We all have a friend, family member, or lover who lives with their AirPods always slotted into their ears.
Whether they’re tuning into a podcast or blasting music, they’ll likely have them on hand (or ear) at all times, and when bored, flick on some form of audio to accompany their day.
But now experts warn the earbuds are very likely causing long-term damage if you are tuning in more than a few hours each day, but they have good news for their bulky noise-cancelling cousins.
Professor David McAlpine is an auditory neuroscientist and the Director of Hearing Research at Macquarie University, and has told Yahoo Lifestyle over-ear noise-cancelling headphones keep people’s ears safe, while AirPods are a much riskier option.
With Hearing Awareness Week in full swing, Professor McAlpine is urging everyone to get informed about how to keep your hearing healthy.
The heavier, but healthier option
“Noise-cancelling headphones are absolutely the way to go,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Why? The answer is frustratingly obvious.
Noise-cancelling headphones block outside noises, meaning the volume at which we listen to them is far lower than their in-ear counterparts.
“People keep the sounds level lower if they’re wearing noise-cancelling headphones [as] it gets rid of the background noise they don’t want to hear,” he tells us.
“Therefore, they don’t have to crank up the volume in order to hear whatever they’re listening to.”
In-ear devices fighting to be heard
Most in-ear earphones, on the other hand, compete with the noise around us (although Sony recently released a pair that incorporate noise-cancelling technology).
If you regularly pass by a building site, are drowned out by planes overhead, or walk or drive amidst the din of peak-hour traffic, you will probably crank your volume to full to drown out the noise.
The problem is, though it seems softer, blasting a high intensity of noise directly into your eardrum regularly is proven to impact your long-term hearing.
Professor McAlpine says a recent survey he conducted showed people listening to noise-cancelling headphones on a busy street listened at a lower intensity, while those with AirPods or in-ear models tuned in at a far higher rate in a bid to compete with the din of their surroundings.
“We know that people are listening at louder intensities,” he says.
“People with noise-cancelling headphones were listening at 80 decibels while people with AirPods were listening at 95 or 100.”
He adds: “You can guarantee that you’ll be doing damage.”
An in-built disadvantage to in-ear
Apple have announced noise-cancelling AirPods will hit the market, a move that could reduce hearing damage in listeners, however it doesn’t take into account a fatal flaw to the in-ear design; proximity.
Wedged in, AirPods sit far closer to the middle and inner ear that over-ear options, creating what can best be described as a sound tunnel.
Professor McAlpine says the physical proximity of the AirPods isn’t something that noise cancelling can overcome.
“You’re creating a very loud intensity and a very enclosed volume,” he says, adding sending noise down what is essentially an air-tight tunnel, with nowhere for it to escape, ‘is one of the dangers of those closed systems.’
Minimise harm, maximise enjoyment
So, should you throw the AirPods in the bin and swear off any device that sits too close to your inner ear?
Well, no. Professor McAlpine is calling for a new approach to audio, noise and listening culture, hoping to work with brands to encourage incorporating healthy listening habits into our everyday.
“It’s about putting [awareness] into your lifestyle,” he says.
He suggests limiting your listening time each day and monitoring the levels you listen at.
He also points out that though hearing is low on people’s health priority list, hearing loss can present a serious problem, and it’s impact can’t be underestimated.
“[Hearing loss] has a huge impact on your engagement with the environment around you,” he says. “You feel disconnected.”
And what, in our ultra-connected modern age, could be scarier than that?
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