Decibel Danger

Music, whether classical or rock, can be heard way passed 100 db. I am wondering what db high is safe, especially with headphones and earphones. I own Martin-Logan speakers which at times (Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich, etc) I play loudly but (I am sure you all know this but I am trying to make a point) when using earphones, this great sound is right up against your eardrums. It would be ironic if we lose our hearing in trying to hear music the way the composer intended. Any thoughts?

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Just a random musing but I’ve noticed that with higher quality headphones I can enjoy listening at lower volumes since they tend to have more clarity and detail present even at lower volumes. I think some of the desire to increase volume comes from a lack of detail that otherwise wouldn’t be heard/noticed at lower volumes when using headphones of lesser quality.


According to the NIH, anything over 85 db can damage one’s hearing, regardless of the source. The higher the decibels, the shorter the time damage can occur. I know the threshold of pain is near/at 120, which means that damage is already taking place. Most DAPs, can produce pretty close to that with the addition of amplifiers.

I’m no scientist but have researched this some. I guess moderation is key here. If you think the source you’re listening to is too loud, it probably is way above what you should be at.

I intend to keep my ears at their best for many years to come so I try to practice safe sound as much as I can.


I guess good old common sense is the answer but with music, some of us get carried away. Thank richest.


I’ve found that with in ear headphones, I am much more inclined to listen at a lower volume de facto, because of the noise isolation that they provide. That’s another great plus that may not be immediately apparent to most folks when considering different headphone types.

Personally I always make sure to check the volume when I begin a listening session, i.e. I deliberately turn the volume incrementally lower regardless, if I think the current volume is too loud or not, in doing so I consciously try to find the lowest volume that allows me to distinctly hear all instruments and vocals. I try to listen into the music rather than have the music blast at me, if that makes sense. I also try to do re-check the volume sometime further into my listening session to re-evaluate the sound levels. In case of very dynamic recordings I oftentimes adjust the volume throughout ( I don’t use normalization though, if the software provides such a feature. Although that’s just a personal preference).

I hope this makes sense and doesn’t come across as too obvious. I just think its so easy to listen to high volume when it’s really not necessary especially with headphones.



I always recommend people pick up a cheap sound level meter. I use this one. For under $20 it is a pretty solid and handy device to have around. It isn’t perfect, but I have a piece of cardboard with a notch cut out in the center that I stick the meter’s mic through and then push the cardboard piece around the headphone earcup to form a seal. This lets me estimate the volume levels my ear is getting from a headphone with a decent amount of accuracy, probably within 5 dB or so. I play it on the cautious side and assume it is underestimating by 5dB so I try and keep my listening volumes in the 75-80 measured dB range.

Another great use for that meter is for trying to volume match headphones for comparisons. I’ve gotten a ton of use out of mine.


I picked up one of these recently (a sound level meter) and have gotten a lot of use out of it in an attempt to volume match different headphones and speaker systems. I’ve been trying to convince a friend of mine (who records and produces music for a living) that he is monitoring too loud. Any time he calls me over to listen to something or give an opinion on a mix, I find the volume physically painful. Using the SPL, we found out that he generally monitors with his Genelecs at around 95 dB. He doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem, and I hope it doesn’t cause him issues in the future.

Have you compared the sound level meter you use to using a decibel monitoring app on a phone? I only ask because I’ve been considering buying one to check something at work and wondered how accurate my phone would be.

I have only briefly messed around with the phone apps and I have heard mixed things about them. I think it also has to do with the mic quality of the phone in question as well. The other challenge is being able to position your phone mic into a setup that gives a nice seal and puts the mic into a place your ears would be. And the nice thing about the actual sound level meters is that they have to be calibrated to a standard. So even though the methodology for what I am doing induces a bit of error/offset in how much volume actually gets to my ears, I am at least trying to minimize error as much as possible by using reliable, calibrated hardware.

What it comes down to for me is that if I am ok spending $1k+ on multiple headphones, I am not going to cheap out of buying a $15 sound level meter. I have that thing sitting on my desk next to my headphones and I constantly use it to keep myself in check and make sure I know what my listening levels are. That peace of mind it brings me knowing that I am doing the best I can to preserve my hearing for the rest of my life is absolutely worth the $15 I spent on the meter.


