Casual Fridays: Ear-shattering results on iPod safety

This week's Casual Friday study was about the hearing loss problem associated with headphone use, and whether readers would adopt a technological solution to the problem. Eighty-one percent of our 133 respondents said that they own a portable music device (though the relatively low response rate suggests that perhaps some people who don't own such devices chose not to respond to the study) (from here on out, I'm going to refer to these devices as iPods, even though not everyone who has a portable music device has an iPod -- remember, it's casual!). Forty-nine percent of our respondents said they listen to their iPods at least four hours a week. And they have plenty of music on their iPods -- take a look at this graph of how many songs respondents have:


The majority of respondents who have iPods have more than 500 songs, and most commonly, users have between 2001 and 4000 songs. That's a lot of music, and a lot of listening. But as we mentioned last week, legendary Who guitarist Pete Townshend attributes his hearing problems to headphone use. With all that listening, how worried are these people about their hearing?

Of those who have iPods, only 23 percent said that they'd download Apple's sound restrictor, which would enable them to set a maximum volume for their device. Do our respondents just not care about safety, or do they feel the safety device is not necessary? Well, we also asked how many users wear bike helmets. Of iPod owners, 67 percent wear bike helmets, so clearly many listeners are concerned about safety. So the obvious next question is, is there any association between helmet use and plans to use Apple's sound restrictor? Here are the results:


Amazingly, people who wear bike helmets are significantly less likely to download sound restrictor software than people who don't wear bike helmets. How could that be? One explanation might be that light iPod users are less likely to want to use sound restrictor, feeling that it's not required for their moderate usage levels. This graph seems to support that notion:


While the results aren't significant, the trend is there: Heavy iPod users (those using iPods more than 9 hours a week) trend towards being less likely to wear helmets and more likely to want to use sound restrictors compared to light users. Another explanation might be the "cool factor." Helmets are often seen as uncool, while iPods are very cool, and the sound restrictor wouldn't be apparent to outside observers the way a helmet would.

Overall, a fascinating result this week. Any other ideas on how to explain it?

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I think you should look at duration. I listen almost exclusively to my mp3-player when commuting to or from my university campus - about half an hour, two times a day. I do crank the volume up quite a bit on the subway because I have lousy earphones but since it is for such a short period I'm not particularly worried about my hearing - even at maximum volume you'd probably have to listen for hours to damage your ears.

I think my listening style is rather typical for light users, whereas heavy users tend to listen for longer periods and thus are more likely to be concerned about hearing loss.

Then again, maybe I'm more reckless than most. I regularly attend rock concerts (where the volume obviously is far louder than what my iPod can manage) without earplugs. I don't wear a bike helmet either.

I bicycle while listening to my ipod and wearing a helmet nearly every day. I figure if I'm going to get hit because I can't hear traffic, I should at least be safe about getting in a wreck.

I listen to an iPod at top volume while riding a motorcycle with no helmet! In traffic! While doing a reverse wheelie!! No hands!! Shooting two guns at the same time!!!

AND! I'm a scientologist!!!!

By Tom Cruise (not verified) on 07 Apr 2006 #permalink

I don't have to worry about it, 'cause I don't have an ipod. I have a Creative Muvo, which apparently make me immune!

I have no clue why this issue is getting so much media attention - it seems so silly. Why do I need a computer program to enforce a reasonable volume on my headset? Do I need my car to inform me I shouldn't go 120 mph? Or my refrigerator to prevent me from getting/eating any more food today? (actually, that's a good idea. . . ).

That I wouldn't use the software doesn't mean I'm not interested in cochlear health - I just don't turn my iPod volume up all the way. Wearing my bike helmet (which I do) is a completely different matter, because it's designed to protect me from sudden events beyond my control.

I haven't loaded this limiter and I wear a bike helmet, and I am very aware of hearing problems as my father could hardly hear as got older. I have always kept the volume down on my iPod, so what does this do for me? I think you would have to control for the standard volume people listen to now - if it is low then the software actually has no benefit whatsoever, so why should the people worry about it?

To answer jepalmer, at first I had the same sentiment -- why do you need a device to tell you not to turn your volume up so loud? However, when you're somewhere that is generating a lot of white noise, such as an airplane (also a likely place for you to be using your ipod), you might turn it up pretty much all of the way and not realize you're doing so, because you can still only barely hear the music. Then again, people should be able to look at the volume dial and see that it's really high, but I can see how some people would benefit from the device instead.

The limiter is only for the newest iPod models, isn't it? I don't think most of these people can even use it. I would if I could; I never use the top 45% or so of the volume range and I'm always a little leery of dialing it up there by accident.

You don't have to call mp3 players "iPods". You can just call them mp3 players ;-)

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 08 Apr 2006 #permalink

I often wear my iPod in my shirt pocket, and operate the volume control through the shirt fabric, which has the disadvantage of looking like some bizarre nipple-stimulation thing but works like a charm. But I'm not looking at the iPod screen when I do that, and in a noisy environment I could easily dial the thing up to ear-damaging levels without even realizing it.

I've gotten used to being very careful. I have some very nice earbuds that can produce in excess of 120 dB. The lowest setting on the earbuds is normal volume output (same as what's coming out of the device), and as you slide up the volume it amplifies what's coming to it. If you turn both all the way up, you can listen to your music like it's a jet plane engine. Not that I recommend or ever do this. But it's nice to have the option.

Or, if you'd rather not be as verbose as to say "mp3 players," you might try "DAP" for "Digital Audio Player."