Personal Stereo Systems & Headsets

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Personal Stereo Systems & Headphone Fact Sheet

Warning: Personal Stereo Systems May Be More Than Just Music To Your Ears
Personal stereo systems with headphones ("Walkman-type") have become an almost required accessory for today's teenagers. Commuters, joggers, health club patrons, factory workers and office workers are also seen using these systems. Several studies have looked at the maximum output levels of personal stereo systems with headphones and have found that these levels pose a risk to the listener's hearing (Clark, 1991).

How Loud is Too Loud?
To know if a sound is loud enough to cause a damage to your ears, it is important to know both the level of intensity (measured in decibels, dBA) and the length of exposure to the sound. In general, the louder the sound, the less time required before hearing will be affected. Experts agree that continued exposure to noise above 85 dBA (approximately the level of a city street), over time, will eventually harm your hearing.

Personal Stereo Systems: The Facts
Personal stereo systems with headphones produce sounds as loud as 105 - 120 dBA if turned up to maximum levels. Some studies concluded that in the majority of cases, unless the exposure time continued for several hours a day, over several years, the risk may be minimal (Findlay, 1974). More recent studies concluded that personal stereo systems present a hazard to hearing for a substantial portion of listeners (Catalano and Levin, 1985). In 1998, the Center for Hearing and Communication conducted a pilot study in conjunction with the City University of New York, and found the maximum output level of personal stereo systems to be 112 dBA. Although subjects interviewed set the systems at safe listening levels in quiet settings, they reported increasing the volume to hazardous levels while riding the subway, exercising or walking to and from work. Although guidelines in the workplace have been established to protect a worker's hearing, the same protection is not available for the use of personal stereo systems with headphones. The consumer must, therefore, take full responsibility for preserving hearing.

Steps to Protect Your Hearing While Listening to Personal Stereo Systems
To determine if you are at risk for a noise-induced hearing loss from wearing your personal stereo system, it would be necessary to know how loud your particular system is and how long you use it each day. Since systems vary in output, it is important to follow these simple steps to protect yourself from a permanent noise-induced hearing loss due to personal stereo system use:

  • Look for a personal stereo system with an "Automatic Volume Limiter" which limits the output of the system to safe levels. Sony Walkman and Sony Sport both include an automatic volume limiter and limits the output at 85 dBA.
  • Set your system at a comfortable level in a quiet room. Do not turn it up when you are in a noisy setting to "block out" the noise. This will only add to the noise and increase the risk to your hearing.
  • Limit the amount of time you use the personal stereo system with headphones.
  • Do not interchange headsets with systems. The Center for Hearing and Communication has found that this will increase output and risk to hearing.
  • Follow this simple rule of thumb: If you cannot hear other people talking when you are wearing headphones or if other people have to shout to you to be heard at three feet away while the headphones are on, it is too loud and could be damaging to your hearing.
  • If you notice any ringing in your ears, or that speech sounds are muffled after wearing a personal stereo system, discontinue its use and have your hearing checked by a qualified audiologist.