Woman wincing while listening to music on a pair of headphones
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Conversations about headphone-induced hearing loss have faded away, but headphones and earbuds still pose a serious risk to your ears. How loud is too loud, and how do you protect your ears without giving up music?

The Threshold for Hearing Damage is 85 dB

Most doctors agree that 85 dB is the threshold for hearing damage. After repeated long term exposure to sounds at or above 85 dB, you can expect to experience some hearing loss or tinnitus. And while you’d probably assume that 85 dB is “extremely loud,” there’s a good chance that you’re exposed to sounds that exceed this threshold every day. Lawnmowers and busy restaurants, for example, tend to put out about 90 dB of sound.

Don’t worry, a morning lawncare session or a dinner at Applebee’s won’t lead to hearing loss. Doctors agree that your ears can handle up to eight hours of exposure to 85 dB. But as you can imagine, as volume level increases, your hearing tolerance decreases. Your ears just can’t handle 100 dB for eight hours. That’s where music lovers should start getting worried.

RELATED: Hearing Loss: How Loud is Too Loud?

What Happens After 85 dB?

Your headphones and your audio source dictate how loud your music gets. But across the board, nearly all combinations of phones, amplifiers, and headphones can push well past the 85 dB threshold. Some headphones can even get between the 110 to 120 dB range. At that volume level, your ears can handle about a minute of exposure before sustaining damage.

Headphones next to an amplifier

See, the relationship between dB level and volume tolerance isn’t linear. At 90 dB, four hours of exposure time will cause permanent hearing loss. Go up to 95 dB, and your ears can only handle two hours of exposure. Push it up to 110 dB, and your ears can only take 1 minute and 29 seconds.

Can You Measure Your Headphones’ dB Level?

If you want to know for sure that your headphones or earbuds are exceeding the 85 dB threshold, then you’re going to run into a bit of trouble. Accurately measuring your headphones’ dB level is difficult.

Most dB meters are made to calculate the volume of an environment, like a restaurant or a construction site. But the sound from headphones and earbuds are made to shoot directly into your ears, not out into a room. So, to use a dB meter with a pair of headphones, you have to stick the headphones right against the meter. At best, you’ll get a semi-accurate reading.

Now, do you want to buy a $50 dB meter for a “semi-accurate” reading? Probably not. You could always check with a free dB meter app, like Sound Meter, or Sound Analyzer, but that reading will be less than “semi-accurate.”

Let’s be honest; if you’re concerned that your headphones are too loud, then they’re probably too loud. You may not know exactly how loud your headphones are, but paying attention and changing your listening habits are the only steps that will help you find a comfortable listening volume.

Pay Attention to What You’re Doing

One of the best ways to limit your volume is to limit your volume. When you’re using headphones or earbuds, take a second to ask yourself if things are too loud. If you don’t feel like putting in that kind of effort, you could always find a comfortable volume level that you set as your threshold. That threshold could be “halfway” on a cellphone’s volume slider, or a specific number from a more detailed audio source.

Girl listening to music through headphones while standing against a mural
Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

You could also set the volume threshold for music on whatever streaming app you use. Most streaming apps have a “Volume Normalization” feature in their settings, which can be set to “low.”

Another thing to watch out for is listening fatigue. As you listen to music (or any continuous sound), your ears start to get fatigued (not damaged, just tired). As a result, your music sounds “quieter.” What do you do when your music sounds quiet? Well, you turn up the volume.

Turning up the volume when your ears are exhausted is a bad idea, but most people don’t realize that they’re doing it. If you find yourself turning up the volume throughout a listening session, give your ears a minute to cool off. Take out your earbuds and tolerate the annoying sound of your coworkers or your abnormally quiet bedroom for at least 10 minutes.

Focus on Quality Instead of Volume

Most people listen to loud music because they like to hear every little detail, not because they want their ears to bleed. If your headphones or earbuds sound like trash at a low volume, then you should consider investing in some better audio equipment.

No, you don’t have to buy some weird $1000 audiophile equipment to get high-quality sound. There are plenty of high-quality headphones and earbuds that cost less than $200. If you wear headphones in a noisy environment, you could always grab some good noise-canceling headphones. I know, $200 is still a lot of money, but good headphones sound okay at lower volumes, and they can last for a decade if you treat them right. (A good pair of headphones will also sound amazing at high volumes, in case you’re wondering.)

Older man truly appreciating the sound quality of his expensive headphones

While we’re on the topic of equipment, it’s important to note that a good pair of over-ear headphones will always produce higher quality sound than a good pair of earbuds. Earbuds have their place, but if you tend to listen to music at home (where nobody can make fun of you for looking like a goof), then you should consider grabbing some over-ear headphones.

If you don’t want to drop a few hundred bucks on expensive audio equipment, then you should try to adjust your EQ settings. Most cellphones and amplifiers have powerful, automatic EQ settings, which can increase the quality of your audio at lower (and higher) volumes.

The Last Resort: Wear Childproof Headphones

Sometimes, you have to take drastic steps to change bad habits. If you’re hooked on violently loud music, then you could try punishing yourself with some volume-limiting headphones or volume-limiting earbuds. These headphones are designed specifically for children, and they can’t exceed 85 dB. They probably don’t have the best sound quality, but hey, that’s part of the punishment.

RELATED: The Best Volume-Limiting Headphones for Kids

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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