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Ear Wars: Headphones

Monday, January 24, 2011

Earlier this month, New York Times writer Virginia Heffernan caught the ear of the music world with a column about headphones. She’ll tell us how prolonged headphone use, especially among young people, may be wreaking havoc on our hearing – and we’ll take your calls. Later, we'll hear about the impact of headphones on music and culture from Mark Katz, author of Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music.


Virginia Heffernan and Mark Katz

Comments [37]

Marta from Texas

Michael Keaton's leather jacket in "Jackie Brown"

Apr. 19 2011 10:39 AM

You can answer this for yourself easily enough.
Get ahold of a good (flac or PCM) copy of Shpongle's "Nothing Lasts...but Nothing's Lost" album and listen end to end on the best earbuds you can get ahold of then listen to it with the best headphones you can get ahold of.
The choice will be clear.

Jan. 25 2011 03:40 PM
Kristen C. from Rutgers University, New Brunswick

I've been listening to the show today and for next week you were going to go over Tinnitus. I was wondering along with Tinnitus if you could also bring in Meniere's disease. My family if cursed with both these lovely hearing problems. I believe them to both be linked in some way and was thinking maybe you could include both.
PS...I am against both Headphones and ear buds. I've been told my whole life never to use them...many of my relatives have lost there hearing. So the whole thing just plain scares me.

Jan. 25 2011 03:07 PM
danny a from brooklyn

Funny to hear this.. I've been working on a photo project regarding people wearing headphones. I stop them on the streets, begin a conversation about the music they're listening too, continue to take a portrait of them. You can find the project at

thank you
danny arenas

Jan. 25 2011 02:29 PM
meridian from east orange, NJ

my mom is always telling me not to put my earbuds in because she thinks its bad for my hearing and anti social.

Jan. 24 2011 03:58 PM

ag - feel free to talk about your own. Don't assume this applies to everyone. As far as my royal rank, you can address me as "Archduchess of Internet Commenting."

Jan. 24 2011 03:48 PM
a g from n j

@ jm- maybe it is my place, to talk about my 'own' social disconnect, and perhaps by extention that of others . you don't make the rules of engagement. you are entitled to your opinion,but don't tell me what to talk about. last i looked, no one died, and made you king of the web,or commisar of comment page regulation enforcement.

Jan. 24 2011 03:24 PM
Sylvia Mendel from New Yori City

I heard no comments about the effects on children re living with more and more noise and parents who have to shout at them to get their attention. For inevitably all who are plugged in need other sounds to be louder and louder until we will at last experience the Tower of Babel.

Jan. 24 2011 02:54 PM

Also, headphones are great for women who want to avoid unwanted attention from men in general!

Jan. 24 2011 02:40 PM
Carolyn from New Jersey

While headphones have their place, as a parent and music educator, I worry about the impact on young ears, and also that music is now often enjoyed in isolation rather than with others. Until I was in high school, and had my own cheap radio and could listen to "my music", I heard whatever my parents were listening to. Their very varied tastes (my early musical memories include both "The 1812 Overture" and Chubby Checker) helped to stimulate an interest in music that led to my career choice.

Jan. 24 2011 02:40 PM
Eric from Manhattan.

How about a review of which headphones are the best? I'm a fan of Bose.

Jan. 24 2011 02:40 PM

it's gone even farther. in the ski and snowboard world everyone now wears helmets. most helmets now have the ability to have speakers built in with even blue tooth abilities so that you can answer your phone on the chairlift. like skiing wasn't dangerous already. what happened to the days of chairlift conversations or the sound of fresh its just pure adrenaline in your ear as you charge down

Jan. 24 2011 02:40 PM

It's not anyone's place to comment on one's "social disconnect." Some people have roommates and are surrounded by coworkers all day. Headphones are sometimes necessary to establish an imaginary bubble between you and other commuters when one wants to feel "alone."

