For many Americans, music and podcasts serve as a constant soundtrack to their daily routines. In offices with open floor plans, workers don headphones to block out noise. Others couldn’t get through a workout or their daily commute without music pumping through earbuds. Studies have come to differing conclusions about whether listening to music helps or hinders productivity. More troubling is the increase in permanent hearing loss associated with headphone use. We consider the technology, culture and safe use of this ubiquitous accessory.


  • Derek Thompson Senior editor and Business writer, TheAtlantic.Com
  • Leisa Lyles-DeLeon Doctor of Audiology, Ascent Audiology & Hearing

How Loud Is That Sound?

Loudness is measured in decibles. Hearing loss can occur when you have prolonged exposure to a noise source over 90 dB. Sound on most MP3 players reaches up to 110 dB — that’s 25 dB higher than the recommended maximum listening volume. For comparison, this is how loud some common environmental sounds are:

Sources: American Tinnitus Association and the National Hearing Conservation Association.

Video: How The Ear Works

Follow the path that sound takes through the ear, and learn how excessive loudness can damage hearing.


  • 12:07:48

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. In an increasingly noisy world where all kinds of demands and distractions vie for our attention, it seems we're increasingly likely to seek refuge in sound. Whether you listen to music, podcasts or even white noise, the key is control through headphones or earbuds.

  • 12:08:28

    MR. KOJO NNAMDILook around, and you'll start to notice them everywhere, at work, on the train, in the gym. But questions remain about whether they help or hinder productivity. Joining us in studio to offer answers to some of those questions is Derek Thompson. He's a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees business coverage for the website. Derek Thompson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:47

    MR. DEREK THOMPSONIt's great to be here. Thank you.

  • 12:08:49

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Leisa Lyle-DeLeon. She's a doctor of audiology who practices in Washington, D.C. Leisa Lyle-DeLeon, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:58

    DR. LEISA LYLE-DELEONThank you for having me, Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • 12:08:59

    NNAMDII guess I'll start by asking both of you because I'm curious -- Leisa, I'll start with you -- about how each of you use your headphones over the course of a typical day, apart from when you're appearing on this broadcast where you're actually now wearing headphones.

  • 12:09:13

    LYLE-DELEONCorrect. I actually use headphones to listen to iPod music. I have noise-isolating custom-made headphones because I know that when I use those the ambient noise from traffic and outside is not going to come in and encourage me then to raise the volume of my headphones. So I do use it for relaxation for that. I do not use it as I'm walking down the street or riding my bike because I think that might be a little be dangerous, and I don't encourage my kids to do that either.

  • 12:09:44

    NNAMDII'm not looking guilty. Don't look at me like I'm looking guilty. I'm not looking guilty. Derek Thompson, how do you use headphones?

  • 12:09:51

    THOMPSONRight. Sometimes I use them to focus. Sometimes, I'm at work and there's a lot of noise around me, and it's distracting. And I would prefer to control the sound sort of coming into my ears, so I'll put on some headphones and choose my music. Sometimes, it's just to feel separate. I spend some time in D.C. I actually live in New York. New York is a busy place. Sometimes, it's nice to have that sense of anonymity that headphones offer because you can so control your audio experience and really, you know, animate the world the way that you want to.

  • 12:10:24

    THOMPSONAnd that's pretty much it. You know, I love, you know, walking around and, you know, picking a couple of tracks, creating a playlist that's going to create a mood. And I feel like the wonderful thing about headphones, as opposed to even, say, a concert, is that you can so specifically control your musical experience and the -- and fine-tune whatever mood you want to be in.

  • 12:10:49

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Allow me to ask the listeners, how do headphones fit into your life? Do you wear them at home, work, the gym? Call us, 800-433-8850. You can send email to, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday, or simply go to our website,, and join the conversation there. Derek, you recently wrote about how headphones change the world. What did you find out about the invention of the modern headphone?

  • 12:11:20

    THOMPSONRight. Well, the interesting thing is that the headphone was invented by a guy named Nathaniel Baldwin. A lot of people were trying to do this at the same time, trying essentially to create a headset that could amplify sound. And this guy did it, and he sent it to the Navy. And the Navy loved it. This is in the 1920s and...

  • 12:11:39

    NNAMDIThey were blown away, right?

  • 12:11:40

    THOMPSONThey were blown away. They said, how many more of these can you make? Please send us as many as possible. And he was making them in his kitchen. So it took a little bit of work, but, you know, people, you know, going back to Edison, had been trying to essentially make what we now consider to be a headphone.

  • 12:11:54

    THOMPSONAnd the interesting thing about the invention of headphones, the idea that they were meant to connect people to each other is that, today, the way that we use headphones is sometimes, like we're doing today -- we're all wearing headphones, we're speaking to each other, we're trying to -- we're broadcasting a message. But the way a lot of people use headphones is not to connect but to be separate.

