It's fun to crank the volume up on that special track, or feel the bass punch you in the chest at a concert, but excessively loud sound really can damage our hearing. Too much exposure to loud noise can lead to a ringing in the ears, known as tinnitus, or even a permanent loss of hearing.

Everyone's idea of 'too loud' is different, but in general it's important to make sure you don't have exposure to loud noises over a long period of time.

At work

Our Workplace Health and Safety laws state that workers should not be exposed to noise levels over 85 decibels (dBA) over a period of eight hours a day, five days a week. 85dBA is like someone shouting at you from two metres away, a vacuum cleaner or a noisy restaurant. See the table below for examples of decibel levels.

If you work in an environment that's noisy, make sure you:

  • wear hearing protection
  • take breaks from the noise
  • give your ears time to recuperate. 

It's a good idea to apply the same advice to your leisure activities as well.

Ear buds and headphones

If you like your music turned right up, try to limit the amount of time you spend listening to it. You should be able to hear a conversation taking place a metre away when you have your ear buds in or headphones on. If you can't hear it, turn down your volume.

If you can hear the music from someone else's headphones or ear buds, it's also a pretty good indication that they have their music turned up too loud. Action on Hearing Loss recommends "regular breaks from the music or other noise source. Aim for at least 10 minutes' break every hour".

The sound scale

It may be tempting to increase the volume when listening to a media player to cover other noises such as traffic, road works or the conversations of others nearby, but the sound scale is logarithmic – so a small increase in dBA is a large increase in the intensity of sound.

Say we listen to music at 85dBA, and raise the volume to 95dBA – our ears register that increase as a doubling in volume because of the way we hear sound, but the power behind it has increased by ten times, doubling for each increase of 3dBA.

Our ears can handle high volumes for a short period – at 95dBA, our limit is 15 minutes – but longer listening will cause ringing in the ears or head and may cause permanent damage. In 2005, the National Acoustics Laboratory released research that showed around 25% of people listen to music on personal media players at volumes beyond recommended workplace levels.

So when you can't help but increase the volume on your favourite song, remember to turn it back down again afterwards.

Max volume controls

Portable media players and smart phones often have the capacity for playing above safe volume levels. As hearing loss has been further researched, some manufacturers, such as Apple and Sony, have proactively made controls available that limit volume, but these need to be activated by the consumer.

Apple has also made parental controls available for the volume of their portable media players that implement a code so children can't undo the volume limitation.

Decibel level guidelines

Decibel Level (dBA) Similar to...
40 Whispered conversation
60 Normal conversation
85 Shouted conversation from 2 metres away - acceptable level of risk in work environment
80-90 Busy street
90-95 Power tools
100 Pneumatic drill or motorcycle
100-110 Classical concert
110 Rock concert
118 Movie theatre peaked at this level for Godzilla in 1998
130 Nightclubs
140 Immediate damage to hearing