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The Biggest Mistake People Make When Buying Headphones, According to an Audiologist

Kells McPhillips

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As far as I’m concerned, the beats of Cardi B should only be listed to at maximum volume. Audiologists, however, strongly disagree. Today, in a half-hearted attempt to safeguard my hearing (stop nagging me, mom!), I asked for details from two ear experts who makes the best headphones and earbuds. Apparently, the noise-cancellation ability of a given headset matters way more than the make and model.

“The whole point is to be able to hear your music without having to turn the volume up just to overcome the noise around you, or the noise on the street, let’s say,” explains Andrew Resnick, AuD, an audiologist in New York City. “It’s not so much a matter of whether they’re over-the-ear or in-ear. It’s how good a job they do at keeping out external sound.”

In general, headphones that cover your ears, such as Bose QuietComfort ($349), create a better buffer against ambient noise with their soft, pillowy cushioning. But some in-ear models are now designed with noise cancellation as well; check out Power Beats Pro ($250) and the Plantronics BackBeat Go ($108). So the next time you’re in the market for a new device that will help you rock out, go somewhere—like Best Buy—that allows you to try them out. If you can still hear the hustle and bustle of the store around you, then sorry, those probably aren’t the best headphones.

Once you purchase a pair and create a fresh playlist to test them out, Dr. Resnick notes that “potential damage to the ears comes from an interaction of how loud somebody’s listening and how long they’re listening for. Either cap your volume at 80 percent and listen for no longer than 90 minutes, or max out your volume at about 60 percent and listen for three hours per day. (Pro tip: You can use the sliding volume bar on your phone to approximate these percentages.)

Ellen Lafargue, AuD, co-director at Shelley and Steven Einhorn Audiology and Communication Centers, says that there are a few red flags that your music is too loud. “Many people say that if someone is listening to music on a personal music player and cannot hear a conversation three feet away, the headphones are too loud. Others say if you can clearly hear the music in someone’s headphones while sitting next to them, the music is too loud,” explains the audiologist.

Well, we all just want to queue up a boss-babe playlist and dance around in our underwear, and it seems that tuning in with the proper volume control will ensure that we’ll be doing so for many years to come. Now, Siri, play “I Like It”—but only at 60 percent.

Food for thought: Wearing headphones might curb shopping. And here’s how to wrap your headphones and avoid a knotted mess.

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