  • 12:12:15

    NNAMDIIndeed, for centuries, music was something we experienced communally. Now, we have headphones. How has that changed both the way we listen and, to some extent, the way we live?

  • 12:12:27

    THOMPSONRight. You know, music was a way of publicizing things for so long. You know, you go back, I think, the first evidence that we have of a musical instrument is 40,000 years ago. No one was playing that flute to themselves in a cave. They were playing it to other people. They were being social. They were creating music and being together. An interesting is that for a long time musical inventions were about amplifying the experience of music.

  • 12:12:53

    THOMPSONRadio made it widely transmittable, and speakers made music big. And cars made music mobile. But headphones, to a certain extent, make music private. They separate us from the world. And that's what I thought was the most interesting is that in this, you know, crowded world of, you know, scarce real estate where we can create our own separate real estate, our own sort of soundscape just by adding buds to our ears.

  • 12:13:17

    THOMPSONAnd that's what I found really important and interesting about the invention and the use of headphones more recently is the way that that they make us separate, that, in a world of so many distractions, they allow us to be distracted by ourselves.

  • 12:13:32

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Derek Thompson -- he is a senior editor at The Atlantic where he oversees business coverage for the website -- and Leisa Lyle-DeLeon. She's a doctor of audiology who practices in Washington, D.C. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation on headphones and the way they're spreading their omnipresence. So if you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. For a long time, headphone technology did not change a whole lot, Derek. When and why did it change?

  • 12:14:04

    THOMPSONWell, people were trying -- were experimenting for a lot of the late 19th century, trying to build essentially what we consider a modern headphone. And then in the 1920s and up into the 1950s, we essentially created headphones that could plug into fixed speakers in our living rooms so that we could listen to a sermon or listen to Bach, sitting alone on our couch. The interesting thing, though, about the way that headphones have changed is that the technology that they plug into has changed. The technology that they plug into has become mobile.

  • 12:14:34

    THOMPSONSo as opposed to sitting on our couch and having a more private experience with that sermon or with that rock monologue, now we can take that sermon and that rock monologue wherever we go. And so it becomes not just a personal and a private experience, but becomes a personalized experience that we can take on the move, that we can have with us wherever we are.

  • 12:14:55

    NNAMDILeisa Lyle-DeLeon, in growing up, many of us were warned never to put anything bigger than your elbow in your ear. Now, in-ear headphones come with many tech devices. Are they safe?

  • 12:15:09

    LYLE-DELEONWell, they can be safe, but we're finding, unfortunately, that a lot of people are using them in unsafe manners. We are seeing for the first time in this country the largest rise of noise-induced hearing loss among teenagers and children that we would never been able to measure before. Among second to eighth graders and beyond, we're seeing something that we call noise-induced hearing loss for the first time in children because MP3 players and those kind of sources are so readily available and they're easy to afford.

  • 12:15:46

    NNAMDISo how do you know if you're listening at too high a volume?

  • 12:15:51

    LYLE-DELEONWell, that's really hard. Sometimes, I see parents that say, well, I know it's too loud because I can hear. But if you're not using some type of noise-isolating earphone, the fact of the matter is that sound can leak out between the diaphragm of the microphone and your ear canal. And so it's not necessarily too loud because someone sitting next to you can hear it.

  • 12:16:13

    LYLE-DELEONBut one thing we do know that when the sound is too loud, after we've had the exposure, we'll hear some ringing, or we'll hear some sort of fuzziness to our ears. And that's one way, unfortunately too late, that we know it's too loud. Another way is to use the noise limiting to things that you have in the iPhone and the iPad.

  • 12:16:37

    NNAMDIThe features of the that can...

  • 12:16:38

    LYLE-DELEONYes. Some of them have noise-isolating things, and those are the ones that I would encourage parents to try to use. But then they -- ultimately, you need to have your hearing tested. I think it's more prevalent -- the MP3 players have made it necessary for us to really monitor, are our children getting too much noise? Honestly, we're not just looking at the effect of the MP3 players by themselves on our children.

  • 12:17:04

    LYLE-DELEONWe're looking at a cumulative result of noise that they're exposed to from traffic and from everything. So we want to make sure that the accumulative amount of noise is not affecting our hearing in adverse ways. And when we're talking about noise-induced hearing loss, we're talking about the one kind of hearing loss that's fully preventable and that is completely irreversible. Once it happens, it's there.

  • 12:17:29

    NNAMDIWell, let's talk about how the earphones that we wear can affect the amount of noise that we hear. The iPhone 5 is now advertising a new shape of earbud. Is that, if you will, a move in the right direction? You mentioned what you wear, and you can describe that for us.

  • 12:17:47

    LYLE-DELEONYeah. I personally don't use the Apple technology, so I'm not familiar with it. And that's not an indemnification of the product itself. I just don't use Apple right now. But I think it is a move in the right direction. I have seen the commercial because it's -- it looks like it's trying to streamline the end that fits into the ear canal so that, I think, the thought, the idea behind it, if I'm not mistaken, is that they become more like noise-isolating headphones. Whether or not they are effectively isolating the noise or not, I'm not sure.

