Earbuds vs. over-the-ear headphones: Which is better?

English: Apple earphones Bahasa Indonesia: ear...

My friend wanted to know if earbuds were more or less harmful than over-the-ear (supraaural) headphones in terms of their potential to damage hearing. This is a great question and of interest to many people I would think, given the popularity of personal listening devices. So I decided that it would make an interesting blog post.

My initial thought was that both are likely to be similar and the distinguishing factor would be the level at which the device would be used. In other words, if someone gave you an iPod and gave you both an earbud and an over-the-ear headphone, the level at which you would set your iPod with either of them would be similar. It would be based on your listening preference (termed the ‘preferred listening level’ or PLL). However, if there were background noise, then you would turn your iPod up, and this could lead to dangerous listening levels, if you kept it ‘turned up’ for too long. With that in mind, the better earphone would be the one that did a better job of blocking out background noise (so you would not have to turn up the iPod). Then I realized that I did not really know a whole lot about this issue. Was one type of earphone better at blocking out noise than the other? Before I answered my friend, I decided to do some digging.

There has been a lot of recent research on this topic. For the purposes of keeping this simple, I will focus on three studies. The first examines attitudes and habits of college-age students in the US regarding their use of personal listening devices (MP3 players). At Auburn University, Hoover and Krishnamurthy (2010) conducted an online survey of 428 college students (spread over the US) on their music-listening habits. Only students who frequently used their MP3 players participated in the survey.

English: Bose Around-Ear 2 (AE2) Headphones

The authors found that 76% of the participants they polled used their devices for less than 2 hours per day. However, 32% reported that they frequently set higher volumes in the presence of background noise, especially with earbuds. Counting the students who said that they sometimes or always turned up volume in response to background noise, this number went up even higher – to 93%. Only 43% reported ‘always’ paying attention to their surroundings when wearing an earphone. Even more alarming, only 40% reported that they could always detect safety signals when wearing their personal listening devices.

This article clearly highlights safety issues that can arise from listening to personal listening devices at high volumes. I found this article very informative, because it gives some insight regarding prevailing attitudes regarding hearing and hearing loss among college-age students. Only 12% of the respondents were moderately concerned about getting a hearing loss from listening to their personal listening devices. This finding clearly suggests the need for increasing awareness of the risk of noise-induced hearing loss among this population. One of the caveats to this study was that the selection process was never clearly defined (who is a frequent user?), so the data may only pertain to a certain cross-section of the college-age population. Also, as most of the students in this study preferred using earbuds, the study does not provide much comparative data on the types of earphones.

The second article by Fligor and Meinke (2009) does a great job of debunking common myths regarding the use of PLDs. It confirmed many of my initial thoughts, while debunking others that I hold. I would recommend reading this article in its entirety here.

The authors contend that insert earphones (earbuds, in this case), aren’t necessarily more harmful than other earphones, and that the critical factor is the level at which the device is set. The article also points out that although the maximum output can be limited in some devices, this does not necessarily make them safe. This is because it is not just the level that matters, but the duration of exposure as well (see Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommendations on permissible noise exposure here).

The authors note that some in-the-ear (earbud) earphones are better at blocking out background noise than over-the-ear earphones, and may therefore be used at lower volume settings that the latter. However, although the article does a great job of succinctly addressing several myths related to this topic, it falls short of conclusively backing either earbuds or over-the-ear headphones.

Hodgetts et al. (2007) assessed the effects of listening backgrounds (quiet, street-noise, multi-talker babble) and earphone styles (earbuds, over-the-ear, and over-the-ear headphones with noise reduction) on normal-hearing adults using MP3 players. Thirty-eight normal hearing students from the University of Alberta participated in this study. Subjects listened to a single popular pop song and were asked to set their personal listening device to where it ‘sounded best’. Real-ear measurements (measures of sound level made using a probe microphone) in the ear canal were made after the subject chose this level and the preferred listening level also was noted.

