Poor headphone use can lead to lasting hearing loss. Are headphones or earbuds better? And can noise-cancelling headphones help? Read our expert tips on using headphones safely

Headphones

Leading health organisations warn that using headphones incorrectly is a serious risk to damaging your hearing, both for younger and older people.

We provide the advice from the experts, plus recommendations on how to best enjoy your headphones and protect your hearing at the same time.

Can headphones damage your hearing?

The NHS warns that listening to headphones too loudly is ‘one of the biggest dangers to your hearing’, so it’s important to develop good listening habits. Excess noise can lead to hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in your ears linked to hearing loss), and if exposure is particularly loud or prolonged, this can be permanent and untreatable.

So it’s important to look after your ears. The NHS recommends: Listen at no more than 60% of the maximum volume on your device Don’t use headphones continuously for more than an hour at a time, taking a break of at least five minutes every hour.

It can be hard to know what counts as ‘too loud’, as you won’t experience the impact immediately. It’s best to start listening at a low volume, then raise it just enough to hear things comfortably. If you turn it up higher than the minimum recommended, even if temporarily, your ears will adapt.

This means you’ll get used to the louder volume and may forget to turn it back down. If you find yourself turning up the volume to drown out external noise, it’s probably time for a new pair of headphones.

Opt for a noise-isolating or noise-cancelling set, which will help block out background noise so you can hear what you’re playing clearly at a lower volume.

headphones and earbuds

What are safe listening levels for headphones?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as keeping the volume below a certain level. Your ears can only take a certain ‘dosage’ of sound – and both the loudness and how long you listen for count towards this dosage. The lower the volume, the longer you can listen without risking damage.

Volume is measured in decibels (dB) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a safe daily limit from all sources of sound – not just headphones – of 85dB for eight hours.

This volume is equivalent to the noise of a food blender or heavy traffic.

While you might think that you never play your music that loud, the WHO warns that personal audio devices can output sound as loud as 136dB. And, to complicate matters, decibels don’t rise in a linear way – for example, an 88dB sound is twice as intense as an 85dB one. At 136dB, only seconds of exposure can cause irreversible damage.

headphones

How do I know if I’m listening too loudly?

Trying to monitor your exposure in decibels is usually impractical in practice, because audio player volume controls don’t usually give this information.

Smartphone apps are available that can tell you in decibels how loud sounds are, but some are more reliable than others and they’re usually designed for sounds in your immediate environment rather than checking the decibels produced by your headphones.

Setting your smartphone’s volume limiter to 60% of the maximum to match the NHS advice is a good idea, but you can’t rely on this alone as it’s only a guide.

In most cases your smartphone won’t know exactly what pair of headphones you’re using. Some headphones can sound much louder than others at the same volume on your device.

Nor can you assume that sticking to the ‘safe listening levels’ that many smartphones indicate when you’re using headphones will automatically protect your hearing – how long you listen for matters just as much as the volume.

headphones

What should I do if I’m concerned that my hearing has been damaged?

There’s no silver bullet to knowing if you’re listening to your headphones too loudly. If, after exposure, your hearing is dulled or ringing, then it may have been damaged.

You should take a long break away from excess noise to minimise the risk of this becoming permanent and let the sensory cells in your ears recover.

Everyone’s ears are different and some are genetically more vulnerable to hearing loss than others. Audiology expert Dr Robert C MacKinnon from Anglia Ruskin University says that until we understand more about hearing loss, advice is of a very general nature.

earbuds

Are headphones or earbuds better for your hearing?

Over-ear headphones are the best option for your ear health, because they’re the best at forming an acoustic seal around your ear, so you don’t need to turn the volume up as loud. The headphone speakers are also further from your eardrums

in-ear headphones sound up to 9dB louder than over-ear sets at the same device volume. In-ear headphones that come with flexible eartips are the next best choice, if you don’t like the feel or bulk of over or on-ear headphones. The flexible tips form an acoustic seal round your ear canal to block outside sounds. Opt for a pair with a choice of different sized tips to suit different ear shapes.