  • 12:18:26

    NNAMDIWell, some people struggle with the way their headphones fit, especially earbuds. It's my understanding that you make custom molds that sit inside your ear.

  • 12:18:34


  • 12:18:35

    NNAMDIWhat does the process of getting a mold made involve, and what are the advantages?

  • 12:18:40

    LYLE-DELEONWell, the advantage of getting a custom-made mold is that it will fit your ear.

  • 12:18:47

    NNAMDIAre you getting ready to show me your custom-made mold?

  • 12:18:49

    LYLE-DELEONI'm getting ready to show you my custom-made mold.

  • 12:18:52

    NNAMDIOh, I see.

  • 12:18:52

    LYLE-DELEONThis is one kind, OK? So it looks like, for the radio listeners out there, what you would see on an old-fashioned hearing aide basically. But it can be a nice any color that you like, and I like it in a color that, if I dropped it on the floor, I could easily find it. It has an adaptor.

  • 12:19:09

    NNAMDIIt looks like the IFB that I used to wear when I was in television.

  • 12:19:13


  • 12:19:13

    NNAMDIYou fit that into your ear so that your director can communicate with you directly.

  • 12:19:17

    LYLE-DELEONCorrect. And then you can -- it has an adapter on it that I can stick the iPhone headphones into. And this adapter can be made for any kind of headphones that you have. I just have mine for the iPhone 'cause I do have an iPod.

  • 12:19:35

    NNAMDIHa. There, you do have an Apple product after all.

  • 12:19:36

    DR. LEISA LYLES-DELEONI do. OK. And there's -- some others that are a little bit more on the expensive side. These actually have a speaker in them. There are some that have -- they're a little bit more expensive. If you're like me, you probably destroy at least two set of headphones a year, you know?

  • 12:19:54

    NNAMDIAnd I see Derek nodding in agreement.

  • 12:19:56

    THOMPSONSounds optimistic for me.

  • 12:19:57

    NNAMDIYes. Two is a low number for Derek.

  • 12:19:58

    LYLES-DELEONYou know, 'cause they get shoved in your pocket and in your purse and the -- and they get shorts in them, so you -- so this is probably the first option to have the custom molds made with an adaptor on them are probably the least expensive option because these will last forever. I've had these for four years...

  • 12:20:14

    NNAMDIOh, good.

  • 12:20:15

    LYLES-DELEON...and they look like brand new.

  • 12:20:16

    NNAMDIThey sure do.

  • 12:20:17

    LYLES-DELEONAnd so I just -- but my -- unfortunately, my headphones haven't lasted quite that long.

  • 12:20:22

    LYLES-DELEONSo I just buy new ones and stick them in, and I keep going. But it keeps all of the ambient noise out. And, right away, what you're going to find if you use these things is that the level of volume that you require on your iPod or whatever MP3 player that you're using is going to be immediately lower. You're going to need it a lot lower.

  • 12:20:39

    NNAMDIMakes a lot of sense. Here is Kathleen in Arlington, Va. Kathleen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:47

    MS. KATHLEEN O'BRIENWell, I can't live with just two hours of "The Kojo Show" a day, so I'd like to have -- listen to the archives while I walk the dog.

  • 12:20:56

    NNAMDIYes. Yes.

  • 12:20:57

    O'BRIENAnd, see, I have an old iPhone and the EarPods really hurt my ears, and they really don't fit in them. And maybe while I was talking to Natalie, you were talking about what I can do. I know the iPhone 5 have the new EarPods.

  • 12:21:15


  • 12:21:15

    O'BRIENBut is there something more comfortable that I can put in my ears and -- for an iPhone and still be able to listen to Kojo?

  • 12:21:24

    NNAMDIThat is a exactly what our guest Leisa Lyles-DeLeon was just describing for you, Kathleen O'Brien, our favorite volunteer who has now just been outed. I think, Kathleen, that's exactly the kind of thing that you need that you can use to listen to this show and any other for as long as you want. So...

  • 12:21:44

    O'BRIENOK. So I just need to listen to the archives for this show to get it.

  • 12:21:47

    NNAMDIExactly right, and you got it.

  • 12:21:50

    O'BRIENOK. Great. Thanks so much.

  • 12:21:51

    NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call, Kathleen. We move on to Danielle (sic) -- Daniel in Bethesda, Md. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:22:00

    RYAN BUCKLEHi, Kojo. Actually, this is your buddy, Ryan Buckle and -- but during the day, I'm an audio engineer, so this is a subject that I am constantly conscious of. And I thought, just some points, one, that where people who make records and produce records, the move from vinyl to a digital medium like CDs was the huge move. But with the advent of all these headphones, it's changed the way that we produce music again because there's a whole new constant as to what music is going to sound like when a listener hears it.

