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Switched On: Listen Up, 'Buds

Ryan Block, @ryan

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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

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"If it's too loud, you're too old," has been a traditional rallying cry of the rock 'n' roll generation. Ironically, though, a more accurate slogan would be, "If you're too old, it may not be loud enough." Hearing loss has long been associated with advancing age and, sadly, people may be accelerating the process by playing music at volumes loud enough to damage their ears.

This longstanding problem has received fresh scrutiny in the age of digital audio players that, unlike their cassette and CD-based forebears, can operate uninterrupted for hours at a time at very loud volumes. Moreover, these products are often used with "in-ear"-style earbuds, which have been popularized with the iPod the way that lightweight foam headphones were popularized with the original Walkman.

Some of these earphones require that the audio player be turned to its nearly maximum volume in order to listen at moderate volumes. Others, especially those capable of sound isolation (which blocks out background noise), better reflect the volume range of these devices. Adjusting the volume to moderate levels produces moderate volume.

With this in mind, I challenged a high-end manufacturer of sound-isolating earphones with the following — if earphones that let in more background noise have to be played at near-maximum volume in order to be heard well, aren't they "safer"? After all, even if the volume is turned to its maximum level, the music shouldn't be too loud. In contrast, with sound-isolating earphones, one could play music at much louder volumes and endanger oneself.

The company responded that, since sound-isolating earphones do a much better job of revealing detail in the music at lower volumes and since they do such a good job of blocking out background noises that would ordinarily have to be overcome with higher volume, there is less incentive to use them with exceptionally loud volumes.

That sounds reasonable except that people who play their music at ear-bleeding volumes often don?t care about details. They are, in fact, sometimes the same masochists who are likely to push headphones or speakers past the point of distortion. The high-end manufacturers may be catering to a crowd that cares about quality and listens responsibly, but their products have potential for abuse in the wrong ears.

If you?re got an itchy jog-dial finger when you want to rock out to a favorite song our drown out a crying baby in the next aisle in coach, you should probably do yourself a favor and opt for earbuds that have less potential for abuse. If you?re responsible enough to appreciate details in music without punishing your senses, then a pair of quality sound-isolating earbuds may be the way to go. The most important protection against listening at excessive volumes is, regardless of what?s in your ears, using what?s between them.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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