Is Noise Cancelling Bad For Ears? (Safety Tips Included)

Noise cancelling technology has become ubiquitous in headphones and earbuds over the past decade. The ability to electronically cancel out ambient noise provides a more immersive listening experience in noisy environments. But some consumers have lingering concerns – could noise cancelling actually damage your hearing in the long run?

Noise cancellation in headphones generally does not have a negative impact on hearing. Users may experience a slight hissing sound when the active noise-cancellation (ANC) is turned on, but aside from that, no significant adverse effects on hearing have been reported.

This article will provide a comprehensive look at the key questions around noise cancelling and hearing health. We’ll explore how the technology works, scientific insights on potential risks, and best practices for safe use. Read on to make an informed decision before your next headphone purchase.

How Does Noise Cancelling Work?

Noise cancelling headphones use tiny microphones mounted on the earcups to pick up ambient noise around you. The headphones then produce an opposite “anti-noise” wave to cancel out background sounds before they reach your ears. This allows you to hear your music or media more clearly, even in noisy environments.

This allows you to hear music, podcasts, and calls more clearly amid external noise on airplanes, public transit, or busy offices. Noise cancelling is most effective at eliminating consistent low to mid-level background noise, but not necessarily sudden loud sounds.

There are a few key components that enable effective noise cancellation:

  • Microphones – to pick up the ambient noise around you
  • Processing chip – calculates the right anti-noise frequency to cancel specific sounds
  • Speakers – emit the anti-noise wave along with your audio content

Together, these components create a quiet bubble for your listening pleasure. Now let’s explore what this could mean for your long-term hearing health.

Does Noise Cancelling Damage Hearing?

Noise cancelling technology itself does not directly damage the ears; however, listening to music at high volumes can pose risks. It is advisable to keep the volume below 80dB and limit headphone usage to 40 hours per week to safeguard hearing health.

According to the CDC, ~15% of Americans aged 20-69 have noise-induced hearing loss from excessive exposure to loud sounds. As per a NIOSH report, noise-induced hearing loss is preventable when appropriate hearing protection devices are properly worn.

There are two common concerns around potential hearing loss from excessive noise cancelling headphone use:

1. Listening at Unsafe Volumes

Since noise cancelling immerses you in a cocoon of silence, you may be tempted to turn up the volume to dangerous levels. This is the primary hearing risk – noise induced hearing loss is caused by prolonged loud noise exposure.

However, this has nothing to do with the noise cancelling itself. Any headphone played at excessive volumes over time can contribute to irreversible hearing damage. The key is keeping volumes moderate.

2. Lack of Ambient Awareness

By blocking out surrounding noise, noise cancelling reduces your spatial awareness and ability to hear hazards approaching. This could lead to accidents if you are unable to properly hear nearby cars, alarms, or other safety alerts.

Again though, simply removing your headphones or disabling noise cancelling temporarily alleviates this issue. Overall, when used responsibly, noise cancelling technology does not directly cause hearing problems. The risks stem from improper usage.

Could noise cancelling potentially damage my hearing over time?

There are two main hearing health concerns with prolonged noise cancelling headphone use:

  1. Listening at excessive volumes in quiet environments – Since the headphones block out ambient noise, you may be tempted to turn up the volume to unsafe levels. This can contribute to noise-induced hearing loss over time.
  2. Lack of awareness of surrounding sounds – Noise cancelling reduces your ability to hear alarms, announcements, and hazards around you. This could raise safety issues in some situations.

However, used responsibly at moderate volumes, noise cancelling is unlikely to directly cause hearing damage. The key is being mindful not to crank up the volume just because the environment seems quiet.

Noise Cancelling vs. Traditional Headphones

Standard headphones played at loud volumes pose the same dangers to hearing as noise cancelling headphones. Without electronics actively cancelling noise though, you’ll simply perceive ambient sounds alongside your audio.

Some key comparisons:

  • At moderate volumes, neither causes more direct hearing damage
  • Noise cancelling immerses you in audio more fully
  • Standard headphones allow you to remain aware of surrounding noises

If you want to understand the mechanics of noise cancelling headphones, I’ve written an in-depth look at how the headphones actively cancel ambient sounds.

For details on how noise cancelling works without music playing, read my guide explaining the technology’s functionality in silent environments.

The bottom line – both are safe when used at reasonable volumes for limited periods. Avoid cranking up the sound just because noise cancelling makes the environment seem quiet.

The Case Against Noise Cancelling

Here are the main arguments suggesting that extensive use of noise cancelling could be harmful:

Promotes Listening at Unsafe Volumes

Since ANC headphones block out ambient noise, wearers may be tempted to turn the volume dangerously high. Listening at excessive loudness for prolonged periods can lead to irreversible hearing damage over time.

But it’s not the noise cancelling itself that’s the problem – any headphones played at dangerously high volumes can contribute to hearing loss. The key is keeping volume at moderate levels.

Reduces Spatial Awareness

By eliminating surrounding sounds, noise cancelling reduces your ability to hear hazards like approaching vehicles or other safety alerts. Lack of awareness of your surroundings could lead to accidents.

This can be mitigated by disabling ANC when walking or biking. But heavy reliance on noise blocking could train your brain to tune out ambient sounds unnaturally.

Over-Silencing May Be Unhealthy

Some experts argue that totally silencing your environment may have psychological and neurological effects. Humans instinctively rely on sound cues to orient themselves and be alert to potential dangers. Eliminating these ambient noises could be disorienting or distressing.

According to federal workplace safety regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), hearing protectors are required to decrease employee noise exposure to at least an 8-hour time-weighted average of 85dBA or below. This OSHA permissible exposure limit aims to prevent noise induced hearing loss in loud work environments over time.

