If it hurts when you do that, don’t do that! How to protect your hearing. Part Two.


NOTE: This is the second post in a two-part article. Click here to read part one!

Last week we talked about hearing loss, how “easy” it is for today’s environments and personal habits to damage your hearing. Some loss is inevitable as we get older. But, short of crawling into a cave, how can you protect yourself? The good news is that there are a variety of ways, and not all of them involve earplugs.

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The purpose of this article is to bring these issues to your awareness. It is necessarily only a summary and details are generalized. To fully appreciate what hearing dangers exist in your environment, and to determine the extent to which you should be concerned and/or take precautions, and what precautions are best for you, please look further into the issue or consult a hearing health professional. If you have any hearing difficulty, noticeable hearing loss, ailment (including but not limited to pain, discharge or pus in the ear), or want expert advice, please consult your physician or a hearing specialist promptly.


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How can you to protect your hearing?

Reduce your exposure to environmental noise. The most obvious solutions is in the classic Henny Youngman joke: "I said, 'Doctor, it hurts when I do that.' He said, 'Don't do that."

Except avoiding noise is easier said than done, and this is no joke.

In the United States alone, 20-30 million are exposed to dangerously high noise levels at times. 30 million people have hazardous noise levels at work. (The similarity in those numbers may be due to our having got them from different sources. Anyway, in both cases, it’s a lot of us.)

In fact, we wonder (although we haven’t yet found data on this) if it might make sense to use earbuds in the subway – without piping music through them. A 2006 survey in the New York City subway found that sound levels reached 112 dB inside a subway car, 106 dB on the platform, and 89 dB at a bus stop. Those are the extremes, not the average levels, and it’s not certain that brief exposure to these environments will necessarily cause hearing loss, but since the effect of noise on hearing ability is apparently cumulative, why chance it? Even in an environment at approved levels (85 to 90 dBa, depending on the authority), after 40 years one in four people will have developed NIHL, and one in a dozen will suffer a loss even at lower sound levels.

Incidentally, we’ve wondered about the possible effect of constantly running a fan, or a white noise machine (used to hide sounds). Even assuming they’re well under 85 decibels, might they have a cumulative effect on hearing? We’ve found no authoritative indication of that. Overnight, we certainly doubt it. Constant use over a lifetime, who can say?

Avoid exposure to sudden or extremely loud noises. Fireworks and gunshots in close proximity can cause acoustic trauma, but so can sustained noise when very loud. Don’t linger near a chain saw, leaf blower or jackhammer. Turn away or cover your ear(s) when an emergency vehicle passes nearby. (Is it any wonder that firefighters as a profession tend to have greater hearing loss than the general population?)
And you don’t have to be a rock guitarist to suffer hearing loss due to loud music; just attend a lot of concerts without protection. After a loud concert, most attendees are likely to report some hearing impairment or ringing. Their hearing may return gradually to normal on that one occasion. But repeated exposure takes a permanent toll.

Specific measures to take

Use earbuds at no more than 50% volume, only an hour a day. To listen to music, etc. in noisy surroundings, use closed-back headphones, so you can keep your audio volume down. Clunky-looking in public, but, hey, you’re a pro.

In the studio, lower your headphones’ volume. When you’re just editing or monitoring the presence of sound (rather than judging it), you may not need so much volume. Or take off the cans for awhile and listen through speakers.

At the mic, consider not using headphones at all. Performing without headphones may not improve your hearing, but it may well improve your performance by helping you speak more naturally.

Use studio-quality monitor speakers. Although headphones have some advantages, studio monitors reduce your dependence on headphones. It’s likely that you’ll want to use headphones for critical checks, as they remove variable such as the room’s sonic properties and speaker limitations or placement. But most of the time, you can give your hearing a rest.

Take care when working with audio devices. Avoid loud transient noises, and remove earbuds or headphones when changing connections or turning equipment on and off. Better yet, reduce volume during these moments, to protect both you and your hardware.

Don’t wear earbuds to bed. Falling asleep with them subjects your ears to an entire night of useless noise. The same would be true of headphones, except that you’re likely to knock them off as you doze.

Use earplugs. Wear appropriate ear protection in loud environments, such as concerts, the subway, shooting ranges, noisy workplaces, lawn care scenes, motorcycling, and nearby emergency vehicles and trucks.

Inexpensive disposable or re-usable “flanged” plugs may suffice. There are also more expensive types, including custom molded ones, often used by musicians and other professionals. The more expensive ones, in addition to being more comfortable, etc., may reduce frequencies in a more even manner.

Edge Studio Director of Technology, George Whittam, lists the following among precautions he takes:

  • Carry earplugs in my car glovebox
  • Avoid super-loud concert venues or autosports
  • If my ears are fatigued, stop listening to headphones
  • NEVER listen to distorted audio


So, when you're profession and quality of life depend on the quality of your ears, don't ignore the potential dangers. Do whatever works for you, to help your ears work for you.
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Technical notes if you play test tones:

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