Are Gaming Headsets Harmful For Your Ears? [Future Hearing Loss??]

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The immersive soundtracks that make gaming such an engaging experience can present a real risk of hearing loss, especially if the sound is delivered through a gaming headset. 

In-game audio delivered through a headset at too high a volume (over 80db) for too long a period of time (over 40hrs per week) impairs and eventually permanently damages the hair cells in our inner ear that are responsible for communicating sound to the brain. 

According to Payam Adlparvaran, an industry expert with 45 years of experience working with audio and electronic equipment, headset users listen at louder volumes vs loudspeakers because our body cannot perceive bass from headphones in the same way through the smaller speakers.

We naturally feel that the audio is not as loud despite our ears actually receiving more dBs. 

We’re also at liberty to turn up the volume delivered through a gaming headset because we’re not overly worried about bothering anyone in our immediate surroundings. 

Regardless of why we listen to audio at a louder volume when using a headset, knowing when you might be entering the danger zone for your hearing is useful knowledge to have – and that’s what we aim to provide you with in this article. 

Tip! Once you’ve got wellbeing for your ears sorted you might also want to protect your eyesight by customising your monitor settings to achieve the best light color temperature for gaming

What are safe levels of sound exposure when using gaming headsets?

The damage our hearing can incur as a result of using headsets is very different to the sudden and catastrophic pressure change experienced in an explosion.

Instead of impairing the eardrum instantaneously, a far more subtle form of damage is sustained when hair cells in the inner ear are exposed to persistent loud noise. 

These stereocilia cells are responsible for converting sound to an electrical signal which is then communicated to the brain.

Once impaired, the ability for the hair cells to function is lost, and as we are unable to regenerate lost stereocilia, our capacity to hear to the fullest extent slowly diminishes.

As hearing impairments generally lead to a reduction in quality of life (difficulties socialising, experiencing loneliness), the World Health Organisation has launched the World Report on Hearing to better understand the problem at hand – and provide guidelines on how we can best preserve our hearing into old age. 

The WHO ‘World Report on Hearing’ determined that a safe listening level for adults involves no more than 40hrs of sound exposure at a level of no greater than 80db (about the level generated by a garbage disposal truck). Worryingly according to Apple, at present one in 10 headset users currently exceed this recommended safe listening limit.

Can using a gaming headset cause hearing loss?

Gaming headsets themselves present no startling difference in design that make them more risky to use than regular headsets employed by call centre workers, or those designed for audiophiles to listen to high quality music files.

The reason gaming headsets in particular present a real risk of hearing loss is down to how they are used, namely to deliver overly loud audio for extended periods through closed back earcups. 

This can negatively impact your hearing short term (symptoms include temporary ringing in the ears, temporary hearing loss and physical discomfort), as well as long term (day to day difficulty hearing others) if you are an avid gamer who plays regularly.

Are closed back gaming headsets more harmful than open back? 

Most gaming headsets have ear cups that are closed back.

Closed back headphones are best for eliminating background noise as the solid seal around your ears prevents sound waves from other sources sneaking in to taint your listening experience, or in-game audio from leaking out into your surroundings and potentially disturbing your roommates or family. 

This is especially useful when you need to concentrate on verbal communications between teammates during a multi-player, or it’s late at night and noise pollution needs to be minimised. 

The problem with closed back headsets when compared to open back however is that as sound waves have nowhere to go except into your ear, the changes in air pressure delivered by the speaker drivers are more impactful at lower volumes. 

Whereas open back recreates a more natural sound due to allowing air to pass into the speaker through the rear of the cup, closed back directs changes in air pressure that ultimately deliver sound entirely into our middle and inner ear.  

Not that both styles of headsets can’t become harmful if cranked up, but it’s far easier to fall into the trap of listening to sound at a detrimental level if a closed back headset is used.

The length of sessions gaming with a headset impacts our hearing

82 minutes is the average length of time gamers spend playing according to a survey by Limelight market research. 

