Q: You recently wrote about amplifying sound through headphones to drown out airplane noise. It would have been helpful for you to point out that high volume levels can damage hearing. Wouldn’t some kind of noise-canceling headphones be a better and safer recommendation?

A: I received several e-mails from readers concerned about the dangers of hearing loss. Excessively loud, damaging sound is not what I had in mind when I wrote about headphone amplifiers. I was focusing on overcoming the shortcomings of equipment, not “cranking up the sound,” and I should have pointed that out.

Different models of headphones produce different amounts of volume for a given electrical input. A modest 3-decibel volume increase requires doubling the amplifier power to the headphones, and portable devices do not have much power to begin with. If you pair inefficient headphones with a portable device that has weak power output, you might not be able to achieve satisfying volume levels even in quiet conditions. (There are many headphones, such as planar-driver models, that can’t be driven by a portable device at all.) A headphone amplifier might provide the necessary power increase to provide satisfying, distortion-free sound. When I answered the question it was this modest bump in volume I had in mind, not playing so loud as to risk hearing damage.

Before writing the column, I contacted the reader who was asking the question, and she said, “I am using cheapo earbuds, one set for me, one set for my husband, with a splitter.” Driving two earphones with a single tablet explained why the volume was not acceptable. In retrospect, I probably should have included more about her situation in the column, but I was more focused on headphone amplifiers themselves rather than the splitter, because splitters are not commonly used.

Other solutions are noise-canceling headphones, as you suggested, as well as better isolation from the outside world. If you check out my “Noise canceling headphones on a budget” feature at tinyurl.com/cheapnch you can find good quality noise-canceling headphones for as little as $49.95. If you are using earbuds, Comply Foam (complyfoam.com) tips will give you a more comfortable and secure fit, along with better isolation and better sound quality. I’ve used Comply and highly recommend it.

I would like to remind readers to be careful with their hearing. Hearing loss can occur quickly when you are exposed to high volumes. In the column I explained that 99 decibels of volume per watt of input is typical for most headphones. Please note that decibels per watt is simply an industry standard measurement of headphone sensitivity, and 99 decibels is not a recommended or safe volume level. As always, I trust that when I recommend something, you will not use it to harm yourself.


Send questions to Don Lindich at donlindich@gmail.com. Get recommendations and read past columns at soundadvicenews.com.