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Assuming that the decibel level is the same with and without headphones in, does headphone use damage my hearing?

I have found several articles that talk about this, but they don't cite scientific studies. A lot of claims are made such as

Some people are born with "tougher ears" that allow them to listen to music relatively safely for longer periods. [Live Science]

The audiologist claims that he has known students to listen to music at 110 to 120 decibels. "That's a sound level that's equivalent to the measures that are made at rock concerts," said Garstecki, "and it's enough to cause hearing loss after only about an hour and 15 minutes." [The Register]

Are MP3 players capable of these volumes, and if so, is an MP3 player at 120dB more dangerous than a rock concert at 120dB? Do ears have different levels of 'toughness'?

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the stated claim says nothing except that some people can last longer in loud noise than others, which is no doubt true but impossible to test humanely. It doesn't claim or disclaim that using headphones can damage your hearing at any specific level. –  jwenting Jan 25 '12 at 7:19

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Yes.

As Garstecki notes, most headphones are capable of outputting up to 125dB1 of which prolonged exposure can result in hearing loss.

To get an idea, look at this sound comparison chart:

Sound level comparison:

City Traffic (inside car)               85dB
Train whistle at 500'                   90dB
Truck Traffic                           90dB
Subway train at 200'                    95dB
hearing loss from sustained exposure    90 - 95dB
Power mower at 3'                       107dB
Snowmobile, Motorcycle                  100dB
Power saw at 3'                         110dB
Sandblasting, Loud Rock Concert         115dB

- Source

Garstecki's claim is based of studies on this very topic, many of which he was directly involved in.

From Comparing two methods to measure preferred listening levels of personal listening devices

Preferred listening levels for self-selected music were determined in quiet and background noise using a probe microphone, as well as in the DB-100 ear simulator mounted in KEMAR. The ear-canal measurements were compensated for diffuse-field. Only one of the subjects was found to be listening at hazardous levels once their reported daily usage was accounted for using industrial workplace standards.

From The Effects of Listening Environment and Earphone Style on Preferred Listening Levels of Normal Hearing Adults Using an MP3 Player:

The majority of MP3 players are sold with the earbud style of headphones. Preferred listening levels are higher with this style of headphone compared to the over-the-ear style. Moreover, as the noise level in the environment increases, earbud users are even more susceptible to background noise and consequently increase the level of the music to overcome this. The result is an increased sound pressure level at the eardrum. However, the levels chosen by our subjects suggest that MP3 listening levels may not be as significant a concern as has been reported recently in the mainstream media.

(emphasis mine)

As Garstecki also notes in the passage quoted in your question, some people are more susceptible than others. The risk varies per individual.

A 1993 study acknowledges the wide variance in susceptibility to hearing loss. From Individual susceptibility to noise-induced hearing loss: an old topic revisited:

The wide range in susceptibility to noise-induced hearing loss has intrigued researchers and hearing conservationists alike. Some of these differences in variability have been attributed to various intrinsic factors such as eye color, gender, age, etc. However, a review of controlled research shows that the influence of these intrinsic variables is relatively small and cannot explain the wide range of hearing loss observed in demographic studies.

The studies above found that most people don't listen to music through headphones at a hazardous volume. There is little doubt that it is possible to listen to music through headphones at a hazardous volume, which could damage hearing.

1 - Not the most reliable reference, although it supports what I have found when looking up the average output of headphones.

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It's unfortunate that the second study is locked behind a paywall. I'm incredibly curious of the fact behind the last sentence of the abstract's conclusion. –  Borror0 Feb 9 '12 at 5:55
    
Could you please provide a reference for "most headphones are capable of outputting 110 to 120 decimals"? Is this only headphones or earpieces too? –  Oddthinking Feb 9 '12 at 10:20
    
@Oddthinking A reference added, although not the most reliable. There doesn't seem to be anywhere reliable stating it explicitly, although it is repeated several times on semi-reliable sites. It also seems to be supported when looking at headphone specs, e.g. Monster beats by Dr Dre go to 115 and Sennheiser IE8 headphones go to 125. There doesn't seem to be a distinction between different types. –  Sonny Ordell Feb 9 '12 at 18:15

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