I wanted to share a few thoughts on hearing loss–particularly with regard to earbuds and headphones–as impairments of this sort are more common (and more preventable) than I realized.
As an example, I started Run Hundred partly because I was damaging my hearing. As a club DJ, I began noticing faint ringing in my ears. So, I started building this site as a way to continue doing the things I loved–looking for new music, creating mixes, and so on–in a quieter environment.
The hearing loss that was happening to me is happening to almost everyone–albeit more slowly. An average pair of headphones or earbuds produce more than enough volume to permanently damage your hearing. In that way, the ringing I experienced after DJing was a bit of a blessing as it provided an alarming preview of the hearing loss to which my ordinary listening habits were also contributing.
As I started reducing my DJ schedule and paying more attention to the volume around me, I began to notice more folks coming forward with cautionary tales about their own hearing. The one that rattled me most was a quote from Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament:
“Don’t be careless and lazy at loud rock shows or cranking tunes through an old Walkman like I was thirty years ago. Wear hearing protection or you’ll end up with a ringing in both ears every night when you go to bed, or worse when you are trying to enjoy the serene quiet of an empty desert or forest, again like me.”
For what it’s worth, I didn’t mind the ringing in my ears at night. When I was younger, it almost seemed like an audible memento from a big night out. But, the idea of not being able to hear silence again–to have ringing drown out the sounds of a forest–was terrifying. (Also, to their credit, Pearl Jam now makes earplugs available at their concerts–which fans can pick up by making a small donation to charity.)
Over time, I began to notice folks in my personal life with substantial hearing loss–none of whom had musical backgrounds. There was one fellow in particular with whom it became harder to connect as he grew older. I assumed he was just getting crankier with age. Then, by chance, an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos came on during one of our visits. As we laughed together throughout, I realized he wasn’t retreating from the world in the ways I’d thought. Basically, the show’s focus on visual gags–which played to one of his stronger senses–helped draw him out in ways that I’d overlooked. In short, it helped me understand that it was just his hearing that was slipping away–not the man himself.
To be clear, the larger issue here is not his lack of hearing but my lack of consideration. Moreover, realizing that helped me better understand who he was, how we could connect, and the extent to which our senses contribute to our–and perhaps others’–sense of who we are.
Like old age, hearing loss is coming for many of us. Not only are they both en route, a look at any statistics on the matter will indicate that they often travel together. To that end, our best bet for preserving what we have for as long as we can is cultivate good habits.
In theory, reducing the volume at which we listen to music should be simple. In practice, it can be difficult because you’ll often find yourself in circumstances where you have to turn the volume up in order to hear your music over the surrounding noise. Noise cancellation headphones aim to address this issue by reducing background sound, but this technology is better-suited to blocking steady sounds (like the hum of an airplane) than intermittent sounds (like people talking). Passive noise reduction blocks a wider spectrum of sound more consistently–and doesn’t require any battery power–which makes it an altogether better approach.
To be clear, neither of these are great for running outdoors–where safety requires an awareness of your environment. But, in most other places–on a bus, in the gym, at work, around noisy housemates–blocking environmental noise will let you hear your music more clearly at lower, safer volumes.
For what it’s worth, this added protection comes at a price, but it’s substantially less than the cost of inaction. Namely, if you live long enough, you will likely struggle with your hearing at some point. Average headphones can hasten that struggle along, while protective ones can delay it. To that end, folks who aren’t yet experiencing hearing loss generally aren’t in a hurry to turn the situation around–as it seems so far down the line. But, once it kicks in, you find cascades of folks–myself included–wishing they’d taken precautions before the issue started.
With everything above in mind, I remain grateful for the hearing scares I received while DJing–which forced me to act on something I might have failed to notice otherwise. I’m also grateful to the folks who made all of the protective headphones I tested over the years, as they helped me effectively cap my hearing damage where it was. Lastly, I’m super, super, super grateful for the support this site has received over the years–insofar as it let me keep doing most of the things I loved about DJing without putting my ears in constant peril.
To prioritize your own hearing, you can find the two best options–based on the aforementioned tests–below: