How Loud Should Your Headphones Be?

Loud music makes you feel good, but your ears might not agree. Yes, listening to loud music for prolonged periods of time can and does irreversibly damage your hearing. How loud is too loud when it comes to headphones? Here are some tips on how to use headphones to listen to music or other audio without damaging your ears.

We all know about painters going blind and musicians going deaf, but we somehow don’t think any of these can happen to us. Of course, when you are a professional musician and are exposed to loud noise all the time, the risk is higher. However, the difference is that audio pros have protective equipment, while our ears are exposed directly to the sound of music in our headphones.

Loud music can impair your hearing in two ways – By high volume and by prolonged duration. Any noise over 85 to 90 decibels (dB) is bad for the ear. It gets worse if you do it for hours. Basically, the rule is the louder the volume, the shorter the duration.

For instance, some experts recommend listening for no more than 60 minutes a day at no more than 60 percent of the device’s maximum volume (the 60/60 rule). Other experts suggest the “80/90 rule” (no more than 80 percent of the volume for 90 minutes or less). In any case, if you listen at maximum volume, this should be limited to only about five minutes a day.

While you can measure decibels to determine if your headphones are too loud, you can get an answer even without any measuring devices. Here are some simple ways to do it. They are subjective and not very precise, but they are generally correct.

  1. With your headphones on, can you hear what’s going on around you? If you can’t, then your headphones are too loud. If you are in a noisy environment, it will be easier to hear external noises, so it isn’t a very precise test, but if you are in a noisy environment and still can’t hear any external noise, then you do need to turn the volume down.
  2. Turn your headphones to the level you normally set them and place them an arm’s length from you. If you barely hear them, you are fine. If you hear them loudly or if people in the room/corridor can hear them, then you are definitely not in the safe zone.
  3. Put your headphones on, have somebody sit next to you and ask him or her to tell you if they can hear your headphones. If they can barely hear them, you are okay. If they hear them loudly, then they are too loud.

These tests aren’t precise, but they give you an idea. In addition, you can use hardware or software settings to limit the volume if these are available. For instance, headphones for kids are limited by the manufacturer to be a maximum of 90 dB, but headphones for adults aren’t.

There are also Android and iOS apps to limit the volume, such as Volume Limiter (Android) or Volume Sanity (iOS), so if you discover that you are not very good at controlling your listening volume, apps can come to the rescue. You can also use these apps to make sure somebody else, e.g. your child, doesn’t abuse the power of their headphones.

If you enjoy listening to loud music but care about your ears, volume down is the way to go. I must admit I don’t always limit the volume/duration as recommended, but the research for this article made me think about it, and I will definitely bear the 60/60 rule in mind.