MP3s Bad for the Ears?

A recent article out of Brussels warns that young Europeans are in danger of damaging their ears by playing MP3s.

According to the Reuters story, a European Union body on health risks warns that the young Europeans are playing the MP3s too loud through personal music players. However, the warning is not new, as adults and health officials have warned against ear damage caused by loud music ever since the invention of the portable music device... if not before.

The EU Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks stated that listening to MP3 players and other music devices - at high volumes for long periods of time - can cause loss of hearing and tinnitus. The Committee discovered that 5 to 10 percent of consumers risk permanent hearing loss if listening to loud music for one hour a day each week for at least five years. Currently there is no cure for tinnitus or hearing loss.

"Let's be frank -- we are looking at a catastrophe unless something is done soon," Stephen Russell of the pan-European ANEC consumer safety group said.

While the warning is more of the same heard across decades, one thing to keep in mind is the current music industry's need to deliver loud music. Many call it the "loudness war," and as Wikipedia dictates, this classification refers to the music industry's tendency "to record, produce and broadcast music at progressively increasing levels of loudness each year to create a sound that stands out from others and the previous year." Wikipedia even shows an animated diagram showing the trend in increasing loudness shown in waveform.

So while children of the 80s shrugged off parental scolding about listening to music at loud levels via those nifty tape players, critics of today have a more solid reason to warn against ear damage with louder, potentially damaging levels of music available in physical and digital form. In fact, today's music might actually cause fatigue.

"You get more apparent volume but less dynamics," producer Kevin Killen told the Sun Journal last year, who has worked with Elvis Costello, Tori Amos and Jewel. "By the end of it, the listener just ends up feeling fatigued, a little like an assault to the ears."

In an effort to combat the loudness wars, engineer Charles Dye co-founded Turn Me Up to show that musicians can create softer, more dynamic recordings. He said that record labels and producers originally did not set out to create loud music, to "strip music of dynamics and emotion," but rather continuously increased the volumes over the years because everyone else was doing it.

Ultimately, it's not the actual MP3 that's the root of the problem, but the engineered music compressed within the file. It would not be surprising if some organization steps in and regulates the loudness levels of music by either fining record companies, or implementing hardware volume limitations on music devices. Still, in the meantime, listeners should turn the volume down and preserve the eardrums before music levels become deafening.

Kevin started taking PCs apart in the 90s when Quake was on the way and his PC lacked the required components. Since then, he’s loved all things PC-related and cool gadgets ranging from the New Nintendo 3DS to Android tablets. He is currently a contributor at Digital Trends, writing about everything from computers to how-to content on Windows and Macs to reviews of the latest laptops from HP, Dell, Lenovo, and more.