That said, I've always been extremely careful about levels (and I think my sound engineering classes years ago were great for awareness). Also, the thought of losing my hearing was just unappealing so I'm also the one who dramatically covers her ears when the train roars by.

I tend to use isolating earbuds, and never need to use much of a level.

Jan. 24 2011 02:39 PM

I actually wear headphones without attaching them to my ipod at the gym just to discourage others from approaching me. This speaks to the understood anti-social message advertised by the visibility of the ear buds.

Jan. 24 2011 02:36 PM
Grunion from queens

I'm an older student at a local university, and I was struck by the amazing transformation that headphones have brought ; there are no longer real quiet rooms on campus. The expectation is that if you don't want to hear other people talking (nobody ever whispers anymore) you should put on your headphones.

Peace & Quiet is a collective exercise, and it's no longer being practiced.

Jan. 24 2011 02:36 PM

The comments about headphones being isolating are interesting. When I was growing up, I preferred music that was the polar opposite of what my sisters and parents would listen to. From a very young age, I stayed in the backseat on long car trips with my headphones on and my discman and later iPod listening to punk rock and heavy metal while the rest of my family listened to 50s-60s bubblegum music. I never really thought about it but could that have possibly pushed my music tastes to a progressively more extreme, going from easy punk in middle school to low-fi black metal today?

Jan. 24 2011 02:36 PM
Kate from New York, NY

A friend of mine was just mugged and beaten on Columbus Ave. while walking around at night with his iPod headphones in his ears. He didn't even hear the guy coming!

Jan. 24 2011 02:35 PM
Joe from NJ

I've been calling earbuds "Electronic Burkas" fro several years now - my kids appreciate teh humor.

Joe Niederberger

Jan. 24 2011 02:33 PM
Howard Sharp

The clip of William Carlos Williams you played just sounded like it was badly miked with cheap technology. Most of the top end of the voice had gone, and I was straining to hear. Good sound engineers spend a lot of time with wonderful technology trying to capture the warmth of the human voice. I think most of the hearing loss with earbuds comes when people raise the volume enough to drown out the ambient noise. I work with video technology for a living, often with headphones, and I listen to my Ipod to and from work, but I only have age appropriate high end hearing loss.

Jan. 24 2011 02:32 PM
Tim McCorry from Belmar, NJ

The great thing about headphones used to be that, as a young music student, if you couldnt afford an expensive stereo system (big speakers), you could hear everything with headphones. Maybe in the age of the IPod that no longer holds true. On the other hand, I still use my headphones and I still cant afford an IPod (probably because we bought them for our kids)!

Jan. 24 2011 02:32 PM
Mary P from Downtown

In the very early walkman days I remember walking north on Thompson Street with headphones on and as the street ended and opened up at Washington Sq Pk the sound seemed to do the same thing. I was not tripping. When it was a new experience it was amazing. It might have been Red Decade or some other guitar drone thing.
Now much much later, I'm not loving hearing the sound leak of everyone else's headphones on the subway... but I love to work with my Grado SR non-occulsive headphones around my neck. Please don't be sticking stuff in my ears and isolating me!
An that conversation re the recordings of poems... took me back to that wonderful. Daniel Figgis event at the WFC-- thanks

Jan. 24 2011 02:31 PM

I listen through headphones when using an ipod since the quality is better than with earbuds. My reference home speakers however are much better than my headphones so I don't use headphones at home for that reason alone. I would opt for transparent sound in almost all situations.

Jan. 24 2011 02:29 PM
jc from LI

i was able to hear the room in the 1950s recording you played and I'm not using headphones.

i think it is very sad and worrying the spread use of earphones, we're creating a next generation of deaf people. kids are not are not educated about its use

Jan. 24 2011 02:28 PM
Rick Dobbelaer from Nyack

Hi. Over use can lead to damage. As a parent I REALLY watch my 9 year old's time and volume in headphones carefully. I always catch her blasting away and tell her that if she can't hear me calling her then it's too loud.


