Ear Buds vs. Over-The-Ear Headphones


Which is safer? Ear buds or over-the-ear headphones? It’s a debate that has raged on since the Apple iPod took the world by storm in the early 2000s. Although in-ear headphones had been around for over one hundred years before then, they weren’t a hit with consumers until Apple released its iconic white iPod ear buds.

Almost two decades later, and we still don’t have clear statistical data on which style of headphone is safer. However, what everyone in the field of audiology can agree upon is that there are hearing loss risks that come with wearing both ear buds and over-the-ear headphones.

With Sony Walkman came increased headphone use

In the summer of 1979, consumers were quick to pounce on the Sony Walkman. Designed with an extra jack, the device was built for sharing. Two sets of headphones could be connected to one device, allowing people to crank up the volume and rock out to their favorite songs together. What they didn’t realize, at the time, was they were assaulting their ears with high-decibel sound waves.

Fast forward nearly 40 years later, and all age groups are using basic to highly sophisticated over-the-ear headphones. And, yes, they’re still cranking up the volume. However, with the advent of smartphones, tablets, and handheld video game consoles, headphones are used now more than ever. Prolonged use at high volumes can result in harm to the fine hairs of the inner ears and cause them to eventually stop fully functioning. The ears may never recover from this constant trauma from loud noise, leading to permanent hearing loss.  

Designed to be less bulky and more fashionable, earbuds fit snugly within the ear, placing the speakers closer the inner ears’ sensitive hairs. They don’t cover the ear like over-the-ear headphones, so they don’t muffle ambient sounds. As a result, in an effort to block out street noise, nearby conversations, and other background noise, users will increase the volume to dangerous levels to drown out distractions.

Once it is gone, it is gone

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2010 determined that 1 in 5 U. S. teenagers were diagnosed with some hearing loss, which could have been caused by repeated exposure to loud noise. That was a jump of nearly 30 percent from the results of similar studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s.

Certainly, some of today’s irreversible hearing damage is caused by unavoidable noise from traffic on busy streets or heavy machinery in the workplace. That’s undeniable. But it’s also being caused by people jamming out to music or watching their favorite movies and TV shows with headphones on at high volumes.

Giving sound advice now can help prevent future hearing loss

If you find evidence of hearing loss caused by overexposure to loud noise from headphones in one of your patients, try to educate them on the importance of listening at safe sound levels. Recommend that they follow the 60/60 rule: Listen at 60 percent volume for 60 minutes a day. If they don’t respond well to that suggestion, ask them to, at the very least, turn the volume down.

So, is there a bottom line? 

Yes. The bottom line is that neither option is safer. When it comes down to it, it’s all about user preference. I, for one, prefer over-the-ear headphones because of their ability to block ambient noise and produce a crisper, more isolated sound.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that you must get your point across about less being more. Less volume and less exposure now means a higher likelihood of better hearing later in life. That’s a fact.