Our big-kid panel gets down to business. Photo: Lauren Dragan
This may come as a shock to you, but kids have very strong opinions. So the first part of our testing was to call some kid panelists together and get their input.
We ran two panels: one consisting of 2- and 3-year-olds (little kids), and another of 4- to 11-year-olds (big kids). For the little kids, I (Lauren) had them try on each set of headphones and asked them what they thought, which they liked most, and why.
For the bigger kids, I laid out all the headphones and let them try each on at their own pace. Then we discussed every model individually, and asked the kids to choose their favorite. We talked about whether they agreed with each other's pick and why or why not.
I then spent a while subjecting the kids' favorites to some endurance testing. I stepped on them wearing boots, I tugged cables, I twisted them, I let my toddler chew on them. Luckily, our panel had a good eye: None of their top choices crumpled under the stress.
Now that we knew which headphones were kid-approved, we had to figure out whether the volume levels at which they played were actually safe. I enlisted the help of my Wirecutter colleague Brent Butterworth, who has extensive experience in measuring headphones and speakers for AV magazines. We worked with audio experts and hearing-loss experts to develop what we think might be the world's first attempt at a formal, published method for testing the maximum volume from headphones. Please see our full guide for an in-depth explanation of our tests, and why protecting your child's hearing is so very important.
The audiologists we consulted suggested using pink noise, a common test signal with an equal amount of energy per octave that more or less mimics the content of music. We also wanted to add a more real-world evaluation of how loud these headphones could get. To do that, we played two tunes, "Cold Water" by Major Lazer and "Chartreuse" by ZZ Top, through all the headphones and measured the A-weighted Leq. This measurement gauges sound exposure over time within human hearing range; to oversimplify a bit, it's sort of like the average volume. For all of these measurements, we attached the headphones to a G.R.A.S. 43AG ear-and-cheek simulator.
Our goal was to find the headphones that limited the volume to a specified "safer" range. The general consensus among experts is that a noise level of 85 dBA is considered reasonably safe for an hour of listening, in that it likely won't cause permanent hearing damage. However, as no music or movie is all loud all the time for an hour straight, we wouldn't say that moderately exceeding 85 dBA constituted a failure. To accommodate for inconsistencies in measurement and fit, we felt that a cutoff of 88 dBA on pink noise and 90 dBA on music Leq tests gave us enough of a margin for error while still providing a "safer" listening experience.