  • 12:22:33

    RYAN BUCKLEAnd there's so many different kinds of headphones that are accentuating bass and bringing out different parts of the music, so the fidelity is now much more in question. I'd be interested what your guests have to say about that. But also, studies that I was familiar with and you guys touched on about the length of time that you can listen to your headphones at a certain volume. And I remember a Rolling Stone article saying that 50 percent of the iPad's or iPod's volume capacity for 30 minutes was enough to exhaust your ears and to keep your ears (unintelligible).

  • 12:23:07

    NNAMDIKnow anything about that, Dr. DeLeon?

  • 12:23:10

    LYLES-DELEONWell, it's actually a balance, you know. I don't actually know what the capacity of the iPod is. I never would listen to it there. But then that, to me, I'm sure there are people who listen to the volume turned all the way up. It is actually a balance of the amount of time that you're listening to the music or whatever it is that you're listening to and the loudness so that you can actually have one exposure for a very -- just under a minute that's loud enough, a blast, for example, that can affect your hearing permanently in this way.

  • 12:23:44

    LYLES-DELEONAnd we see that a lot with people who are in the military or who have done time in the military. You can be in a factory where the noise level -- let's just say it's 85 decibels. If you're there for five days a week, eight hours a day and you do overtime, then you're already in the danger zone for your hearing. So it's a balance of how much loudness are you exposed to and how much time. And I would definitely say that if you're wearing your iPods at full blast, that you need to stop that, oh, immediately at full capacity.

  • 12:24:18

    NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call, Ryan. Derek, there are conflicting studies on whether listening to music helps or hinders productivity, which seems to boil down to it depends. But you struck on a few reasons why headphones are so common, even if they don't necessarily make us more efficient. What have you come up with?

  • 12:24:36

    THOMPSONExactly. Right. So it's true that listening to music is bad for certain kinds of work. It hurts your ability to recall certain stimuli. One only has so much focus. So if you're focusing on the music, it leaves less focus left over to do your work. And sometimes it can scramble our verbal processes. If you imagine listening to a complicated -- a song with a complicated lyric while trying to listen to a friend explain something else, you can imagine how difficult it would be to listen to two things at once.

  • 12:25:08

    THOMPSONIt's impossible to multitask along one sort of verbal line. So sometimes it can be difficult. It can be nice, obviously, to hear a nice song, but it can hurt your ability to accomplish some work. At the same time, music does relax our muscles. It improves your mood. It can reduce anxiety. It can slow heartbeat, and it can stimulate creativity. But, most importantly, in office environment -- you know, we're in a service economy now. It's not the 1950s -- most people are working essentially at a computer. They're sitting down.

  • 12:25:39

    THOMPSONThey're often in a cubicle. They're surrounded by people. You know, it's a dense country. And so music gives us an ability -- music with headphones gives us an ability to control and set our own audio environment. So rather than be distracted by the things that we don't want to be distracted by, we choose what's going to sort of be the soundtrack of our workday. We can choose to put Chopin on rather than listen to our work neighbor talk to his sister.

  • 12:26:06

    THOMPSONAnd so these are the kind of things that, you know, that explain why even though there's all this research out there that shows that music can hurt productivity, people continue to listen to music to even have headphone -- to have headphones on, even if it's playing, you know, white noise because it's establishing an environment that they're controlling as opposed to other people are controlling.

  • 12:26:27

    NNAMDIIn the final analysis, headphones give us absolute control over our audio environment, allowing us in a way to privatize our public spaces.

  • 12:26:36

    THOMPSONExactly right. I think that, you know -- I -- sometimes, I find actually that if I want to be left alone, but I don't necessarily want to listen to any music -- I want to be left in silence -- I'll put on my headphones. And I'll assume that other people seeing me wear headphones will say, oh, he's using the headphones. He surely rather -- he must be very busy. We won't disturb him.

  • 12:26:59

    THOMPSONSo what's interesting is there, the headphones become not a way of transmitting music to my ears, but a way of transmitting a message to my friends that says leave me alone for now. I put on these headphones because I want to be separate from the world. And I know lots of friends who do the same thing. They put on headphones even when they're not listening to music to show other people -- to tell other people this is the time that I want to be left alone where I just want to listen to my own thoughts.

  • 12:27:21

    NNAMDIYou have just answered a crucial question for me, why my producers all put on their headphones every time I walk into the office.

  • 12:27:27

    THOMPSONI'm sorry I busted their secret.

  • 12:27:28

    NNAMDINow I get it. Here is Griff in Arlington, Va. Griff, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Griff. Are you there? Griff may have walked away from the phone for a while. Griff, I'll put you on hold and come back to you. Here is Gary in Rockville, Md. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:27:47

    GARYYeah. Hello, my name is Gary. And I just want to say that I put on a yearly audio file event called the Capital Audiofest. And I come from the school where -- massive speakers and tube amplifiers and turntables and all that. And I find it fascinating how, in the last few years, I've had several manufacturers attend my event and with a huge surge in -- of headphones. And it's becoming very popular, I'd say, with the youth.

