MP3 players: How loud is allowed?

Moran Weinberger
23 January 2012

These days, it seems like earphone cords are dangling around everyone's neck. Since portable MP3 players became an integral part of our life, we can listen to music all day long, which is great! But you have probably noticed that after wearing your MP3 player for a considerable amount of time, the noises around you sound muffled or you have ringing inside your ears, as if they were screaming... In a way, they were.

Did you know?As of September 2007, Apple has sold more than 150 million iPods worldwide. This does not include purchases of other brands of MP3 players.

The standard earphones that are purchased with MP3s can comfortably fit most ears, but they don't block outside noise. So if you're listening to a really good song while walking on a busy street, your tendency is to turn up the volume in order to hear the music better. Some people turn their volume so high that other people around them can hear the music as well.

Listening to loud music can cause damage to the delicate hair cells inside the inner ear. These hair cells convert sound waves into electrical currents that our auditory nerves carry to the brain. Thus, when you continuously listen to loud music, the tips of some of your hair cells break off. As a result, they mistakenly keep sending sound information to the auditory nerves, and you hear those false currents called tinnitus (ringing in the ears). These hair cell tips, however, can grow back in about 24 hours so that the ringing is often temporary.

Did you know? More people are experiencing noise-related hearing loss at younger ages than before.

One reason that hearing loss has become such an issue lately is because some MP3 players have the volume capacity to reach over 100 decibels. Studies have shown that exposure to sound levels that are higher than 85 decibels (resembling a shout) for eight hours or more, can cause irreversible damage to the hair cells in the inner ear, which eventually leads to permanent hearing loss.

Did you know? Decibel (dB) is a logarithmic unit used to quantify sound levels relative to a reference level of zero. The reference level is typically the threshold of sound perception of an average human.

"Music has become one of the most common causes of hearing loss among young people today," says professor Joseph Attias, an expert for audiology and neurophysiology at the University of Haifa. " Approximately 12.5 percent of teens under 18 years old suffer from permanent hearing loss, which has been proven to be a direct result of leisure noise." Prof. Attias strongly recommends that you listen to your MP3 players wisely, for short durations and at reasonable sound levels that do not exceed 60 percent of the maximum volume.

Did you know? According to the Canadian Hearing Society, at 105 decibels, hearing damage begins to occur after only four or five minutes.

The only way to prevent hearing loss is to reduce your exposure to loud noise. This includes limiting the use of your MP3 players! Another way to minimize the damage is by using better earphones. Earphones that go over the ears can block more noise and therefore volume levels can be kept lower while maintaining sound quality. In addition, noise-canceling earphones are now available from various companies. They cancel out environmental noise so you can keep enjoying your playlist without damaging your ears.

Learn more!

The Canadian Hearing Loss Society

The Hearing Loss Clinic

Hearing and Hair Cells


Moran Weinberger

I did my PhD in physiology at the University of Toronto and now I am a medical student at Tel Aviv University in Israel. When I am not studying, I like to read, do yoga and meet up with friends.

Comments are closed.