Jan. 24 2011 02:28 PM
a g from n j

i wonder if pink floyd should credit a good part of the their sales to headphones ? not that that takes anything away from PF.

Jan. 24 2011 02:25 PM
David Ranada from SoHo, NYC

The only theoretically "perfect" recording system is binaural recording, where the mikes are located in an acoustical manikin and the 2 channels are reproduced over headphones. There is precious little music recorded in this format, but it is used extensively in Europe for radio dramas.

Jan. 24 2011 02:25 PM
Pradeep from NYC

I believe there are other aspects of using headphones that need to be considered. The quality of headphones today varies greatly. You can buy some for 99 cents. Back in the 1970's it was very difficult to purchase cheap headphones. I believe that use of cheap headphones and mp3's is changing the way the next generation even perceives sound.

Jan. 24 2011 02:25 PM
Alaina from Weehawken

I wish that people would stop assuming that wearing headphones means one wants to be left alone. The fact that I love having a soundtrack to my life, and can only get that with headphones on, is completely separate from my desire to interact with others.

Jan. 24 2011 02:25 PM
jeff from Brooklyn

In NYC, sometimes leave in my headphones with either quiet music or no music at all so that the outside noise (buses, trains, trucks, construction, etc) doesn't harm my hearing.

Jan. 24 2011 02:24 PM
Nick from UWS

John, I heard the vintage ambiance around Carlos Williams' voice perfectly well while listening to your show on a cheap Sony boombox at low volume. I wouldn't have needed headphones to hear it AT ALL.

Headphones have become a peculiar kind of addiction. But there is nothing like the sound of a loudspeaker pushing actual air across a room.

Jan. 24 2011 02:24 PM
jeff from Brooklyn

In NYC, sometimes leave in my headphones with either quiet music or no music at all so that the outside noise (buses, trains, trucks, construction, etc) doesn't harm my hearing.

Jan. 24 2011 02:23 PM
harvey b. from Manhattan

I do hope you'll find time to discuss what a blessing headphones have been for hearing-impaired persons like myself. I will always recall the affordable quality headphones that came with the first Sony Walkmans in the '1970s that became for me a real life changer.

Jan. 24 2011 02:18 PM
Garry from Upper West Side

I agree with the earlier comment makers. The health and social costs are huge. Plus, NY is one of the best sounding cities in the world, and too many people miss the great sounds of the city because they're isolated by their headphones.

That said, I do try to use my headphones (specially created not to pass along RF) to avoid putting my cell phone to my ear, so I do wear headphones often.

I also agree with Virginia Heffernan on enjoying music. My father has a vast collection of jazz on wax that all has such a warm and beautifully fuzzy sound. The whole experience and ritual of listening to records can be sublime.

Jan. 24 2011 02:18 PM
Gene Schoenhofen from NYC

I rarely use headphones. I do not like the disconnect it brings from my surroundings. I loose a dimension. I am 41 and have had a hearing test in the past 3 months. The doctor knew that I was not a person that uses headphones based on the better then normal test results. I typically discourage my daughters from listing to music with their headphones.

Jan. 24 2011 02:17 PM
a g from n j

even when head phones were stationary.
it was very easy to zone out at at party in someone's bedroom,trying to be cool,while using that as an excuse, to not join the fray. this before the internet or even walkman[persons].

Jan. 24 2011 02:15 PM
Erik from Manhattan

I hope there is some mention of "in ear monitors" made by companies like Etymotics and Ultimate Ears. These types of "earbuds" block out ambient noise so that you can ear - even on a noisy subway - without blasting the music.

Jan. 24 2011 02:11 PM
a g from n j

i agree with the physical danger. we also have a huge social cost. people living like wandern' zombies,and the emotional social disconect,that goes with it.

Jan. 24 2011 02:09 PM

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