  • 12:28:21

    GARYAnd it's great to bring in people that are finding -- that there's better sound than your free headphones that are given with your phone. And now people are really getting into the personal hi-fi because they want better quality sound. They can afford maybe better headphones. And the headphones go from the freebies up to thousands of dollars for a pair of headphones, which is unbelievable, and I just find it fascinating. And I just want to share that with your audience. Thank you.

  • 12:28:49

    NNAMDII don't know if either you, Leisa, or you, Derek, care to comment on that.

  • 12:28:53

    THOMPSONSure. I mean, one thing to say is that it's the proliferation of smartphones that makes this possible. You know, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, if you are 15, it was probably -- it might be unlikely that you have a cellphone, much less a cellphone that doesn't listen to music, plus an iPod or some other like, you know, CD player because that required just a lot of things to have at once. But now, you know, your iPhone or your Android device will, of course, come with music capabilities.

  • 12:29:22

    THOMPSONAnd so simply plugging a headphone turns the thing that's necessary to your life, the smartphone, into a music player. So that certainly explains, I think, some of the rise in headphone purchases.

  • 12:29:32

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. If you'd like to join this conversation, it's a Tech Tuesday conversation on headphones. Leisa, you're seeing -- oh, please go ahead.

  • 12:29:42

    LYLES-DELEONNo. I just think it's interesting that Derek started out when he was talking about the beginning of the invention of headphones and how they were to connect us, and now he's making a case for how it's to separate us.

  • 12:29:58

    LYLES-DELEONAnd I think -- I just wanted to add to what you said about in the workplace and using the headphones there. I think it depends on your intention. I think it depends on your goal, whether or not -- now if your intention is to separate yourself from your co-workers and to try to create a sort of a personal space, then I think putting the headphones on will do that.

  • 12:30:17

    LYLES-DELEONBut it then also depends on the task at hand for you because what I do, I talk to my patients a lot about communication -- an effective communication, and bringing to bear all your cognitive function, you know, everything that you know about the situation, your visual function and your auditory function.

  • 12:30:37

    LYLES-DELEONNow, one of the things that I'm always concerned about that headphones do do in creating this private world, if you will, is it distracts you visually from the unintentional things that you need to see in your environment. It doesn't allow you to hear the unintentional things that your ears would pick up in your environment.

  • 12:30:58

    NNAMDIIn a normal situation if you weren't wearing headphones.

  • 12:31:00


  • 12:31:01

    NNAMDIWhich allows you to be more generally aware of your environment around you.

  • 12:31:05


  • 12:31:06

    NNAMDIExcept for those periods of time when you don't want to be generally aware of.

  • 12:31:09

    THOMPSONRight. There's always a trade-off. I certainly know when I'm walking around the streets of New York and I put in headphones. Sometimes I'll find myself almost hit by a car and realize that I've crossed the street when it's not my turn and a cab has nearly nicked me. And it's because of exactly what you said. We only have so much focus. And if I'm putting on a new song and I'm thinking about how much I'm enjoying it, I probably have left -- less left over for either listening to the wheels, you know, approaching me at 40 miles an hour or seeing out of the corner of my eye the yellow cat.

  • 12:31:39

    THOMPSONAnd so it's the same in the office. You know, there's always a trade-off between what I prefer to be, you know, more exposed to the environment around me and a little bit more open to my colleagues or do I want to be more active about creating an audio environment for myself that I get the work done that I know I have to get done. Maybe I separate myself from my colleagues because I happen to like them less than they are at present.

  • 12:32:03

    NNAMDII hope they're all listening at this point.

  • 12:32:04

    THOMPSONThey're all listening.

  • 12:32:05

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will be still in the fourth day of our fall membership campaign. We'll talk to you about that, and then we will resume this conversation about headphones. If you have called, stay on the line. You can still call 800-433-8850 or send email with your questions or comments to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:39:10

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on headphones. We're talking with Leisa Lyles-DeLeon. She's a doctor of audiology who practice in Washington, D.C. Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees business coverage for the website. The lines are busy, so if you'd like to get in touch with us, if you have a question or comment for us, you can go directly to our website, Or you can send email to Before I go to the headphones, Leisa, you're seeing signs of permanent hearing loss in kids as young as seven.

  • 12:39:43


  • 12:39:44

    NNAMDIHow can parents make sure that kids' ears are protected if they're using headphones?

  • 12:39:48

    LYLES-DELEONWell, one way is to make sure that they are getting -- they're using the noise-limiting features on the equipment that they're using. Limit the amount of time and exposure that they actually have, and try to train your children to understand that if they have to raise their voice to be heard -- if you have to raise your voice to be heard by them and they're wearing the headphones, then it's probably too loud.

