for a second. Earbuds or headphones? Which could do more damage?

Here are some statistics, collected from the non-profit Hearing Health Foundation:

Also, we need to get acquainted with a certain something. Famous, or infamous – not our call. Meet the glorious ‘decibel’, otherwise known as dB! A unit of measurement indicating how loud a sound is! Cool name, huh? We can hear anything between 0 and 140 dB. Not that there is nothing below 0 dB, it’s just that it is out of our hearing range. And we don’t really have to listen to things at 140 dB. Really, it is not advisable. Thresholds exist for a reason.

Little buds blossom into big trouble

Let’s face it – earbuds are used by everyone today. Kids, teens, adults of all ages are constantly hooked to their devices of choice. Why are they so popular? They’re tiny, light and if ‘nothing’ had a price, we could compare the two. The only requirement is the patience needed to untangle them.

So, what’s going on here?

This little boombox goes into our ears, right? Eardrums are sensitive, and our ear canals aren’t impervious to sounds. The theory behind is that earbuds produce vibrations which get reflected and amplified in the ear canal, thus dealing more damage to our already sensitive and fragile eardrums. Plausible, yes. True, yes, if we are to believe in physics. What do we do when the feeling becomes uncomfortable? Lower the volume or remove them entirely. Simple, right? Problem solved. The likelihood of earbuds dealing permanent damage if we use them responsibly is extremely low. And contrary to the popular belief, they don’t just ‘get stuck’.

Okay then, maybe infections? Bacteria?

Good call, but the majority of doctors disagree with that too. Unless each and every one of us would use and exchange a single pair of earbuds, the chances are pretty slim. Gross, but slim.

A-ha! Headphones must be the guilty party! Or…

I can hear you through my headphones –  I just pretend that I can’t

*Heavy breathing* Could it be that one of our favorite things in existence can do this to us?! Oh, wow!

Hold thine horses! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What’s the story behind this? Do headphones go over our ears? Positive. Can they get stuck? Not unless you really try. Like, try hard. Doctors’ concerns? Heat and moisture. Okay, sounds plausible. Again, if we consult physics, it could prove to be true. Our ears get warm and as we sweat we produce moisture. Enclosed for longer periods of time and our ears become breeding grounds for dragons, unicorns, and other legendary beasts. Not quite. And at this point, we might get the feeling that doctors are just messing with us just because they speak Latin. Cogito, ergo sum to you too!

Huh?!

In vino veritas! (Not that we encourage a lot of ‘vino’)

Chance is that the vast majority of us have seen the warning label ‘Listening at high volume can cause hearing damage!’, and neglected it. That warning does not come reserved for earbuds or headphones alone. And it is quite a helpful tip because the real culprit behind this widespread problem is VOLUME! (Neighbors only sometimes yell for a reason, yes.) In reality, it is very simple – high or maximum volume is extremely dangerous to the ear.

Earbuds offer lower sound quality and therefore urge the listener to turn up the volume. On the other hand, headphones dissipate the sound instead of focusing it into the ear canal thus urging the listener to turn up the volume. Increasing the decibel levels can lead to satisfaction, yet sadly, it also leads to trouble. Best way to counter this? Resist thine urges!  The new maximum volume should be about 60% of the real maximum volume because modern portable music devices can go up to and over 120dB. Our ears are already strained at about 85dB, and blasting music shouldn’t really mean blasting our ears into oblivion. A general rule of thumb is: ‘If you can’t hear anything around you, turn it down.’

In conclusion

We are exposed to a lot of loud noises throughout the day. Traffic, work and especially jobs that include heavy machinery are a necessary evil. We require sustenance; therefore, we must go out and do our thing. As we must preserve ourselves, we should also take heed and preserve our hearing. By the time the symptoms are showing it can already be too late. Even our ears deserve a break.

An approximate scale would go like this:

  • Soft whisper – 30dB
  • Traffic avg. – 75dB to 85dB
  • Subway train – 90dB
  • Gunshot blast – 100 dB
  • Plane – 140dB

Do we really need to listen to music at a gunshot level? It only takes about 15 minutes at 100dB for hearing impairment to take effect. Any longer than that and the damage becomes permanent. It doesn’t take too long, does it?

Earbuds don’t damage your ears more than headphones. Taking the term ‘blasting music’ literally – does.

Do you prefer softer or louder music? Be sure to let us know!


Hello, my name is Danny Brown.

I am writer and editor at HeadphonesEncyclopedia, I’ve been reviewing all kinds of electronic devices, audio and video equipment for almost a decade. My specialty is audio equipment and I have a strong passion for headphones, speakers, and home theater systems. I spend hours and hours testing and evaluating audio equipment in order to offer you unbiased reviews. Since we all have different tastes when it comes to sound, don’t take my reviews for granted. They can offer you a lot of useful info but you should definitely test (hear) the headphones/speakers before making the purchase.

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