Earbuds, which have hard plastic earpieces, are usually the worst option if you want to prevent hearing damage. They block external noise much less effectively, so you may be tempted to turn your music up beyond safe levels.

earbuds

Can noise-cancelling headphones help prevent hearing loss?

It can help.  Active noise-cancelling technology produces opposing sound waves that cancel out background noise from your environment, so the dosage of sound that reaches your ears in the first place is lower.

This, combined with the fact that you don’t need to raise the volume of your headphones as much to drown out sounds around you, means good active noise-cancelling headphones can help you to protect your hearing.

How effective noise-cancelling technology is varies greatly from model to model, and it often isn’t cheap – the technology tends to add around £100 to the cost of higher-end pairs. To properly test out headphones’ noise-cancelling ability, our lab simulates noisy backgrounds, such as the London Underground.

headphones

What are the best headphones for people with hearing aids?

With typical behind-the-ear hearing aids, you’ll be looking for a large over-ear pair that can fit over both your ear and the hearing aid. Finding a suitable pair can be problematic as the hearing aid microphone can create high-pitched whistling feedback. You’ll need to try out different over-ear or on-ear headphones to find one that works with your type of hearing aid.

It’s much better not to take out hearing aids when using headphones, as you risk using the headphones at very high volumes that could make your hearing loss worse. An alternative option to consider is a Bluetooth hearing aid.

These start from around £1,500 and allow you to connect the hearing aid directly to your smartphone or music device, using them just like a pair of wireless headphones themselves.

If this sounds like a better solution for you, see our hearing aid prices and providers guide. If you’ve had surgically added cochlear implants, these should work well with any style of headphones – in-ear, on-ear or over-ear.

How some headphones can help you hear real conversations more clearly

Android and Apple smartphones both come with functionality that, paired with compatible headphones, can increase the volume of real-life conversations, so you can hear them more clearly.

Just place your device in front of the person you’re talking with and use it as a microphone. The sounds picked up by the device’s microphone will be played in your hearing aid or headphones, helping to amplify the volume of the person’s voice.

It’s designed to work in noisy areas or for hearing someone speaking from across the room.

Apple Live Listen works with either hearing aids that claim ‘Made for iPhone’ support, or with Apple AirPods, Apple AirPods Pro or Beats Powerbeats Pro headphones. You’ll need an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch (with iOS 12 or later) – the feature is built in to your device, so simply customise the Control Centre in the Settings app.

On Android devices, Google’s Sound Amplifier app (free to download from the Google Play store) provides similar functionality with wired and Bluetooth headphones.

earbuds

Top tips on using headphones safely

It’s not possible to cure permanent hearing loss, so it’s important to look after your hearing. If you’re worried, follow these tips for healthier listening habits:

Choose headphones with excellent sound clarity so you’re less likely to need to raise the volume.

Active noise cancelling also helps you to listen at lower volumes by removing background sounds.

Over-ear headphones are generally best, as they form an acoustic seal round your ears so you don’t need turn the sound up as loud to hear well.

If you prefer in-ear headphones, choose a pair with flexible eartips, which are much better than earbuds at blocking outside noise.

Treat your device’s volume limiter as a guide, not a rule. Some people naturally have more sensitive hearing, while some headphones sound louder than others at the same device volume.

Start listening at a low volume, and raise it until you can listen comfortably and no higher.

Don’t turn up to drown out an irritating noise, as you may get used to the volume forget to turn it back down again.

How long you listen for matters as much as the volume, so take regular breaks, especially if you hear ringing or deadened sounds in your ears.

Smartphone app features such as Apple’s Headphone Audio Levels monitor how long you’re listening and warn when to give your ears a rest.

Android’s Sound Amplifier app enhances voice frequencies, so you can hear more clearly without needing to raise the volume.

Do you need to clean your headphones?

Like any item that’s used regularly, headphones run the risk of getting a bit grubby over time – with ear wax, plus any other detritus they might pick up if they’re casually chucked in a pocket or bag, rather than in a dedicated case.

But do they risk gathering other nasties such as bacteria and germs? In March 2020, we swabbed the headphones of a number of volunteers and sent them to our lab for analysis.

