Cognitive Daily

Casual Fridays: iPod edition

With legendary guitarist Pete Townshend’s recent public statement that studio headphones have caused deafness, there’s growing concern that iPods and other portable music devices might be destroying the ears of the children of the digital era.

We thought this might be a good time to find out how significant an issue this is to our readers, and how they’re dealing with the problem. Would you make use of a technological solution?

Click here to participate.

As usual, you’ll have until 11:59 Eastern Daylight Time on Wednesday, April 5 to respond — or until we have 250 responses, whichever comes first.

If you have any other thoughts about the issue of how headphones affect hearing, feel free to share them in the comments thread below.


  1. #1 Joe Shelby
    March 31, 2006

    the concern over headphones & kids has been around since the walkman. i remember these exact same questions and concerns back in high school in the 80s.

    rock guitarists playing in studio environments play their stuff at far higher levels than walkman-era portable devices could ever put out. kids with double-woofer bass amps in the backs of their cars pounding out rap music is more the volume level that Townshend was dealing with (although likely with less bass).

    in fact, if i recall correctly, the FTC had already mandated max output limits in decibals for portable devices specifically to address this issue back in the 80s and its all so commonplace in engineering standards that nobody’s thought about it. it only *seems* like its a new problem, but its always been there.

    when they figure out how to put music directly into our heads bypassing our ears, the same types of questions are going to come up because they always do.

  2. #2 Joe Shelby
    March 31, 2006

    actually, i would suspect that if you looked at the percentages of kids under 18 with cassette walkmans back in 1985, with portable cd players in 1995, and with ipods or other mp3 devices in 2005, you’ll find the exact same rate of purchasing and listening across the board.

    and whatever gets invented (because *somebody* will have to take down the ipod) in 2010 will have the exact same rate of market penetration by 2015. likely it’ll be a WAN device that will allow you to listen to whatever’s on your home computer system no matter where in the country you are, as long as you are near an 802.11(x) neighborhood, so all your music will be permanently in one place.

    certainly such a device would sell for the safety factor (if it gets stolen or lsot, simply restrict it from being usable at the source) and the studios would love it ’cause it means they can keep a more tight count of the number of people who have paid for a song.

    now, that has me running out of ideas for what might be the thing to come out in 2020 (to have the same market penetration by 2025).

  3. #3 Harlan
    March 31, 2006

    I live in NYC, and listen to my MP3 player (not an iPod) on the subway a lot. When I used the original earbuds that came with it, I had to crank the volume up very very loud to hear over the noise. I got a pair of noise-reducing earbuds recently, the kind that are basically a pair of good quality headphones combined with a pair of earplugs, and I find that I can listen to music (or podcasts) at a much reduced volume. Instead of cranking the music up to 35 or 40 (out of 40), I can often listen at 20. My ears are much happier. Of course, the noise-reducing earbuds did cost me $75…

  4. #4 Joe Shelby
    March 31, 2006

    I have the BOSE 2 set, which I quite like. However, I suspect that some study will eventually come out saying that that the low frequency ultrasounds that do the noise cancelling effect are harmful.

    Human ears adapted to nature’s sounds particularly our own voices at normal range. Anything artificial is, in my opinion, harmful by fiat.

    Better we consciously acknwledge the risks up front rather than sue for damages later…

  5. #5 SkookumPlanet
    March 31, 2006

    Hey! I don’t count? The survey doesn’t apply to me.

    Actually, I take pride in being in being “counter-mainstream”. But I work from home, have a component system, and due to poor sound insulation between neighbors in this 100-year-old victorian, listen only on headphones.

    I don’t have any songs on my computer — I’ve got 500 to 600 CDs. Come to think of it, I don’t have any music in MP3 form. Isn’t that a compression technology? My “portable music device” is my car. Well, I have a portable CD player, but only use it when travelling.

    Also, the comments above on built-in volume restriction technology probably dosn’t apply to setups like mine. I plug an expensive pair of over-the ear, bass-vented [open] headphones directly into a stand-alone amplifier. I can crank the suckers way up. [But don’t.]

    My “counter-mainstream” taste in music? For 20 years almost exclusively Brazilian music: MPB and it’s descendent Axe [ah SHAY] or samba-reggae [afro-Brazilan]. It’s a wonder, guys, the best music in the world! Sounds like nothing else on the planet yet made from everything else on the planet. It’s got everything I like about music in one package.

    Don’t take my word for it, get some audio caffiene! Buy a Daniela Mercury CD — she’s God’s gift to ears.

  6. #6 Jen
    April 1, 2006

    I still remember in sixth grade my science teacher telling us this rule of thumb for not damaging your hearing while listening to headphones:

    If the person next to you can hear it, it’s too loud.

    I took everything he said as gospel back then, but now I find it hard to believe that one’s hearing could be damaged so easily. The “rule of thumb” also depends on the type of headphones being used. It’s virtually impossible to play any music using an open headset and not have the person next to you hear all of it.

    And maybe this is just regular stupid adolescent thinking, but I kind of think it’s worth it if you slightly damage your hearing later on in life by really fully enjoying music now. Maybe my prefrontal cortex just isn’t fully developed. 🙂

  7. #7 alphabitch
    April 3, 2006

    I second Harlan’s endorsement of the earplug-type in-ear monitor phones. Much better sound at a much lower volume, then the earbuds that come with the iPod, and the person next to you can’t hear a thing. Yeah, a really great pair will run you upwards of $100 bucks, but I have a $39 pair of Sonys that are just perfect for riding the bus or airline travel — plus it reduces the engine & ambient noise even when there’s no music playing, but not to the extent that you can’t hear anything around you (like some of the noise-cancelling circuits do).

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