EU Sets Out to Save the iPod Generation’s Hearing

The European Union has updated volume standards for portable devices that play music, such as MP3 players and mobile phones. Going forward, new products will be required to maintain their default setting at 80 decibels.

The new rules upgrade EU directives CEN, CENELEC and ETSI, which require that warnings about the dangers of listening to music at high volumes be included in device instruction manuals.

They will be adopted after a two-year consultation period with industry, consumers and the medical community, according to media reports.

The action is largely a response to growing scientific and medical evidence linking hearing damage to listening to music at high volumes on portable devices. Some studies have concluded that even playing music at levels that seem reasonable — say 85 decibels, slightly above the equivalent of normal conversation or road traffic — leads to impaired hearing over the long term, especially if the listener is exposed to it for several consecutive hours.

One of the more recent studies was carried out by Vanderbilt University in conjunction with MTV.com. Published online in July in the Journal of Pediatrics , the survey found that nearly half the respondents experienced symptoms such as tinnitus or hearing loss after being exposed to loud music. It also found that 90 percent of males age 60 and over have hearing loss.

Long-Term Impact

Teenagers are thought to be at higher risk, in large part because they tend to discount the possibility of long-term impact, especially if their hearing is not immediately impaired.

However, it can take years for damage to show — and once the damage is apparent it is too late, noted Meglena Kuneva, head of the European Commission’s consumer protection unit, speaking at a press conference Monday morning.

The new standards are “small technical changes,” she said. Consumers who wish to override the default setting will be able to do so — but only after they’ve been amply warned about the risks.

Manufacturers Adjust

The adjustment on the part of device manufacturers is likely to be relatively small.

France has already introduced its own volume standard, requiring a limit of 100 decibels Magali Merindol, communications officer for Digital Europe, told the E-Commerce Times.

Adjusting to the new rules will not be that difficult, she said. “Manufacturers already comply with the standard in France.”

The health issues have been on the Consumer Electronics Association’s radar for several years, according to Brian Markwalter, vice president of technology and standards.

“CEA members who design and manufacture portable audio players for sale in the U.S. are, in many cases, the same companies who will be engaging with the EU to draft standards for default volume levels,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

These companies care deeply about their customers and want them to have the information necessary to safely enjoy their products for years, he added, noting that CEA and its members originally addressed concerns over listening to portable audio with headsets two decades ago through a “listening for a lifetime” educational campaign.

Campaigns to raise user awareness of the issue are becoming more prominent — especially in the development and marketing of headphones designed to keep hearing in top form.

The safety issue has also caught the attention of litigants and their attorneys, with at least one plaintiff filing a lawsuit against Apple for potential hearing damage.

After that suit was filed in 2006, Apple introduced software that allows users to set limits on the volume.

Apple, of course, is hardly the only device manufacturer in the global market. However, its iPod device — which can be played at very high levels with little loss in sound quality — dominates the industry. Furthermore, its earbud design exacerbates damage to hearing.

2 Comments

  • I have a lot of headphones.

    I have several IEMs (In Ear Monitors).

    The worst are the earbuds that come with players. They don’t block out outside sounds, making people listen louder. At the health club, I can walk by people who are using earbuds that come with players, including iPods. They are listening loud enough to OVERRIDE outside sounds. This is the worst, and will damage hearing.

    I use IEMs at the health club. When I force them into my ears, they block out nearly all outside sound. This means I can listen at MUCH lower levels. I use Etymotic ER-4p IEMs on my iPod, and Etymotic hf2 IEMs with microphone on my iPhone.

    I DO use the stock iPod ear buds in the mall and when outside. I want to be able to hear the world, and not block everything out.

    I wear the ER-4p on airplanes. I get off feeling much more relaxed after not hearing that NOISE during the flight. Sometimes the flight attendants want me to take them off, but I point out that the iPod is disconnected so they let me leave them in, just like ear plugs. It is much less stressful.

    I also have the Shure 500 series, and while they block outside sounds nearly as well, they have too little highs.

    I also have the Bose headphones. Sadly, not only don’t they really sound good, but they block so much less outside noise that it is just silly.

    In fact, the Bose headphones actually seem to isolate and amplify babies crying. It is so annoying.

    BUT, to the point. All of the headphones, headsets, earbuds and IEMs have different, no, VASTLY different sensitivities. In other words, some play very loud with the amplifier set at "three" and others are very low with the amplifier set at "nine."

    Unless there is some sort of standard, which would make all ‘phones and IEMs sound the same, and bad, it is a pretty much impossible standard to enforce.

    If the government, in its incredible wisdom, limits all amplifiers to "six," the headphone manufacturers will just make them play louder at that Voltage (indirectly, Power).

    I designed, and built and installed loudness monitors for the radio stations I worked for, to protect the hearing of the DJs.

    They were SUPPOSED to set a large rotary switch to the headphone model they were using. When they were listening too loud, a big bright light would come on. They would just select a switch position for a less efficient headphone so the light would not come on! "Darn you, don’t tell me I am hurting myself." Many DJs have severe hearing damage from listening too loud for far too long.

    Plus, you can just add an external amplifier. Check out the amplifiers at the headfi website.

    It is nice to warn people, but the speedometer doesn’t do a good job. People still speed. Sure, they should be warned, but they will ignore it.

  • Next up, the EU will require that all personal seating come with a warning (buried in a user manual that few people will ever read) about the dangers of slouching for hours and poor posture backed by studies about the health costs of the misuse of seating.

    Good intent I am sure, but one step closer toward government micromanagement of businesses and consumers – responsible and otherwise.

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