For me, this depends a lot on what I’m listening for (i.e. voices, bass, highs) and how the headphones’ frequency response interacts with equal loudness contours.

For example, let’s say I’m listening with the HD600 that has pretty elevated mids relative to everything else. If I’m listening to folk rock, I tend not to turn them up very high because all the action is happening where the headphones and my own ears are the most sensitive. However, if I start listening to electronic music where I want to hear what’s going on in the lower frequencies, I’ll find myself unconsciously turning up the volume to get more of that bass (to which ears are relatively insensitive at lower SPLs).

So, as a rule of thumb, aside from general quality and clarity, I think that v-shaped sound signatures are great for listening at lower volumes since due to our ears’ varying sensitivity, they sound closer to neutral at lower volumes.

What brand/model of sound meter did you get? How easy is it to survey the different headphones you have (IEMs vs circumaural)?

I linked the specific one I use in my initial post:

Really, all of those cheap ones are very similar, they each measure in dBA and are calibrated to the same standards.

I also explained in that post how I do my measurements:

I don’t have a method for measuring IEMs. But I will say that the more you take readings of your listening levels, the better you will get at being able to assess volume levels. Also, with IEMs because of the better isolation, I tend to just listen at lower volume in general compared to open backs.

thanks missed the linky earlier…

I do a very similar thing, I keep my reader within arms reach while listening and try to maintain below 85db with all headphones. It can be tough at times, but I found that if I start with the volume completely down/off and slowly bring it to a nice listening level I’m usually well below 85db. But if I start with the volume already up I’ll tend to get closer or over the 85db at times. Having the reader on hands is key to keeping your ears healthy (past law enforcement type jobs have caused some tinnitus), which I’m more particular about now that tinnitus is more present.


Yeah it is so crazy how easy it is to accidentally slowly increase volume over a session to the point that you adjust to it and not think about it. But then if you just pause the music for a few minutes or so and then come back, it is really easy to hear how dangerously loud it got.

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This! I will get up to pour another dram, sit back down, and go oh Shiat! that is too loud. I’m sure listening while whiskey sampling isn’t the smartest either…I find myself getting even more into the music and the volume knob will start to creep on me. But it is sooo damn enjoyable and relaxing.

I’ve noticed a similar effect with car audio. Every now and then I’ll get in my car in the morning and be shocked by how loud the stereo’s playing.

Not the most sophisticated design but for testing Spl on IEMs I use a 3x5 file card rolled around the sound tube of my Spl Meter it gives me about an inch above the top of the tube to stick the IEMs with eartips down into the tube.
It may not be perfect but I can get consistent results and level match if I’m comparing IEMs

I know that high listening levels isn’t the best thing for your ears but I believe there is more to that. I enjoy listening to my music at fairly high levels but I don’t expose my hearing to abusive levels constantly.

What I am trying to say is I let my ears rest after I am done with a listening session. After 6 and a half decades of life my hearing is doing pretty well. I took an online test and I tested at or a bit better than people in my age bracket (I have taken two of these).

I don’t expose my hearing to other high sound levels. My job keeps me in front of a computer screen and I worry more about my eye sight than my hearing. I make a point of not exposing my hearing to excessive noise levels constantly and it seems to have worked.

I think if we tend to give our ears a break and not expose them to high SPLs constantly we should end up helping our ears. Maybe this only works for me but it seems logical.


PS. Of course headphone listening has its own dangers. We seal our ears in a sound cocoon and pressurize it with music. If we add a good quality amp we raise the odds that something may end up being too much. I have purchased some headphone stuff capable of very high SPLs but I take care to not over do the listening level. My Schiit Lyr 2 can output 6 watts into a 32 ohm load. That’s alot. Maybe it should come with a danger sticker on it.

I can certainly agree with sometimes pushing too hard. When I wear my over ears I can tend to keep nudging up that volume knob a little too much. I always try to get that extra bit of detail and it’s no use. I don’t do this to extremes though. I don’t suffer with earache or tinitus thank goodness. And I want to keep it that way. I always need to reign myself in and keep it at safe levels.