Portable devices like iPads, MP3 players, and the like are all capable of outputting sound at a level high enough to damage your hearing. While adults (should) know better and turn the volume down, kids often don’t. Read on as we show you how to protect your kids’ hearing with volume limiting headphones.
Why Does It Matter?
Generally when we think about hearing loss we think about heavy machinery, a trip to the gun range without proper ear protection, or other loud and immediately painful noises. Most people don’t suffer hearing loss in a single catastrophic moment like firing off a large bore rifle without ear plugs in, however, they suffer hearing loss over time via slow but dangerous exposure to loud noises just loud enough to damage their ears but not loud enough to alarm them. Years of mowing lawns without ear protection, listening to headphones at maximum volume, and attending concerts with skyscraper-sized sound systems are all the kind of things that contribute to slow, progressive, and irreversible hearing loss.
As adults we’re aware (or should be aware at any rate) of the risk of damaging our hearing by using power tools without ear protection or cranking up headphones to skull-rattling levels, but kids are oblivious to the long term risk of such exposure.
When you’re eight and your baby brother is wailing in his playpen and you really want to hear what the Power Rangers are saying, you just turn the volume up on your headphones and get back to enjoying your show. Kids think nothing of turning the volume way up on their personal devices because, if you don’t know any better, that’s a perfect solution to dealing with external noises invading your listening bubble: turn up the volume until you can’t hear those noises anymore. Unfortunately the upper threshold on most portable devices is well into the danger zone.
The problem of excessively loud and ear-damaging device volume is so widespread, in fact, that European Union regulations limit the output level of portable devices to 85 dB. That’s still pretty loud but right on the exact edge of where hearing damage occurs and certainly lower than the previous (and dangerous) 100+ dB upper threshold on older devices like early gen iPods. That’s great if you’re in the European Union and you’ve purchased a relatively new device that adheres to the regulations, but it’s not so useful for everyone else who has older devices or lives in countries without such regulation.
The best way to protect your child from progressive hearing loss is to equip them with a pair of headphones that limits how loud the volume can go so even when they mash the volume button in response to their loud siblings or noise on the train they can’t crank it high enough to hurt themselves.
How Do Volume Limiters Work?
Volume limiters come in two forms: whole headphone sets and add-on adapters that are inserted inline between the headphones and the source device. The mechanism of operation is actually extremely simple (and if you’re handy with a soldering iron and like DIY solutions this is something you can even hack together yourself): all volume limiting devices are just resistors embedded either in the phono-plug, on the cable, or inside the pair of headphones themselves.
The resistor, for those unfamiliar with the guts of electronics devices, is a little tiny passive electrical component which (as the name implies) creates resistance in a circuit. That resistance lowers the the current flow and by lowering the current flow from the source device to the headphones the outputted volume is also lowered.
The type of resistor determines the degree of resistance and the degree to which the volume is lowered. While no commercial volume limiters on the market do this, if you made a DIY model it would be possible to string enough resistors together (or use a beefy enough single resistor) to reduce the volume to inaudible levels. Commercial solutions typically lower the total volume 20-30 percent, which is more than enough to bring the maximum volume of portable devices down into a safer range.
It’s a physical change and short of switching the headphones out with a new pair or removing the adapter there is no way to sidestep the resistance.
Where Can I Find Volume Limited Headphones and Adapters?
While you might find volume limiting headphones here or there in brick and mortar stores your best bet is to shop online. There you’ll find wide variety of volume limiting headphones and adapters for all needs.
Although headphones come in all shapes and sizes we would strongly recommend getting over-the-ear closed monitor headphones (as opposed to open-cell headphones) or in-ear headphones. Both styles do a much better job at blocking external sound than open-cell headphones which, in turn, will keep your child from turning the music up louder. Good closed over-ear headphones or in-ear headphones significantly block outside noise which means your child may never even approach the upper threshold of the volume limit in the first place because they hear everything clearly at lower volume levels.
With that in mind there are solutions for every budget. Let’s take a look at some well reviewed options in the categories we just highlighted.
Over-Ear Closed Headphones
For small children and older kids alike over-ear closed headphones are our favorite pick. They fit a wide range of children’s head/ear sizes, kids that are too small to use in-ear headphones (or find them uncomfortable) can use them easily, and they’re far more durable than the much smaller and easily mangled and tangled in-ear headphones.
For the truly wee ones in your life, LilGadgets has a line of volume limiting headphones ($24) that are sized for toddler-to-elementary student sized heads. They come in a wide range of colors, they have nice deep comfy ear cups, and they have a really novel feature called a “SharePort” wherein a sibling or friend can jack their own headphones directly into the LilGadgets headphones and share the listening experience (no need for a separate headphone splitter and the second listener benefits from the volume limiting feature too).
One thing you’ll notice while searching for over-ear volume-limiting headphones is that the market is heavily weighted toward headphones sized for smaller heads and very flashy, bright, and graphics-covered headphones all intended to appeal to small children. If you have an older kid who isn’t into super flashy headphones (or can’t even wear the kid-sized headphones comfortably) you’ll want to check out the next two sections.
For older kids who want a lower profile headphone and are comfortable using in-ear headphones safely, Etymotic (a well respected headphone company that makes both excellent in-ear headphones and sound-dampening-but-preserving earplugs for musicians) has a line of in-ear headphones for kids. You can pick the ETY-Kids5 Safe-Listening earphones up for as low as $34.
That’s not as cheap as the bargain bin earbuds at Wal-Mart but a lot higher quality and with volume-limiting built in. Further, the Etymotic earplug design works so well (we’ve got a pair of the adult-size ones) that it filters out about 30-40 dB worth of background noise. Remember what we said earlier about how a good sound dampening design means you’ll turn the music up less? These do such a good job blocking out external noise there’s very little chance anyone using them is going to turn the volume up anywhere near unsafe levels (and as such the user most likely won’t ever even notice they’re volume limited in the first place).
Our last solution is the most universal. If you already have nice headphones or you want the freedom to buy any headphones you want while retrofitting them to be volume limiting then this is the solution for you.
Volume limiting headphones are just headphones that have the resistor built into the headphones unit or into the existing cord. A volume limiting headphone adapter simply acts as a very short extension to your existing headphone cable and features an in-line resistor built into the adapter. Slap it in between your device and the headphones and the volume is immediately limited.
One problem with the adapter system is that if you’ve got a clever kid on your hands who figures out that the little extension you’ve added to the headphones is the source of the suddenly quieter experience, they can just unplug it and go back to using the old headphones at ear-blasting volumes.
With older kids you can have a discussion about how hearing damage is cumulative, lasting, and they need to take care of their ears. With younger kids we’d recommend purchasing some heat-shrink tubing and making a semi-permanent seal between the adapter and the headphones by sealing it together with the tubing. You can always remove it later with a razor but there’s no risk of a toddler undoing your handiwork.
While a serious talk about treating your ears with kindness for a lifetime of good hearing is an important conversation to have, kids will be kids and a little preventative action on your behalf will ensure their hearing is protected when they’re too young to make smart choices and protect it themselves.
Have a question about kids and technology? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer it.
Image Credits: Philippe Put