Could Apple's AirPods Really Cause Hearing Loss? Yes—But They Aren't Unique In That
For 12-year-old B.G., it was a day just like any other. He was watching Netflix on his phone with his Apple AirPods set to low volume. Then his phone received an Amber Alert, which completely disregarded his settings.
As reported by USA Today, the alert was so loud that it not only ruptured the boy's right eardrum but also permanently damaged his cochlea. In addition to having to wear a hearing aid, the boy now suffers from frequent bouts of dizziness and vertigo. Now 14 years old, he will require clinical attention for the rest of his life.
The parents seek $75,000 in damages from the Cupertino tech giant, alleging that the AirPods are defective for multiple reasons:
- No warnings or instructions on how to change the volume of certain sounds.
- A lack of proper equalization for notifications and alerts.
- When inserted in the ear, the peripheral creates an "unreasonably dangerous environment, unbeknownst to the user."
That last design flaw is by no means unique to Apple. It's a design flaw that's common in all earbuds. Unlike over-the-ear headphones, earbuds tend to create a seal around the ear canal. This means that there's nowhere for sound to go but directly into the ear.
Consider also that any sound over 85 decibels (dB) in volume can damage our hearing, even if briefly exposed. And that's in the environment. When the noise is piped directly into one's ears, there is little room or space for the sound waves to diffuse—they retain their full intensity and potency.
Now consider that the maximum volume of Apple's AirPods can reach 100 dB or more, and that people wearing earbuds tend to listen at a higher volume than those wearing over-the-ear headphones. It's the perfect recipe for permanent hearing damage, even absent ear-splitting alerts and notifications.
"Multiple studies have now confirmed that people wearing earbuds ramp up their volume an average of 13 dB higher than the surrounding background noise," reads a piece published by InsideHook. "If the starting decibel level in an office or coffee shop is somewhere around 77 dB, then you’re immediately at 90 dB once you “drown” it all out."
For reference, a regular spoken conversation averages 60 dB. A gas-powered lawn mower is typically around 85 dB. A car horn is typically between 100 and 110 dB.
In other words, listening to AirPods on high volume is basically the equivalent of having an extremely obnoxious co-worker scream directly into your ear for twenty minutes straight. Or the equivalent of attending a rock concert and standing directly beside one of the amps. You get the idea.
Say hello to permanent, irreversible hearing damage.
Knowing this, it's not hard to believe that a simple notification could have caused permanent hearing damage to a listener. Whether or not that justifies a lawsuit is another matter entirely—because, again, this isn't a design flaw exclusive to Apple. They just happen to be one of the most ubiquitous earbud manufacturers.
There are many, many others, and they all ultimately suffer from the same problem.
Before you throw out your AirPods, know that there are ways to use them in a safe fashion. Make sure you only listen to media at half volume and do the same with all notifications and alerts. If possible, limit your consistent exposure to the peripheral. Avoid using it while out in public, particularly if you frequent noisy environments where there's the constant temptation to crank up the volume.
If you're set on purchasing a new set of headphones, we'd advise avoiding earbuds entirely, AirPods or otherwise. Invest in a decent set of noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones. Although they can still cause hearing damage at high volumes or with excessive use, they're far less of a risk than earbuds. You might also consider looking into volume-limiting headphones, which are by design incapable of emitting sounds louder than 85 dB.
Finally, get regular hearing tests. The earlier you identify the signs of impending hearing loss, the better your chances of nipping it in the bud and preventing it from developing into something more serious. We can even get you started by connecting you to an audiologist for a free exam.