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How to pick the best headphones and protect your hearing


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Walk through the headphone aisle of your local Best Buy and the options are seemingly endless, from tiny in-ear buds that can fit in your pocket to over-the-ear models that can make you look like a DJ.

Personal preferences and price might drive your choice, but you may also want to consider whether one style or another may be more hearing-protective — a key consideration because many of us spend so much time wearing headphones. (According to market research firm GfK, headphone sales climbed by 36 percent between 2013 and 2017.)

Exposing your ears to loud noise over time can kill off the tiny hair cells in your ear that transmit sound signals to your brain. When enough of these cells die, you end up with a hearing problem.

It’s true that today’s smartphones, MP3 players and other portable listening devices can’t be cranked up as loud as those of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s (think Sony Walkmans), notes Brian Fligor, an audiologist and chief development officer of Lantos Technologies, a Massachusetts firm that custom-fits ear buds and earplugs. But, he says, “they’re worse because way more people use the devices, and for longer periods of time.”

In addition, experts say, more of us are using personal listening devices and headphones in noisier environments — on trains and in airplanes, for instance — where we may turn up the volume to potentially dangerous levels.

Hearing-health experts are concerned. In March, the World Health Organization estimated that by 2050 some 900 million people around the world will have a disabling hearing loss — 93 percent more than those who do today — in part because of damaging levels of sound from personal audio devices.

And earlier this year, researchers from Denmark found that about 14 percent of the more than 3,000 9-to-11-year-olds they examined had signs of hearing loss and said use of personal music players may be linked to hearing problems in children there.

“Overexposure to loud sound is the number one cause of hearing loss,” Fligor says. “And the number one most-common loud sound is music, through personal stereo systems.”

In addition to limiting your headphone time and simply dialing down the volume, experts say, the type of headphone you choose can make a difference. Here’s what you should know about the best headphones for your hearing and how to use them safely.

Safest? Noise-canceling ones.

If you’re listening to music in a quiet setting, the style of your headphone may not matter so much, says Kevin H. Franck, director of audiology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear at Harvard Medical School. But if you’re in a loud spot, noise-canceling headphones — which reduce the amount of outside noise that seeps into your ears — may be best at preserving your hearing. (These come in over-the-ear and ear-bud styles, and both are equally protective.)

“Noise-canceling headphones can minimize problems because you don’t have to play the headphones as loud to drown out noises,” says Maria Rerecich, director of electronics testing at Consumer Reports. “You can hear the music at a moderate level without having to blast it.”

Active noise-canceling headphones use battery-powered technology that creates sound waves that essentially cancel out the outside noise. A number of headphones also passively block some sound the way an earplug would.

Currently, no studies suggest that one type of noise-canceling action is more protective than the other, Fligor and Franck say.

Avoid common mistakes

Whichever kind of headphones you use, it’s important to take steps to reduce your chances of headphone-related hearing damage. Try these.

Always use noise-canceling headphones in noisy environments. "If it's loud enough that you have to raise your voice in order for someone to understand you, that means it is inducing you to turn your music loud enough that it'll be overworking your ears," Fligor says.

Be mindful of how long — and how loudly — you're listening. When using any headphones, Fligor recommends following the 80-90 rule: If you listen at 80 percent of the maximum volume, do so for no more than 90 minutes per day.

It can be hard to keep on top of the long-loud rule. But some newer models, such as BeyerDynamic Aventho and Bose Bosebuild headphones, have built-in features that track how long and how loudly you’ve been listening, and they adjust volume accordingly to safer levels when necessary, Franck says. And Fligor is working with WHO to draft guidance to help manufacturers incorporate features that warn consumers when they have hit their limit.

Use both earphones. "Our two ears work together to give us this greater sense of loudness," Fligor says. "When you have [a headphone] only on one side, it doesn't feel as loud, so you turn it up."

Watch your environment. Finally, skip earphones when you're engaging in an activity where you need to hear the sounds around you, such as driving a vehicle or bicycling. "It's not so much damaging to your hearing as it is hazardous to your health," Fligor says. "When you keep yourself from being able to hear important warning signals around you, it could kill you."

If you use earphones while running, Consumer Reports experts suggest using headphones that let outside noise in.

 Copyright 2018, Consumer Reports Inc.

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