  • 12:40:10

    MS. LEISA LYLES-DELEONIf they can't understand you and you're just at an arm's length from them, then it's probably too loud. If they have any pain or ringing in their ears or some -- or dull sensation after they've gotten the headphones out, then it probably was too loud. And those things are things that are after the fact, but I'd like, as prevention, for them to limit the amount of time that they're exposed to noise.

  • 12:40:34

    MS. LEISA LYLES-DELEONAnd keep in mind that if your child plays in the band or they're at school, then it's loud there. So you have to think that it's not just the exposure that you're observing right now. It's the whole course of their day, so that's why I want you to limit that. Don't -- try to avoid buying noisy toys and things that you might get as we're coming up on the holidays. And try not to put things in their ears that might help to push wax down that would encourage them to make the volume of their iPods or the MP3 players louder.

  • 12:41:08

    NNAMDIAnd, Derek, underscoring a point that you made earlier about music and the focus of the mind, we got a tweet from Daniela that says, "I get my best writing done listening to Pandora. I think it just focuses my mind somehow."

  • 12:41:21

    THOMPSONRight, exactly. And, you know, nobody really knows where, you know, inspiration comes from, but it mostly comes from, I think, a place of relaxation. And it's hard to feel relaxed when you feel like you're not in control. And so if you're in an office or you're, say, you're in your apartment and your roommates are being loud or your colleagues are being loud and you're feeling distracted by them, then it's difficult to feel sort of spontaneously inspired.

  • 12:41:44

    THOMPSONBut when you go through the process of putting on your headphones, plugging in, putting on Pandora, a familiar station, you know, you can just sense that it begins to -- you know, it relaxes your blood pressure. It makes you feel, you know, more in tune with yourself. And that's really where certainly all my best ideas come from.

  • 12:42:03

    LYLE-DELEONThey don't come from when I'm extremely stressed and have five minutes to write something and I'm just trying to put it up on the Web as soon as possible. It comes from a time when I can sort of lean back and think about an issue, and feeling in control of my environment, my audio environment and sort of where I am goes a long way with that.

  • 12:42:19

    NNAMDIBack to the phones. Here's Moaz (sp?) in Hyattsville, Md. Moaz, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:42:25

    MOAZHey. Thank you, Kojo, for taking my call. I mean, I want to mention, I mean, beside the bad effect on our hearing, the headphone has made us, I mean, isolated and unsociable. I mean, I like to have a conversation wherever I will be, like in a bus and Metro. And everybody is hooked up through these headphones, and you cannot talk to anybody next to you. So I'm new here to the -- I mean, I'm single again, and I find it very challenging to go and, you know, talk to girls again.

  • 12:43:04

    MOAZLike, everybody is hooked up, and it seems like they don't want to be disturbed. I wish they put a sign, actually, hey, don't disturb me, or you can talk to me now, even, you know, I'm listening to my music. It would be easy. So that's my point. If you can elaborate on that being unsociable, I mean, with this new technology, or not new.

  • 12:43:25

    NNAMDII don't know if I can elaborate on it or if Derek Thompson can for you. But if you are plugged in and everyone else is plugged in, it seems like a good conversation starter would be, what are you listening to?

  • 12:43:36

    THOMPSONRight, right. Again, like I said, I think, at the beginning, to a certain extent, you know, headphones, somewhat ironically when you think about why they're invented, which was, you know, to connect naval officers. It is sort of ironic that now they are -- they're used in sort of antisocial way, which is to separate us from the world. And, you know, I guess that's the -- it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes us feel more private. On the other hand, it can make us feel -- look a little standoffish.

  • 12:44:00

    NNAMDIAnd if, Moaz, she happens to be listening to something that you might be interested in, then you can both be listening to the same thing at the same time, and thus a relationship is born. But good luck, Moaz. Thank you very much for your call. Here is Chris in Arlington, Va. Chris, your turn.

  • 12:44:16

    CHRISHi, Kojo. I had a question for your guests. I was wondering if they know of any correlation between the quality of headphones and the potential damage maybe that the young people are experiencing because, personally, I can remember looking back to when I was younger and using the standard iPod headphones that -- some are very tinny and would hurt my ears when I would turn the volume up.

  • 12:44:36

    CHRISBut I wanted to hear every bit of the music, whereas now that I've progressed to a more expensive pair of headphones, studio production quality pair of headphones, I can have the volume much lower and hear every bit of the sound and every bit of music that I'm trying to listen to.

  • 12:44:48

    NNAMDILeisa Lyles-DeLeon?

  • 12:44:49

    LYLES-DELEONYeah. I think, generally, if you have a better quality, higher fidelity headphones, that that bass that you want to hear or that high frequency that you want to hear, you're not going to have to take the volume up quite so loudly. But I think fit issue, fit is a big issue. You -- I think, generally, we don't see people walking around with the circumaural headphones, the ones that cover your ears. I have seen some, but generally we have them that they fit in the canal.

