The Worst Headphones for Your Eardrums

By Elizabeth Mott

Outside or inside the ears, headphones can damage your hearing.
i James Woodson/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Before personal playback devices dominated the music listening scene, you couldn't carry thousands of songs with you everywhere you go on a device that fits in a jeans pocket. Thanks to music players and smartphones, you may be listening through headphones to a soundtrack that accompanies your every move. Depending on how you listen, this constant exposure to sound can and will cause permanent hearing loss, regardless of the type of headphones you use.

Where Hearing Loss Occurs

Unless you make the big mistake of trying to clean out ear wax with cotton swabs and rupture an eardrum in the process, or sustain damage from an infection that builds up behind the eardrum and causes it to burst, the risks to your hearing don't actually involve the eardrums themselves. Deep inside your ears, tiny hair cells help transmit the sound messages your eardrums send to the nerve that communicates with your brain. When these hair cells spend too much time reacting to too-loud sound, they tire out and flatten until you give them a chance to recuperate. After too many episodes of abuse, the hair cells break off or die and can't regenerate, causing permanent hearing loss.

Earbuds Vs. Headphones

Because earbuds insert into the ear canal, overly loud listening volumes transfer directly into the delicate mechanisms that support your ability to hear. You might think that traditional headphones, with their outside-the-ear hardware, make a better choice because they move the sound reproduction process farther away from your inner ears. Any playback device can produce overly loud sound, however, and the reasons for hearing loss from earbud or headphone use relate not to the type of hardware you use but to the volumes at which you listen, along with the duration and frequency of your listening sessions.

Listening Over Background Noise

Overly loud headphone volumes often point to an attempt to hear music in loud environments. In response to outside noise, you turn up the music to drown out the background. When you remove your headphones or earbuds for a while and turn the music back on at the same volume level, you notice how loud it actually plays. If someone sitting next to you can hear your music while you wear your headphones, you've set your listening volume too loud for the safety of your ears. To accommodate loud environments, look for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that use active circuitry that samples the outside sound and mixes its inverse into the programming you're playing.

Your worst bets on the headphone marketplace today lie in cheap hardware that uses poor-quality drivers, leading to distortion that can increase the damaging potential of loud listening volumes. Additionally, avoid exterior headphones with poorly sealing cushions and earbuds that fit poorly, both of which encourage you to crank up the volume solely to drown out your environment.

Other Considerations

The worst pair of headphones is the pair you play too loud. Along with the risks inherent in high volumes and long listening sessions, headphones -- especially the in-ear varieties -- raise additional concerns related to the prospect of infection. The act of inserting audio hardware causes it to attract bacteria from the outside of your ears as well as from the audio canal. If you share your headphones with another person, they harbor more bacteria than if you don't let someone else use them. The worst exposure can come through publicly available listening hardware such as the headphones on commercial aircraft.