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Good Question: Are Bigger Headphones Better For You?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Throughout the day, many of us listen to music at the office, on the bus and on the street.

More recently, you might have noticed some people are replacing the popular earbuds with big headphones over their heads.

They’ve become more popular after music producer and artist Dr. Dre, along with record executive Jimmy Iovine, released their Beats line in 2008.

According to industry research group NPD, sales of premium headphones grew 25 percent in 2012.

So, that had us wondering: Are bigger headphones better for you?

Kenny Jay, assistant program director for New BUZ’N @ 102.9, wears his premium headphones for three to four hours a day. He says they’re certainly a job requirement, and a way to tune out the rest of world while off-the-clock.

“You can use them all day and drown out the people on the way home,” Jay said. “They look cool and they sound really, really good.”

According to Melisa Oblander, an audiologist with the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, it’s “possibly, but not always” bad to wear headphones or earbuds for the amount of time that someone like Kenny Kay wears them.

She points to research that shows ear damage can happen at 85 decibels (the equivalent of city traffic) for a continuous eight hours. Every three decibels raised cuts that time in half. For example, 88 decibels would bring ear damage after four hours.

“If [at] an arm’s length away you have trouble hearing somebody, you may have your music on too loud,” Oblander said.

She’s also noticed the rise in popularity of premium headphones, and says they aren’t necessarily any safer for our ears than the earbuds.

“It all depends on how the listener chooses to set them,” she said.

Noise is sound pressure, and too much of it damages the hair bundles in the inner ear. When those structures are damaged, it’s generally permanent.

Because the earbuds are closer to the ear drum, Oblander says they could have a more of an effect than headphones – but she added a caveat.

“You just don’t know that individual’s susceptibility,” she said.

In a quiet room, most people listen to music through earbuds or headphones at around 70 decibels, but they’ll crank up the volume when there is outside noise.

Studies from the Etymotic Research, Inc. show people who wear earbuds are more likely to turn their volume higher than the people who wear the noise-cancelling headphones.

“We don’t recommend you wear earphones in noisy environments because you could then set them too high if you’re trying to drown out the background noise,” she said.

The bottom line, according to Oblander, is that most people will be fine with either earbuds or headphones, as long as they keep the music at a reasonable level.

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