  • 12:45:16

    LYLES-DELEONAnytime you have something that is going to allow sound, again, to leak out --remember, sound can -- goes both ways -- it's going to leak in, too. So if you're sitting in traffic or walking down a busy intersection along Connecticut or Wisconsin Avenue around here, it gets kind of loud around rush hour time. You're going to need more volume to be able to hear all the lows and the highs that you want to hear in your music than you would if you were at home. So you have to be really careful with that.

  • 12:45:44

    NNAMDIThere is quality, Derek, and then there is style. Like many other accessories, headphones have become a sort of status symbol or a fashion statement. Do you have to sacrifice form over function when it comes to design here?

  • 12:45:58

    THOMPSONYou know, it's -- I think it's the case, especially when -- as you move to smaller headphones, and people can't really see the buds. The most distinguishing part of the headphone is weirdly the cord. And for whatever reason, I've noticed that, you know, when I see a white cord, I know that it's an Apple product. And when I see a red cord, I'm pretty sure that it's Beats.

  • 12:46:17

    THOMPSONAnd then black cords are usually the ones that I get from CVS, the cheap ones, because I break my headphones every two weeks. So I can't justify a terribly expensive new headphone, knowing that it's not going to last the month.

  • 12:46:31

    NNAMDIBut you got hip-hop artists now who endorse headphones. You've got Beats by Dre...

  • 12:46:37


  • 12:46:37 Dr. Dre. You've got Skullcandy, which offers a pair of Jay-Z-endorsed Roc Nation Aviators, and SOUL Electronics has paired with rapper Ludacris. What's going on?

  • 12:46:48

    THOMPSONWell, I think what's going on is that we're realizing that because we can listen to music anywhere, headphones are one of the few products that are -- that we find always around us. I know that when I leave my apartment to go to work, the things that I want to make absolutely sure that I have on my person are, in order of importance, my computer, my wallet and then my phone and headphones.

  • 12:47:11

    THOMPSONIf I leave my keys at home, I frankly don't care. I can buzz up back to the apartment, and that's pretty easy. What is really frustrating, though, is to have to, you know, endure 30 minutes to an hour of traveling without being able to listen to any music or any podcast and have to sort of, you know, endure, you know, merely the sounds of New York.

  • 12:47:28

    THOMPSONI'm so -- I don't want to say addicted, but familiar with and used to being able to listen to whatever I want whenever I want to, that when I find myself, you know, without my headphones, it creates a little bit of a, you know, emotional crisis that I have to overcome.

  • 12:47:46

    NNAMDIAnxiety attacks because he doesn't have his headphone.

  • 12:47:49


  • 12:47:50

    NNAMDIAccording to the website CNET, sales of headphones priced over $100 have become the engine of growth in the audio market, growing 65 percent in the first half of 2012 and accounting for 43 percent of all headphone revenue. If you're interested in checking it out, we have a link of the CNET's buyers' guide on our website,, so you can see what others are paying and what you would like to pay for a set of headphones. We move on now to John in Washington, D.C. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:22

    JOHNYes. Thank you very much, Kojo. And the comment I had to make was sort of bridging the gap between the isolation aspect from listening to music, but also the isolation that music can cause as far as creating hearing loss and hearing ability to be able to communicate with the rest of the community. It certainly is a significant one. And the nice part is, as Dr. DeLeon will probably -- knows very well, is that there are a lot of apps out there that are free that you can download that can help you try to regulate how loud that music is. If I may, there's one in particular that I'd like to share.

  • 12:48:57

    NNAMDIGo ahead.

  • 12:48:58

    JOHNIt's called -- if you log on to, it's an excellent one because it gives you a couple of things in there.

  • 12:49:04

    NNAMDIMm hmm.

  • 12:49:08

    JOHNFirst of all, you can play your music, and then it has a scale in there that can let you know roughly how loud is safely loud. And it can also -- it also has a section where you can play your music and then -- they call it auto age your ears so that if you will be exposed to the noises, like Dr. DeLeon was referring to, for an extended period and incur some frequency hearing loss, noise and just hearing loss, you can show whatever you like to, say, roughly, at 40 years of age, 50 years of age, 60 years of age with that continued noise exposure. And I'll be quiet now.

  • 12:49:42

    NNAMDIOh, John, you don't have to be quiet. There is one more question. Do you have a financial interest in

  • 12:49:48

    JOHNI do not. In fact, I'm another audiologist. And I saw this technology demonstrated to one of our national meetings. So there's no connection whatsoever. It's just -- it's one of many apps.

  • 12:49:59

    NNAMDIDarn, I was going to use that to extract a membership pledge from you in return for promoting your business.

  • 12:50:04

    JOHNI will give you all the royalties I get from that.