However, these concerns remain somewhat speculative. More research would be needed to prove any direct health impacts from over-silencing background noises.

The Case For Noise Cancelling

Now let’s examine the evidence and arguments suggesting that noise cancelling is generally safe when used responsibly:

No Damage If Volume Is Moderate

Study after study has shown that noise cancelling does not directly cause hearing problems if listening volumes are kept within reasonable levels. The risks come from excessive volume exposure, which can happen with any headphones. ANC itself is harmless.

Drowns Out Harmful Ambient Noise

For those frequently in loud environments, noise cancelling can actually provide hearing protection by drowning out damaging ambient sounds. This reduces the risk of noise induced hearing loss from chronic exposure to noisy surroundings.

Eases Cognitive Fatigue

Research confirms that constant background noise exposure leads to fatigue and stress. By cancelling out irritating ambient sounds, ANC allows you to think and focus more easily when working or traveling. This is a cognitive benefit.

No Evidence That It Disorients

While it’s theoretically possible that silencing background noises could be disorienting for some, there is no hard evidence proving this. For most people, noise cancelling simply makes media and calls more enjoyable and distraction-free.

Tips for Safe Usage

According to research by the WHO, over 1 billion young people worldwide could suffer hearing loss from unsafe listening habits. However, studies confirm that noise cancelling itself does not contribute to this epidemic when used properly. Responsible listening volume is the key to long-term hearing health.

Here are some best practices for using noise cancelling without damaging your hearing:

  • Set volume no higher than 60% max and take frequent listening breaks
  • Disable noise cancelling when walking/biking for situational awareness
  • Avoid total noise blocking for long stretches – remain aware of ambient sounds
  • Use noise cancelling only when beneficial in loud environments
  • Get annual hearing tests to monitor changes over time
  • Favor over-ear designs with tighter seal for lower volume needs

Following these simple precautions allows you to enjoy your noise cancelling headphones while promoting long-term hearing health.

For more details on whether noise cancelling headphones are safe, be sure to check out my evidence-based article analyzing the health impacts.

To learn about how soundproofing foam blocks noise, check out my article on the science behind these acoustic materials.

What About Noise Cancelling Earbuds?

In-ear noise cancelling earbuds like Apple AirPods Pro operate on the same underlying technology as over-ear headphones. Tiny microphones pick up ambient noise, and anti-noise sound waves cancel it out.

Potential risks are also similar – loud volumes and lack of spatial awareness being chief concerns. Follow the same volume and usage guidance with earbuds. Their closer in-ear seal also means you may be able to listen at lower, safer levels.

One unique consideration with earbuds is that their seal inside your ear canal traps more sound pressure. So be extra careful to keep volumes moderate and take frequent listening breaks. Overall though, today’s noise cancelling earbuds pose no greater direct threat to your hearing than headphones.

Noise Cancelling for Kids

Children have more sensitive hearing than adults, so extra care should be taken with noise cancelling headphones. The key principles remain the same:

  • Monitor volumes closely to keep sound under 60% max
  • Emphasize situational awareness by removing headphones around traffic
  • Limit continuous listening time for young ears
  • Look for kid-safe volume limiting features

Noise cancelling can enhance entertainment for kids when used judiciously. But proper adult supervision is a must to prevent hearing damage during critical developmental years.

How do noise cancelling headphones compare to traditional headphones for hearing safety?

Noise cancelling headphones do not cause more direct hearing damage than passive headphones played at the same volume. The main risk is simply turning up the volume too high in quiet environments where noise cancelling is active.

As long as you keep volume moderate, noise cancelling and traditional headphones have similar hearing health profiles.

Could using noise cancelling headphones worsen tinnitus symptoms?

For those already experiencing tinnitus symptoms like ringing or buzzing ears, noise cancelling headphones are unlikely to make symptoms worse directly. However, people with tinnitus need to be extra cautious about volume, since exposing the ears to excessive loudness can exacerbate tinnitus.

Keep the volume at safe levels and take more frequent listening breaks to prevent indirect worsening of tinnitus through overstimulating the auditory system.

Is it unsafe for children to wear noise cancelling headphones?

Noise cancelling headphones are generally safe for children if used properly at kid-appropriate volumes. Since children have more sensitive hearing, it is especially important to monitor volume levels closely.

Noise cancelling can make entertainment seem quieter than it actually is, so keep maximum volumes below 60% and limit continuous listening time. Also emphasize removing headphones in traffic and unsafe situations. With these precautions, noise cancelling can be safe and enjoyable for kids.

Do noise cancelling headphones protect your hearing from external sounds?

Noise cancelling headphones are designed to make music and media clearer, not act as hearing protection. While they cancel moderate ambient noise, they do not effectively block loud or sudden impact noises.

People working in noisy environments should wear specialized noise blocking earmuffs or earplugs rated for their decibel exposure. Relying solely on noise cancelling would leave your ears insufficiently protected from hazardous occupational or recreational noise.

Conclusion

Noise cancelling technology itself does not harm hearing when used properly. But listening at excessive volumes with noise cancelling can still cause damage over time. Keep your headphone volume moderate, ideally below 80dB, and take regular listening breaks.

Key Takeaways

  • No scientific evidence proves direct hearing damage from responsible noise cancelling use.
  • Main risks come from excessive volume exposure and lack of situational awareness.
  • Follow basic volume limits, listening breaks, and disable ANC in motion.
  • Annual hearing tests help monitor changes over time.
  • Enjoy noise cancelling’s audio benefits with some minor usage precautions.

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