Fortunately, our snapshot investigation concluded that the bacteria and other organisms that are typically found on headphones are unlikely to pose a risk to healthy individuals.

Nevertheless, a good clean every now and then will keep your headphones looking their best and do no harm if done properly. So follow our handy tips below on how to clean your headphones.

headphones

How best to clean your headphones

You should always follow your headphone manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning your headphones as all models are different and you could inadvertently damage them by doing the wrong thing.

Many manufacturers warn not to clean with alcohol (this would include some hand sanitisers, for example) as it can damage the surface of headphones. Most headphones also aren’t fully waterproof (even if they say they’re water resistant), so dunking them in the sink with your washing up might stop them working.

Focus on the parts that touch your ears

As you’d expect, the eartips and earcups are the parts of headphones that are likely to get most dirty as they’ll inevitably pick up ear wax from wearing them.

So these should be your priority when cleaning. If you’re using in-ear headphones with removable flexible eartips, you can wash them on their own in a light soapy solution. If you use Comply foam eartips, the manufacturer using only water.

For on-ear and over-ear headphones, some models allow you to remove the fabric-covered foam earpads from the earcups.

If this is possible with your pair, you can carefully wipe the fabric of the earpads with a slightly damp cloth and let them to air dry. Take care, though, as some earcup fabric and foam underneath can be surprisingly absorbent. Try not to get them too wet and avoid any joins in the material. Make sure they’re fully dry before you store them to prevent mould growing.

In practice, it can also be tricky to re-attach the earcups to your headphones, so check how they’re attached when you remove them. You can buy replacement earcups for headphones from some manufacturers, such as Sennheiser, if yours are in a particularly poor condition.

Cleaning the headphone surfaces

Most headphones aren’t fully waterproof (even if they say they’re water resistant), so the safest cleaning method is to try a dry cloth first.

However, oils from skin contact often build up which can be difficult to remove with a dry cloth.

If this is the case, dampen the cloth a little with water (or if necessary, a light, soapy solution provided the manufacturer’s instructions don’t advise against soap) and carefully clean the surfaces, avoiding sensitive areas such as the gauze over the speakers (which are very small and delicate with in-ear headphones), microphone holes, vents, joins in the material, wires, buttons and charging connectors.

For dirt caught in these areas, carefully use a toothpick to dislodge the dirt and then a dry cloth to remove it.

headphones

 

Cleaning around headphone holes

To get out dirt that has collected in holes in the headphones, such as the fragile gauze covering the speakers or the recess for the microphone, carefully use a toothpick or dry cotton bud and take care not to poke the dirt further into the headphones or damage the fragile gauze covering the headphone speakers. It’s important not to get these areas wet.

You’ll need to decide which implement would work best for your headphones. Toothpicks are sharp, so be careful not to scratch or dent the headphones.

Cotton buds can leave strands of cotton that can be tricky to remove if they get stuck in the gauze.

If your headphones are particularly dirty, you could find that cleaning around the gauze improves the sound quality as well – just like excess earwax in your ears, wax build up in headphones can block the sound coming through clearly.

headphones

Can you get an ear infection from headphones?

It’s highly unlikely. If you’re not ill and don’t have existing health conditions that mean you have a weaker immune system, the risks are very low.

Wearing your headphones while exercising creates the type of humid conditions that can encourage the growth of bacteria, but our snapshot lab test of how dirty headphones are found that there’s little cause for concern.

This is because the headphones dry out between uses, and this dry environment doesn’t provide the right conditions for growth of the most common organisms that cause ear infections.

LG TONE Free HBS-FN7 review

Test scoreShow Context

56%

Key features

  • In-ear
  • Wireless
  • Noise cancelling

Compare

 verdict: Unremarkable headphones

These aren’t one of the best active noise cancelling pairs, but they’re also far from being the worst. For this price you’ll do much better with one of our Best Buy pairs.

