Listening for Life

Growing up, my parents never had a stereo. In fact, the only times I really remember them listening to music would either be in the car—where I developed my love of Van Morrison’s “Moondance”—or from a kitchen countertop radio.

I got a Sony Walkman in seventh grade for getting straight A’s, and my dad was emphatic that I not raise the volume above 4, an arbitrary number I’m sure he selected based solely on 4 being less than 5. I know his intentions were good, wanting to keep me from blasting my eardrums to shreds with the constant Thomas Dolby, Talking Heads, and Devo tapes I was playing, but sometimes you’ve just got to feel the beat. How is one supposed to enjoy “Psycho Killer” on 4?! My love of music could not be contained by a number! So naturally, I nudged it up whenever he wasn’t looking.

Fast forward years later, and my 7-year-old daughter, Lauryn, is the same way. Whenever we travel, she watches movies and TV shows on our iPad, and even though we lock the volume or tell her not to turn it up, after a while we’ll inevitably start hearing the noise escaping from her ’phones getting louder and louder and whining when we tell her to turn it down.

Now that I understand the importance of safe listening and the damage headphones can do when listening for hours at high volumes, I have a much greater appreciation for what my dad was attempting to do. But being safe doesn’t have to mean limiting your enjoyment; as with anything, the right gear makes all the difference, and here are three sets of ’phones I own that uniquely contribute to safely enjoying your music.

Etymotic Research ETY-Kids
I love the fit, sound isolation, and audio quality of my Etymotic HF-5s, and I was jazzed when I discovered that Etymotic makes ’phones especially for kids. Not only are the tips smaller to fit smaller ears, they’re made with listening safety in mind. According to Etymotic, “The main reason listeners of all ages turn up the volume is to block out distracting background noise.” By creating a quality seal over outside noise—ETY-Kids ($39) are rated at 35 to 42 decibels isolation—you can listen at lower volumes while still enjoying the music. The ETY-Kids’ reduced sensitivity limits them to a maximum volume of 85 dB, meaning they’re safe for listening at full volume all day. Further, the ETYs have a very smooth frequency response with terrific sound quality, so Lauryn is (hopefully) learning to appreciate quality audio as well.

AfterShokz Sportz M2
Considering that the AfterShokz Sportz M2 ($70) don’t go on, over, or in your ears, they are unlike any other headphones you’ll ever wear. Using a patented bone-conduction technology, they conduct sound through your cheekbones straight into your ears. Because they aren’t firing into your ears, you can play audio at maximum volume without any risk of hearing damage. Granted, they don’t produce high-end sound, but I love using the AfterShokz whenever I go for a bike ride or run because they leave my ears open to hear what’s happening around me, meaning they could literally save my life. I recently spent several 8-hour days with the Sportz M2 at a jobsite racking in gear, and it was great listening to music while still being able to communicate with my crew.

Velodyne vQuiet
Lowering the noise floor by eliminating or reducing background noise is key to enjoying your audio, and active noise-cancelling headphones are terrific at this. I was super impressed by Velodyne’s vQuiet ’phones ($299) at this past CES, as they have a comfortable fit, deliver a 90-percent reduction in background noise, and deliver deep bass. These provide a wonderful sanctuary when I need to write at home without distraction. I also wore them when performing my annual crepe myrtle tree trimming, and it was amazing how well the vQuiets blocked out the chain saw’s steady roar, letting me enjoy music instead of the buzzing saw. I’ve yet to enjoy them on a plane, but the vQuiets fold up for easy travel and function in passive mode if the battery should die.

You’ve only got one set of ears, and taking some steps to protect them will ensure you can continue listening and enjoying for life.