Even if you do have a habit of playing with the volume cranked to an unhealthy level, this period of time is unlikely to have long term negative effects upon your hearing because you are taking breaks at a sensible frequency. This allows the hair cells in your ears time to recuperate.

A standout statistic from the same study was that 4.3% of all gamers shared that their longest consecutive gaming session was 15hrs or more!

This type of extended gaming session, if using a closed back headset and listening at loud volumes has the potential to impact your hearing significantly. Especially if you factor in that if you’re playing for double digit hours in one stint, it’s likely that accumulated hours of play, and time exposed to other sources of loud noise (traffic, kitchen appliances, TV etc) over rest of the week will take you well over the WHO safe listening levels. 

Combine long playing times with the fact that 21% of gamers are under 18 years old, and the likelihood that this young generation of gamers will encounter hearing impairment later in life increases drastically.

How can I protect my hearing whilst gaming with a headset? 

Gaming headsets such as the Razor BlackShark V2 Pro, pack some serious power with 50mm drivers that can generate crisp 7.1 surround sound all the way up to 100dB!

This as we know by now is enough oomf to cause permanent damage to the hair cells in our ears.

There are however a couple of steps you can take whilst gaming with a headset to help prevent damage being incurred by your hearing, these include: 

  • Limiting the maximum decibels emitted by the headset
  • Break up extensive  gaming sessions

Limit the decibel rating emitted by your gaming headset

System settings: Limiting the maximum output of a headset by means of system settings on a personal listening device or a computer is easily achieved through third party software.

Quiet on the Set’ is one such application for Windows machines that prevents someone from turning up the volume beyond a chosen decibel rating.

Decibel reader apps: Apps such as Decibel Meter (Microsoft), Sound Meter (Android), Decibel X: Db Sound Level Meter (Apple) are decibel readers that can be used to collect feedback on your computer or phone’s microphone an establish what volume of sound is being pushed out 

Simply place your gaming headset over the device’s microphone and take note of the value on-screen. 

Of course this isn’t a scientifically accurate way of measuring decibel ratings but will at least give you a rough idea of where your default listening level lies. 

It is safe to assume that if you record a value that ranks above 80db, despite all the sound that will have escaped whilst trying to cup the headset tightly over the microphone, you need to be cautious about long term exposure. 

The arm’s length test:  If you just want to mess about with system settings or apps a rough and ready way to check if the volume you are gaming at is too loud is to lift the headset off and hold it at arm’s length.

If you can accurately hear what’s being generated by the speaker (i.e. make out spoken word), you need to think about taking the volume down a notch. 

Breaks during gaming sessions crucial for your ears

Hair cells in the inner ear vibrate and bend when exposed to sound. The louder the noise generated by gaming headsets, the more the hair cells will bend, and the longer they will take to recover to a fully upright position.   

Think of the last time you left a concert or nightclub, and try to remember how long after the event you felt your hearing just wasn’t quite right. Not exactly instantaneous was it!

For gaming, take 10 mins every hour to remove the headset and recalibrate your hearing back to ambient volumes. This will at least allow your ears to take a short break from oppressive loud volumes. 

If your hearing remains muffled after 10 mins, then you’d do well to hold off jumping back in the game – or at least turn the volume levels down.

As illustrated in this video, the Mayo Clinic video recommends setting the volume at no more than 60% of the maximum system setting and listening for a period of no more than 60 minutes at a time. This is coined as the 60/60 Rule

Take away message

Whilst the closed back of a gaming headset prevents changes in air pressure generated by drivers from escaping anywhere except into our middle and inner ear, they themselves are not harmful.

Instead, our habits of turning up in game audio too loud (above 80db) and for too long (82 mins on average) – are the real issue at hand. 

Tracking the decibels emitted by your system, and noting down how long you play, will help you at least become aware of when your hearing is at risk of suffering. 

Don’t delay on checking your habits! It’s possible to permanently and irreversibly damage up to 30% of the hair cells in your ear before a hearing test can definitively pick up that you are suffering from hearing loss.

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