Have you ever noticed that your ears start to hurt after listening to your iPod for hours on end? It might have something to do with that nonstop hair-metal playlist you made, but it’s more likely due to “listener fatigue”—a phenomenon that Colorado researchers have been studying. They recently explained its cause—and solution—at the Audio Engineering Society Convention in London.
Here’s what happens, the researchers explained: Listening to music through small headphones seals your ear canals. Volume levels are significantly louder in sealed ear canals than they are in open canals, so your eardrums have to work extra hard to manage the volume. But ironically, that defense mechanism makes loud volumes seem softer than they really are, so you turn the volume up even more. That puts an even bigger strain on your eardrums, which is when you start feeling the fatigue.
The potential solution: A lens that looks like a tiny ear-sealing balloon. It latches on to the tip of an earbud, where the “sacrificial membrane” disrupts the high sound-pressure waves from the headphone speaker, protecting your eardrums in the process. (To see an in-depth video demonstration of the device, click here.)
“As a result, lower volumes sound much louder because you’re not triggering the ear’s protection and wearing out those muscles,” explains the research team’s leader Stephen Ambrose, a music industry veteran who was the first to develop in-ear headphones for musicians like Stevie Wonder. “Also, you’re protecting your hearing because when those muscles are fully engaged, they don’t do as good a job at catching the high volumes that they’re supposed to protect you from.”
Ambrose expects the device to hit stores in a month or two, and should be available in the $20-30 range. That’s a small price to pay to protect your ears: A 2006 study from the University of Colorado found that listening to music at full volume through an iPod for more than five minutes a day using Apple’s earbuds can increase your risk of hearing loss. To cut your risk, just lower the volume: The same study says you can safely listen to an iPod for 4.6 hours per day at 70 percent volume using Apple’s earbuds.
But here’s another way to prevent listener fatigue: Ditch earbuds altogether. The problems start when your ears get sealed shut, so the trick is to find a larger set of ‘phones that will keep your ear canals open, Ambrose says. Read The Best Earphones for Every Guy to score the perfect pair.