  • 12:50:07

    NNAMDIOK. John, thank you very much for your call. Care to comment at all on that?

  • 12:50:10

    LYLES-DELEONYeah. I'll piggyback a little bit on what John was just saying. I have an app on my phone that I keep on there. It's called Sound Meter. And I use a Droid, so I know that that's available to Android and to Apple users or iPhone users. I have it because I have kids, and they do use these devices. And I want them to be able to see how loud they're listening to it. We have to think about it in terms of context. Because if we listen to an iPhone or a speaker in a large ear, let's say a man who's, like, 6-foot-5 or six -- or Shaq, OK?

  • 12:50:49

    LYLES-DELEONI don't know how big Shaq's ears are...

  • 12:50:51

    NNAMDISeven-feet tall.

  • 12:50:51

    LYLES-DELEONYeah. But, you know, we can imagine that they -- he might have large ear canals. The sound pressure inside his ear canal at a particular volume level is going to be a lot lower than in a child who has a much smaller ear. So this is one way of just seeing what's coming out of the speaker or the driver immediately. But then you have to take into account how it's going to change once it gets in the ear canal. It certainly isn't going to be softer, OK?

  • 12:51:23

    LYLES-DELEONSo that's one way of monitoring not only the environment, but you can put the speaker of the headphone right up against the microphone of the phone -- your cellphone and be able to see how loud that's coming out.

  • 12:51:37

    NNAMDIAnd there's a video at our website,, that shows how the ear works. You can go to our website,, and have access to that video there. John, thank you for your call. On to Liz in Silver Spring, Md. Liz, your turn.

  • 12:51:53

    LIZWell, I'm not a fanatical earphone webcast user, but I use public transportation. And one of the new sources of anxiety publicly seems to be people who insist on using earphones that broadcasts to me and the rest of the car. We all look at one another, roll our eyes and hear whether it's hip-hop or Mozart. And then we've added a new hazard to peace and quiet insanity, and that seems to be the handheld video games or phone games, which go crash, bang and bells.

  • 12:52:27

    LIZAnd people don't feel they're required to use headphones to turn the volume off on those. And I just like some of the comment a little bit about the stress and anxiety, not to mention your rudeness caused by people who smugly put in a cheap earphone -- or maybe it's an expensive one -- and then -- and force the rest of us to endure their pleasure.

  • 12:52:48

    NNAMDISo you're saying you appreciate good headphones that do not disturb other people riding in the same car, on the train or on a bus, and you do not appreciate people who either have poor headphones or don't use headphones at all?

  • 12:53:03

    LIZRight. It's...

  • 12:53:05


  • 12:53:05

    LIZYou know, I'm sympathetic to the need to protect the hearing of the headphone user, but that's their choice. The rest of us have blood pressure that rises...

  • 12:53:14 the rhythm of the beats as it were.

  • 12:53:18

    NNAMDITo the rhythm of the -- any -- care to comment at all, Dr. DeLeon?

  • 12:53:21

    LYLES-DELEONIt's very interesting that she is talking about blood pressure and all that because we do know that when you're exposed to consistently loud levels of noise, we do see increases in blood pressure. We do see increases in anxiety and irritability. It's the opposite of being relaxing and focused.

  • 12:53:43

    NNAMDIYou care to comment, Derek?

  • 12:53:43

    THOMPSONThe other thing I would say -- right. The first thing to concede is I'm not very proud of my music taste. And so when I'm listening to music on the train, I do my best to keep the volume as low as possible to make sure that nobody can possibly hear what horrible pop songs happening -- happen to be playing at the time. But the solution to her problem, it seems to me, is probably to buy a pair of headphones.

  • 12:54:09

    THOMPSONIf she's disturbed and made anxious -- you know, I'm not an elegist. But if she's disturbed there or made anxious by sound leading into the subway car from other people who aren't being as considerate about keeping their music down, you know, one way to not be held at the mercy -- that the whims of other travelers is simply to buy your own headphones and to listen to your own soft music or even white noise to drown it out, I suppose.

  • 12:54:38

    NNAMDIAnd Leisa Lyles-DeLeon will say, and use them...

  • 12:54:41

    LYLES-DELEONOr you could use...

  • 12:54:41 an appropriate volume.

  • 12:54:42

    LYLES-DELEONYeah. Or you could use earplugs. But I think in all fairness, I think we're looking at a generational difference, too, where you have one generation whose focus was really engaging and to connect. And now, the new generation just seems to kind of want to disconnect and be by themselves. So there's some of that.

  • 12:55:03

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Leisa Lyles-DeLeon is a doctor of audiology who practices in Washington, D.C. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:55:10

    LYLES-DELEONThank you very much for having me.

  • 12:55:11

    NNAMDIDerek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees business coverage for the website. Derek Thompson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:55:17

    THOMPSONThank you.

  • 12:55:18

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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