The results from this study showed that preferred listening levels (PLLs) were highest for earbuds. The PLL for the over-the-ear style headphones was next, followed by the over-the-ear headphones with noise cancellation. In terms of PLLs, the two over-the-ear headphones (with and without noise cancellation) did not differ by much. The authors attributed the lower PLLs for the over-the-ear headphones to their better ability to blocking noise. Not surprisingly, both the street-noise and the multi-talker babble conditions led to higher PLLs than the quiet background. Several interactions between earphone style and type of background were also noted, but the effect sizes for these were small.

Based on this study, it would appear that over-the-ear headphones are safer than earbuds in terms of a better ability to block out noise and also because they are associated with lower PLLs. However, there are a few caveats to this study as well, as the authors themselves acknowledge, First, given that the study used only one song/style, it is difficult to generalize results to other styles of music. Second, the participants were not a representative cross-section of the population in that only a small percentage of them regularly used MP3 players.

So, what is my advice to my friend? I think my initial thoughts on this topic remain, even after reading several articles on this topic. With respect to earbuds vs. over-the-ear headphones, as far as I can tell, it has not been shown conclusively that one is better than the other.  When listening with no background noise, as long as he is aware of the level at which he is listening to music and gives his ears some time-out periodically, he should be fine. He should be more careful when he is listening in background noise. If the level of the noise is such that he has to turn up the music a lot and he knows he will be listening in this environment for some time, he is at risk for damaging his hearing. He should probably consider moving to a quieter place. Personally, I do not use headphones when traveling on an airplane or exercising in the gym for this reason. My philosophy is that, like anything else, listening to music on a personal listening device should be practiced in moderation.

Hope you found this post useful. I’d be happy to hear any comments and/or feedback you may have. I also welcome your suggestions for topics for future posts.

REFERENCES:

  1. Fligor, B. and Meinke, D. (2009). Safe-Listening Myths for Personal Music Players, ASHA Leader. Retrieved March 17, 2012 from http://www.asha.org/Publications/leader/2009/090526/090526e.htm
  2. Hodgetts, W. E., Rieger, J. M., Szarko, R. A. (2007). The Effects of Listening Environment and Earphone Style on Preferred Listening Levels of Normal Hearing Adults Using an MP3 Player. Ear and Hearing, 28, 3, 290-297.
  3. Hoover, A. and Krishnamurti, S. (2010). Survey of college students’ MP3 listening: Habits, safety issues, attitudes, and education. American Journal of Audiology, 19, 1, 73-83.
 Copyright © 2012 Vidya Krull. All Rights Reserved.

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About Vidya Krull
I am a scientist and an audiologist, curious about all things related to hearing. I am also a self-taught artist.

6 Responses to Earbuds vs. over-the-ear headphones: Which is better?

  1. I would guess that there are too many differences in individual ear morphology and headphone design to say which type has most potential for harm in general terms. The best headphones for blocking out ambient noise IMHO are full-shell soft silicone custom earbuds taken from ear impressions – not cheap though (unless you happen to be an audiologist ;) )

    A couple of years ago a few companies tried introducing bone conduction headphones to the consumer market. One of the marketing claims made about them was that they were less likely to cause noise induced hearing loss. Another claim was that keeping the AC pathway open to ambient noise would prevent accidents – presumably due to the wearer being less distracted or better able to hear oncoming traffic etc.

    I tried some out once, thinking they might be useful for patients with conductive losses to listen to music or use with mobile phones, but they were not very good – the frequency response was very poor and the output was mostly acoustic in the higher frequencies and vibrotactile in the lower frequencies.

    • Vidya Krull says:

      Perceptualaudio – You make some good points. I haven’t myself tried the custom earbuds (wish I was practising ;)), but I have a friend who uses them when listening to music and loves it. They are totally worth it, but then you may not always want to block out noise if safety is a concern. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Noise-induced hearing loss: The case of the 4 kHz notch « withyourcuppa

  3. Peter Stelmacovich says:

    I have counselled my 17 year old son NOT to wear his iPod while walking in traffic. Not only will he end up listening to the music too loud because of the need to overcome the background noise, he also may not pay attention to the traffic. Great post!

  4. Zneefrock says:

    Thank you so much for this article! We are doing a project in class about this and we had to find an article. This was the best thing I could find. When I saw that it was a blog post I wasn’t sure that my professor would accept, but after I read it and found out who you were I was sure it would be fine. Thank you so much! Great post!

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