If you care about music, you need to care about your hearing. Learn how passive noise isolation in loud environments can save you from hearing loss.
A lot of us live in a loud world. Whether you’re subjected to noisy downtown traffic daily or are exposed to the sounds of heavy machinery, too much noise can do serious damage to your hearing over time. And if you care about music, you need to care about your hearing.
Thankfully, there’s plenty you can do to protect your hearing. You can wear earplugs to concerts, safety ear muffs at job sites and you can listen to music on earbuds and earphones that have passive noise isolation.
What’s Passive Noise Isolation?
Passive noise isolation is a barrier between your ear and the outside world that prevents ambient noise from entering your ears. If you’ve ever worn foam earplugs at a concert, safety ear muffs around loud equipment or have even just put your hands over your ears when a loud truck drives by, you’ve experienced passive noise isolation.
It’s important to note that passive noise isolation is different from active noise cancellation. Click here to read about the differences between passive noise isolation and active noise cancellation.
The Benefits of Passive Noise Isolation
The main benefit of passive noise isolation is that it keeps environmental noise out of your ears. The amount of noise blocked out is called the noise reduction rating (NRR) and measured in decibels (dB). The amount of noise reduction varies based on the quality of the product and, most importantly, the quality of the seal.
For example, putting your hands over your ears will block out some sound, but not much. Meanwhile, some earplugs and safety ear muffs have an NRR of 33 dB (about the sound of an office). The NRR for earbuds, earphones and IEMs can be almost as high as the highest-rated foam earplugs. A high-quality seal, like that of our IEMs, can offer an incredible 26 dB of noise reduction.
How Earbuds Can Help Your Hearing
Passive noise isolation isn’t just for blocking outside noise. Earbuds, earphones and IEMs that block outside noise offer an immersive audio experience without having to crank up the music.
Listening to your music too loudly can cause permanent damage to your hearing. A study released in 2010 found that hearing loss in teenagers rose from 15% in 1988-1994 to 19.5% in 2005-2006. While that study didn’t determine causes for the increase in hearing loss, it coincides with the prevalence of personal listening devices from the Sony Walkman to the iPod.
How loud do personal audio devices get? It varies a lot, but the iPhone and iPod can have a maximum volume of up to 115 dB. At 60% of full volume on those devices, you’re listening to your music at 80 dB. To put that into perspective, a power saw or rock concert can hit a noise level of 113 dB while 80 dB is the volume of a telephone’s dial tone (remember those?).
When it comes to hearing loss, there are two factors to consider—the decibel level and the length of time you’re exposed to that volume level. At 112 dB, you can experience hearing loss from as little as one minute of exposure. Meanwhile, you can listen to 80 dB of music for 25 hours straight without experiencing any damage. In other words, decreasing your volume means you can safely listen to music for longer periods of time.
So, why do people crank their headphone volume in the first place? There are two reasons, and they're both related to the fact that most consumer earbuds don’t offer great passive noise isolation. Without a good seal, your music has to compete with outside noises like coffee shops, crowded busses or your roommate on a phone call. For most people, the first solution is to turn up the volume to drown out the noise.
There’s also the issue with sound—especially bass frequencies—escaping rather than entering your ear. As a result, many music lovers increase the volume of their music so they can still get a good bass sound. If you have good passive noise isolation, not only will outside noise not enter your ear, the music from your earbuds won’t escape. In other words, you don’t have to turn up to compensate for any lost frequencies.