Pros
  • Noise cancelling is effective with bass frequencies
  • Comfortable and secure fit
  • Lots of app customisation settings
  • Water resistant
  • Wireless charging
Cons
  • Sound quality could be better
  • Mid-frequency noise cancelling less effective
  • Charging case hinge is quite flexible
  • Glossy black earpieces attract fingerprints

    Honor Earbuds 2 Lite review

    Test scoreShow Context

    69%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless
    • Noise cancelling

    Compare

    verdict: Superb bargain buy

    These truly wireless headphones are remarkable. To almost get a Best Buy at this price is an impressive achievement – add in effective noise cancelling, too, and what’s on offer here is exceptionally rare. They’re intended for Android device users, since the app to adjust settings is Android-only, although basic functions do work on iOS, so it’s still a great deal considering the price. They’re an incredible bargain and well worth buying.

    Pros
    • Good sound quality
    • Effective noise cancelling
    • Good build quality
    • Decent battery life for this type of headphones
    Cons
    • Best for Android users – basic functions work on iOS
    • But the app to tweak settings is Android-only

      Belkin Soundform Freedom True Wireless Earbuds review

      Test scoreShow Context

      46%

      Key features

      • In-ear
      • Wireless

      Compare

      verdict: A poor choice

      Outdoor calls sound clearer than most with these in-ear headphones, but indoor calls and music are below par. So, unless you spend most of your time making calls from your garden or local park, we wouldn’t recommend them.

      Pros
      • Long battery life
      • Outdoor phone calls sound clear
      • Good acoustic seal
      Cons
      • No active noise cancellation
      • Music doesn’t sound good
      • Indoor calls are muffled

    LG TONE Free UFP8 review

    £180.00Typical price

    Test scoreShow Context

    60%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless
    • Noise cancelling

    Compare

    verdict: A middling performance

    Sound quality is reasonable with these truly wireless headphones, but not good enough to rival our Best Buys, and the noise-cancelling technology creates bit of a hiss which was noticeable in our tests. For this price you can do better.

    Pros
    • Warm and natural sound quality
    • Good noise cancelling
    • Sound doesn’t leak
    Cons
    • Light bass
    • Comfort is variable
    • Short battery time per charge
    • Case hinge seems flimsy

    Jaybird Vista 2 review

    Test scoreShow Context

    55%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless
    • Noise cancelling

    Compare

     verdict: Not bad for sports

    These truly wireless in-ear headphones should have all the features you need for sports and recreation, and they don’t sound too bad. But for this price we’ve found others that we think are a better choice – such as the original (and cheaper) Vista headphones.

    Pros
    • Rugged enough for sports use
    • Reasonable battery life
    • Very little acoustic leakage
    • Sound isn’t bad
    • Plenty of features
    Cons
    • Pricy
    • Noise cancellation could be more effective

    Skullcandy Push Active True Wireless review

    Test scoreShow Context

    56%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless

    Compare

     verdict: Features over sound

    A host of features and hands-free voice commands set these headphones apart from the crowd. They may appeal to active types, but sound quality is no great shakes and they can’t compete with our Best Buy headphones. For some, the lack of noise cancelling means these headphones won’t even make the ‘maybe’ list.

    Pros
    • Wide range of voice control commands
    • Even sound with some energy
    • Securely fitting earpieces
    • ‘Stay-Aware’ mode to let in ambient noise
    Cons
    • No noise-cancelling
    • Varied opinions on comfort
    • Call quality could be better

    Anker Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro review

    Test scoreShow Context

    52%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless
    • Noise cancelling

    Compare

    verdict: There are better-sounding models available

    Noise cancelling is effective on these truly wireless in-ear headphones, but the sound quality is disappointing compared with rivals. They may be popular on Amazon with hundreds of five-star reviews, but the bottom line is that our comparative tests reveal there are better pairs at around this price – choose one of our noise-cancelling Best Buy or Great Value pairs instead.

    Pros
    • Effective noise-cancellation
    • Versatile and easy-to-use app
    • Splashproof
    • Reasonable battery life for this type of headphone
    • Acceptable phone call quality
    • Wireless charging
    Cons
    • Poor sound quality
    • Build could be better

      LG TONE Free UFP5 review

      Test scoreShow Context

      59%

      Key features

      • In-ear
      • Wireless
      • Noise cancelling

      Compare

      verdict: Middle-of-the-road

      There’s nothing wrong with these truly wireless headphones, in fact sound quality is reasonable and listening to music on them is pleasant. However, noise-cancelling isn’t as effective as we’ve seen on some higher scoring models and battery running time is on the short side. Ultimately, while these headphones are all right, you can do better for your money.

