Personal Music Players & Hearing

8. How are personal music players typically used?

  • 8.1 At what volume settings and for how long are they typically used?
  • 8.2 How many units have been sold on the EU market?

8.1 At what volume settings and for how long are they typically used?

Most users of personal music players choose sound volume settings which are unlikely to cause hearing loss. However, some people set the volume control very high or listen to music through personal music players for many hours per day.

Volume settings chosen by the users of personal music players generally range from 80 to 115 dB(A), while mean weekly exposure time ranges from less than an hour to 14 hours and is typically longer among men. The type of music and environment only slightly influence exposure levels. Listeners tend to increase the volume of their sets by about 4 dB if there is background noise.

In the 1980s, several studies focused on the way teenagers used portable cassette players with headphones and compared sound exposure levels to those permissible at work at the time (equivalent to 90 dB(A) for 8 hours per day 5 days a week). In a study carried out among college students in New York, nearly one third of the users of personal music players exceeded permissible exposure levels, and many of them exceeded them drastically. In a later study, the listening habits of 5% of users exceeded those levels, which would lead to hearing damage in the case of long term use. In the light of current guidelines, which are even more stringent, 10% of the users covered by this study would have exceeded permissible levels.

In 1995, a study concluded that 5% of the young people they tested could have a permanent hearing loss of 20 dB after 5 years of use of personal music players. Restricting the maximum output level of personal music players to 90 dB(A) would therefore limit the risk of hearing loss.

It is very difficult to establish a safe limit in terms of sound volume and duration of exposure. To protect the hearing of most consumers, a 2004 study recommends limiting listening time to one hour of per day and setting the volume to no more than 60% of maximum sound output when using headphones that are placed over the ears. When using earplugs inserted in the ear canal that deliver more sound energy to the ear drum, the maximum volume control setting that can be considered safe would be significantly lower.

A recent study on risk perception and exposure to loud music showed that although women generally judged exposure to loud sounds as more dangerous than men do, they nevertheless behave in the same way. Adolescents reporting tinnitus judged loud music as more risky than those with no symptoms and they did not listen to music as loudly. More...

8.2 How many units have been sold on the EU market?

From 2004 to 2007, an estimated 184 to 246 million personal music players were sold in the EU as a whole. Some 124 to 165 million of these were MP3 players and some people bought more than one device in that period of time. Since 2004 there has been a dramatic increase in unit sales of MP3 players which in 2007 represented 83% of the personal music players sales.

(Figure 1) Figure 5 Number of portable CD and MP3 devices sold in ten European countries between 2001 and 2007 (in thousands).

Regarding cell phones, approximately 10% to 20% of those sold in 2007 in Europe now have a music playing function similar to those of MP3 players and this proportion will probably increase in the coming years. At present, 16 to 32 million of these devices have been sold. However, it is not clear whether all people who have access to those features actually use them.

Overall, in the EU the estimated number of daily users of personal music players (including MP3 players) and mobile phones with MP3 function could be very high, in the range of 50 to 100 million people. More...

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