Are Earbuds Damaging Your Hearing?

September 20, 2013

11:00 am

Have you ever gotten earbud fatigue, when you just can’t listen to music any longer? Don’t ignore it: you may have a bigger problem than a Miley Cyrus obsession.

Earbuds, those tiny listening devices that go right into your ears, seem to be permanently affixed to people’s heads these days. But a study of Australian children found that personal stereo use correlated with a 70 percent increased risk of hearing loss. In March, Mayor Bloomberg instituted a campaign to warn the public about the perils of earbuds and loud music.

And there’s physics to back up their concerns. Stephen Ambrose, an expert in hearing and the CEO of Asius Technologies, explains that the dynamics of earbuds are much different than, say, speakers. When a speaker blasts music, it compresses all the air in the room in order to reach your eardrum. But when an earbud blasts music, it only has to compress the 2.5 cubic centimeters of air in your ear canal. As a result, the pressure on your eardrum is greater – up to 1,000 times greater.

What happens next is the shocking part. When your eardrum moves too much, it triggers the acoustic reflex. Your eardrum and your middle ear bones are pulled tight, effectively dampening the sound and “turning down” your hearing. If you listen too often, your acoustic reflex becomes constantly triggered – in other words, you’ve worn out your ear’s shock absorber, says Ambrose. As a result, you need to listen to even louder music to hear the same volume – and the vicious cycle begins.

“There’s been a major industry oversight for decades,” says Ambrose, as I interviewed him with earbuds on. But the jury is still out on which exact volumes are dangerous: when I asked if a simple phone conversation would be damaging to my hearing, he couldn’t say.

Asius photoThe special earbuds he’s building at Asius are designed to reduce the pressure on your eardrum. They have a tiny inflatable bag on the end, which fills up when you turn the music on. That tiny bag takes the beating instead of your eardrum, and the sound is transmitted straight into the sides of your ear canal. Softer sounds seem louder, and you can listen to music at as low as 1/16 the volume of regular earbuds.

Ambrose and his team received research grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and they’re in talks with major players in the audio industry to incorporate Asius technology into standard devices. They’re also in the running for Wall Street Journal Startup of the Year.

But Ambrose knows it will take time for the industry to change. He’s been observing it since the 60s, when he began his career as a rock performer and built custom in-ear monitors for Stevie Wonder and Simon and Garfunkel. These monitors allowed the performers to actually hear themselves on stage, which (he jokes) is the worst seat in the house.

As companies began producing earbuds, however, they didn’t understand the danger. “It’s been overlooked mostly because of this huge ability of the body – the acoustic reflex – to absorb it,” says Ambrose. It was hard for him to get people to take his claims seriously until he demonstrated that the pressure on an eardrum could lift a quarter. Apple did redesign its earbuds with a small slit on the side, which lets some of the pressure escape. But the industry’s hesitation is understandable, Ambrose says. After all, it’s embarrassing to admit that your whole inventory of earbuds might be dangerous.

In the meantime, we’ll have to beware of high volumes, take breaks from our earbuds, and hope that Asius makes it to market soon.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact [email protected]

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