      Pros
      • Natural sound
      • Sound doesn’t leak
      • Ambient mode works well
      Cons
      • Poor for phone calls
      • Case seems flimsy
      • Bass could be better

        B&O Beoplay EQ review

        £349.00Typical price

        Test scoreShow Context

        73%

        Key features

        • In-ear
        • Wireless
        • Noise cancelling

        Compare

        verdict: Premium-look truly wireless Best Buy

        These truly wireless headphones stand out from the crowd with their energetic and even sound quality and impressive adaptive active noise cancelling. Yes, they’re pricey but you’ll be hard pressed to find similar quality in truly wireless headphones coupled with the range of sound adjustments that are possible in the app. While comfort is very much down to the individual, our only real reservation is around device connectivity, with a few drop outs experienced in our tests.

        Pros
        • Warm sound
        • Crisp speech
        • Sound doesn’t leak
        • Noise-cancelling works very well
        • Hard case can be wireless charged
        • Splash resistant
        Cons
        • Battery running time could be better
        • Variable comfort
        • We experienced some connectivity issues at time of testing

          Bowers & Wilkins PI5 review

          Test scoreShow Context

          61%

          Key features

          • In-ear
          • Wireless
          • Noise cancelling

          Compare

           verdict: Decent sound and sub-par battery life

          These truly wireless in-ear headphones pack plenty of features into their tiny shells, and unlike some, almost no sound leaks out to annoy others around you. Noise cancelling works well, too, but sound quality is reasonable at best – and all that tech takes its toll on the battery life.

          Pros
          • Very little acoustic leakage
          • Noise cancellation works well
          • Plenty of features
          Cons
          • Short battery life
          • Bass could be better

            Huawei Freebuds 4 review

            Test scoreShow Context

            52%

            Key features

            • In-ear
            • Wireless
            • Noise cancelling

            Compare

            verdict: Run of the mill

            These aren’t the worst in-ear headphones we’ve heard, but despite having plenty of hi-tech features the sound quality was mediocre rather than mind-blowing. So, while music, podcasts and calls sound okay, you may think your ears deserve better.

            Pros
            • Plenty of features
            • Don’t sound too bad
            Cons
            • Poor battery life
            • Sound quality depends on how well they fit in your ears

    Skullcandy Jib True Wireless review

    Test scoreShow Context

    51%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless

    Compare

     verdict: Overpowering bass and artificial sounding

    We’ve seen a lot of poor truly wireless headphones under £100 and sadly the Skullcandy Jib True Wireless aren’t one of the precious few exceptions. Sound quality just doesn’t cut it and there are much better options even on a budget – check out our Great Value cheap headphones instead.

    Pros
    • Truly wireless
    • Easy to use
    • Good battery life for this type of headphones
    Cons
    • Poor sound quality
    • Comfort and fit are very hit or miss

    Bowers & Wilkins PI7 review

    Test scoreShow Context

    62%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless
    • Noise cancelling

    Compare

     verdict: Good but we’d expected a lot more

    Apart from a short battery life there’s nothing too bad about these truly wireless in-ear headphones – but there’s nothing particularly special about them either. The noise cancelling works well, and very little noise escapes to annoy your neighbours, but music lacks the vibrancy and punchiness it needs to really lift the spirits. For the steep price we’d expected greatness and came away with merely a good pair of headphones.

    Pros
    • Very little acoustic leakage
    • Noise cancellation works well
    • Plenty of features
    Cons
    • Short battery life
    • Sound quality is nothing special

    Sennheiser CX True Wireless review

    Test scoreShow Context

    66%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless

    Compare

     verdict: Worth a listen

    These truly wireless in-ear buds are well worth a look. They’re not super-expensive, and while there’s no active noise cancelling they sound good. If the tone or balance isn’t to your liking you can make limited tweaks using the app and while battery life isn’t great compared to all types of headphones, it’s decent for a truly wireless pair.

