Are Noise-Canceling Headphones Harmful to Your Ears?

March 13, 2023
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Written by
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A

Dr. Amy Sarow is a practicing clinical audiologist and serves as Audiology Lead for Soundly. Her expertise and experience span topics including tinnitus, cochlear implants, hearing aid technology, and hearing testing. She holds a doctoral degree in audiology from the University of Iowa. During her residency at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Sarow was inspired by the three-tiered, patient-centered approach, incorporating clinical work, teaching and research.

Soundly Staff
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You've probably heard about noise-canceling technology in headphones but many people wonder if the technology actually helps or hurts your ears? 

It’s an important question given recent research from the World Health Organization that indicates as many as one billion Gen Z and Millennials are at risk of hearing loss due to excessive headphone use. 

Keep scrolling to learn the pros and cons of noise-canceling earbuds (or headphones), and how to prevent hearing damage when using them.

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Headphone Listening Can Put Your Ears at Risk

As an audiologist, many patients come in to check their headphone volume. I measure their normal listening volume on their AirPods or headphones. The result? Many patients turn their headphone volume up to unsafe levels. In some cases the volume in their ears exceeds 100 decibels (dBA). Many patients don’t notice these changes because their ears and brain adapt to listening at a particular volume, that creates a listening pattern. 

Traditional earbuds without noise cancellation are particularly troublesome since you'll turn the volume to break through the surrounding noise in a coffee shop or airplane.

As the FDA does not regulate headphone volume, it's up to us individually to monitor our listening levels. Fortunately, the music volume we listen to is something we can control. A good rule of thumb? If you're listening with regular headphones, keep the volume so you can still hear the person next to you. 

Now, you might be wondering about how noise-canceling technology changes that. So let's get into the nitty-gritty details on hearing health and noise-canceling headphones.

Are noise-canceling headphones good or bad?

The good news is that noise-canceling headphones can benefit your ears in certain situations. A few of those situations could be blocking out background noise in a busy coffee shop, blaring traffic sounds in a park or during an urban stroll. This technology helps you listen without having to crank up the volume to dangerous levels, trying to surpass the level of background noise. Noise cancellation can help reduce the volume level without sacrificing sound quality or straining to hear over the noise. However, it's essential to remember that even with noise cancellation turned on, you should still keep the volume at a reasonable level—preferably below 80dB (decibels). Limit anything above 85dB to prevent damage that could cause permanent hearing loss or tinnitus.

How does active noise cancellation actually work?

Noise cancellation works by creating an "anti-noise" wave 180 degrees out of phase with the original soundwave. This anti-noise wave cancels specific sound frequencies, nullifying this sound before reaching your ears. So, how exactly do headphones do that? Let's take the AirPods Pro as an example: The external microphones on the headphones pick up sound in the environment and then create an inverse wave to offset the noise around the wearer. And all of this happens very quickly; in fact, at about 200 times per second (so that’s pretty impressive, huh?).

How well does noise cancellation work?

Active noise cancellation is generally effective, but some frequencies or sounds are easier to counteract than others. A prime example is steady-state or low-frequency noise as it is relatively easy to cancel. On the other hand, some high frequencies or impulse noise (i.e., sudden loud sounds) are more challenging to counteract and may still get through, depending on the type of technology used in the headphones. Another factor determining how well the technology works is how well they fit your ears. Many noise-canceling headphones also utilize passive noise cancelation by occluding the ear, improving noise cancellation even more. To ensure optimal performance from any noise-canceling device, it's essential to ensure that it fits snugly over both ears and doesn't move around too much while in use.

How to Prevent Hearing Damage With Noise-Canceling Headphones

Keeping the volume reasonable—preferably below 80dB (decibels) is essential to prevent hearing damage when using noise-canceling headphones. If you're unsure how loud that is, try keeping the volume no higher than 70% of the maximum headphone volume. Plus, you can also monitor your listening volume in the Health section on an iPhone. Another good idea is to take breaks from listening during the day or limit the total listening time each day.

Are over ear headphones better or worse for hearing damage than earbuds?

The fact of the matter is that both headphones or earbuds can be a good option. If you’re looking for a more solid noise-reduction option, over-the-ear headphones—especially circumaural headphones—are just the thing. This is because these headphones are bulkier but can seal off the ear better, allowing for more significant attenuation of ambient noise. So what does that mean for a headphone wearer? To start, it will be easier to listen at a safer volume. Earbuds with noise-canceling technology are still good, but they typically don't seal off the ear canal as well as over-the-ear headphones.

Which should you pick: earbuds or headphones?

The answer varies depending on the person, personal preferences, and lifestyle. While both offer noise-cancellation technology, over-the-ear headphones tend to allow you to keep the volume lower while enjoying your music. 

Earbuds are often more inexpensive and portable compared with over-the-ear. With this in mind, remember to think about your listening level regardless of your choice.

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Conclusion

Noise-canceling headphones are a great way to enjoy music without listening at high volumes—but only if used correctly and appropriately. By following safe listening practices such as setting a reasonable volume level below 80dB and taking regular breaks from headphone use every 30 minutes or so, you can protect yourself from potential hearing damage caused by long-term exposure levels above 85 dB. In conclusion, over-ear headphones provide better insulation between speakers and eardrums than earbuds, but both devices should still be used with caution. To stay safe while enjoying music through headphones, remember less is more (for your ears).

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