Microprocessing

Why AirPods—and Earbuds Like Them—Are Especially Bad for Your Hearing

It’s all about the fit and the background noise

Angela Lashbrook
Published in
6 min readMay 15, 2019

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Photo: Stephen Lam/Getty

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

AirPods are everywhere — even though they’re pretty awful at what they do.

This style of earbud, which rests next to your ear canal but not quite inside it, offers practically zero noise isolation. In other words, AirPods, by far the most popular wireless earbuds, do a poor job overpowering noise like chattering colleagues or teens on the subway. The natural response is to turn the volume louder to compensate — which can quickly turn dangerous for your hearing.

“I’m seeing a lot of younger people in their twenties who are coming in with ringing in their ears,” says Sarah Mowry, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “I think it’s probably related to this all-day earbud use. It’s noise trauma.”

Headphones, in and of themselves, are not a risk. You could listen all day at a low-to-middle volume without health worries. It’s only once you start listening to loud volumes for sustained periods of time that they can start damaging your ears.

It’s likely that earbuds are contributing to widespread hearing damage among younger people.

And the type of headphones that are the most likely to cause hearing problems are these earbuds. A 2007 study found that adults turn up their music louder when they’re wearing earbuds than over-the-ear headphones. It also discovered that users wearing earbuds were more likely to turn up their volume to compensate for background noise (in this case, street noise and “multi-talker babble”) than people wearing over-the-ear headphones. A further study, from 2011, expanded on that research, finding that teens wearing earbuds turn their volume up to overcome background noise, some to harmful levels, more than those wearing noise-isolating, over-the-ear headphones.

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Angela Lashbrook
OneZero

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.