    Pros
    • Good speech sound quality
    • Well-balanced sound
    • Touch controls
    • Adjustment options in the app
    • Sound doesn’t leak
    • Splash resistant
    Cons
    • Varied levels of comfort
    • No active noise-cancelling

    Huawei Freebuds 4i review

    Test scoreShow Context

    67%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless
    • Noise cancelling

    Compare

    verdict: Bargain noise-cancelling earbuds

    These are remarkable noise-cancelling earbuds – they’re almost a Best Buy at a huge saving over the uncannily similar-looking Apple AirPods Pro. They sound good and noise cancelling is effective. Sound leakage to your surroundings isn’t great, but at this price they’re pretty impressive and a worthy Great Value pair. They’re designed for Android devices, although fine for Apple devices, too, if you don’t mind you can’t use the settings app. They’re well worth considering if you’re looking for some budget-friendly earbuds.

    Pros
    • Good sound quality
    • Effective noise-cancelling
    • Comfortable
    • Look like Apple AirPods but are much cheaper
    Cons
    • Non-essential app customisation options not available for Apple devices
    • Leak sound to your surroundings

      Sony WF-1000XM4 review

      Test scoreShow Context

      61%

      Key features

      • In-ear
      • Wireless
      • Noise cancelling

      Compare

      verdict: Sleek looks, but inferior to the cheaper Sony WF-1000XM3

      Sadly, these XM4s take one step forwards and two steps back. They seem to improve on the Best Buy Sony WF-1000XM3 in some areas, but this is all undermined by our panellists universally having issues with either the fit or the sound quality. Save yourself the trouble and get the excellent Sony WF-1000XM3 instead – you’ll save a fair amount, too.

      Pros
      • Excellent battery life
      • Compact charging case
      • Small earpieces
      Cons
      • Major fit issues that affect sound quality and noise cancelling

    Apple AirPods (2021) review

    Test scoreShow Context

    90%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless

    Compare

     verdict: Exquisite sound and a breeze to use

    The Apple AirPods (2021) are among the very best sounding-pairs we’ve tested, taking it to another level beyond previous AirPod generations. Music is both enjoyable with warm bass and also precisely balanced for an exceptional level of detail. They’re also comfortable, a dream to use and well worth buying.

    Pros
    • Exceptionally detailed sound with good bass
    • Comfortable
    • Easy to use
    • Good battery life
    • Very little sound leaks despite the earbud design
    Cons
    • Can be hard to maintain phone call conversations in noisy places

    Marshall Mode II review

    Test scoreShow Context

    44%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless

    Compare

     verdict: Style over substance

    Sadly, Marshall’s first foray into the world of truly wireless in-ear headphones is nothing short of a disaster – they’re hardly becoming of the storied brand. These sound awful and the battery life isn’t great either. They’re so underwhelming we’ve made them a Don’t Buy – despite their great looks, we strongly advise you pick up one of our Best Buy pairs over this one.

    Pros
    • Truly wireless
    • Easy to use
    Cons
    • Poor weedy sound quality
    • Substandard battery life
    • Variable fit
    • Not as premium-looking as you’d hope

    Bose Sport Earbuds review

    Test scoreShow Context

    68%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless

    Compare

     verdict: Superb sports and exercise headphones

    These are really good truly wireless in-ear headphones that deliver above-average sound quality in a versatile package. They only narrowly miss out on being a Best Buy and are one of the best options we’ve seen if you’d like to use this type of headphones for sports.

    Pros
    • Secure fit for your workout
    • IPX4 water resistant
    • Good sound quality
    • Well built
    • Easy to use
    Cons
    • No equalizer to adjust the sound (at time of testing)

    JVC HA-EC30BT review

    Test scoreShow Context

    44%

    Key features

    • In-ear
    • Wireless

    Compare

     verdict: Weak sound

    These headphones fall at the first hurdle. The sound quality is nowhere near good enough with a distinct lack of bass. Your music will sound thin and lifeless.

    Pros
    • Plastic hooks provide a secure fit
    • Water-resistant
    Cons
    • Lackluster sound