Music can boost your mood, help you get more done and even wake you up in the morning, so it's a pretty natural tool to turn to for getting through a typical work day. Buuuuuut since the entire office might not want to hear Justin Bieber or Rihanna, a good pair of headphones is essential. But if you value your hearing, you can't just grab any old type of earphones from any old store and call it good. Your best bet is a set of custom-molded, in-ear headphones, Aaron Pearlman, an otolaryngologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, tells the Washington Post.
A primer on how you hear
Inside your ear is a complicated set of structures that all work together to let you hear. Here's the basic process in a nutshell:
- Sound waves travel through the ear canal and cause the eardrum to vibrate.
- The vibrations from the eardrum travel through the bones in the middle ear and are amplified.
- The amplified vibrations cause fluid in the cochlea to vibrate.
- The vibrating fluid causes tiny "hair" cells to move and push against a membrane.
- The agitation of the hair cells generates electrical signals via a chemical process.
- The electrical signals travel to the brain via the auditory nerve.
- The brain interprets the electrical signals so you know what you're hearing.
Cause for concern
Most workplaces aren't quiet settings. Chatty coworkers, ringing phones, pings from messenger services, copy machines--all of it creates a drone of stress-producing unpredictability and distraction that can be a major bummer to your productivity.
Given just how loud everything around you can be at work, a common strategy is to block out the noise by turning up your music. This might drown out whatever you don't want to hear, but the louder you turn up your tunes, the more physical force you place on your delicate ear structures. The immediate physical worry thus is that the extended exposure to the loud music will cause damage that interferes with the normal hearing process. Gordon Hughes, program officer of clinical trials at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), asserts that, for extended periods like work, 85 decibels is the highest volume you should accept for noise. On most players, that means having your volume at its middle setting or lower. Comparatively, normal conversation is around 60 decibels, so having to raise your voice when you're listening to music is a good clue it's time to turn the volume down.
Selecting safe equipment
So let's bring this back to your choice of headphones. The more ambient noise you can eliminate or block out, the lower you can turn your music and, subsequently, the safer your hearing will be. That's why your best bet is a set of custom-molded headphones, as they can be designed to fit the exact shape of your ear, and thus block out any noise that might escape in. Unlike earbuds, which sit on the concha ridge of the ear and let you hear outside sounds, this type of earphone sits right within the ear canal, creating a "seal" that keeps unwanted noise out. It also places the source of the sound closer to the eardrum. Both of those features mean you don't need to pump your volume as loud to hear your songs well. If you can't customize, just make sure the tips are squishy so they still can mold to your ear. The next best choice is a set of noise-isolating, over-ear headphones. They're going to be heavier and more conspicuous to wear, but they'll create a seal around your ear that offers good protection from noise.
The one type of earphones you should always take a pass on? Solid plastic in-ear headphones. These don't give at all, so unless by some miracle your ear canal exactly matches the earbud shape and size (yeah, right), you're going to get small gaps that let ambient noise in.
One last consideration
It's absolutely not necessary to spend hundreds of dollars to get a decent pair of headphones. Even so, because the components in more expensive sets tend to be higher in quality, they can produce a clearer, crisper sound. Because everything is so sharp and easy to distinguish, you might be less tempted to compensate by reaching for the volume control. Decide whether an in-ear or over-ear set is most comfortable for you, and then just aim to get the best set in your budget.