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Apple Needs to Lead, Not Follow, On Hearing Loss Debate


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March 14, 2006

Apple Needs to Lead, Not Follow, On Hearing Loss Debate

Peter Burrows

One reason for Apple's loyal following, and its remarkable resurgence in recent years, is that it is more focused on addressing its customers' problems than many other companies. It can usually be counted on to take quick action, either proactively (say, by adding neat new features to its products that you never realized you needed, such as the MagSafe power adapter on the MacBook Pro) or reactively. For example, it won high marks last year by quickly responding to concerns from privacy experts about its ministore; within days, it had given iTunes users the ability to turn off the feature if they wished. And in recent days has shown its ability to deal with rising concerns about malware on the Mac.

Now, there's another issue in the news that Apple needs to take seriously--potential damage to hearing caused by earbuds. Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey raised this as an area of concern in a letter to the National Institutes of Health in late January. Today, he made public a response from James Battey, director of the National Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders. The upshot: that while more research is needed, there's reason for concern that earbuds do more damage than traditional "ear-muff" style headphones to people who listen to their music too loudly.

Of course, Apple is not the only company that makes portable music players, or that offers earbud-style headphones. And given that there's no conclusive data as yet, the company is under no obligation to respond. Indeed, the company could easily take the path chosen by most corporations--not acknowledge there's a problem or even a potential problem until it absolutely has to (For example, when's the last time you heard a cell-phone maker advise the public that their might be a link between cell-phone use and brain tumors?). Such a "caveat emptor" approach is made even more defensible by the fact that we're talking common sense, here. What kid hasn't already been lectured a hundred times about the danger of listening to their music too loudly?

Still, Apple is supposed to be different. And this issue is potentially far more important to its customers than a scratched iPod nano or a bit of malware. So far, it's PR staff is giving a "no comment." The company needs to do better than that, if only to show that it takes this topic seriously. It could publicly offer to work with the NIH or respected researchers to come up with the conclusive evidence that is now lacking. It could consider adding a few words to its marketing collateral, to educate customers about the debate. And of course it could proactively look into earbud designs that might minimize the risks.

Trying to get ahead of this issue is not just the right thing to do, but it's probably the pragmatic thing to do as well--because this one is not likely to go away. Now that so many millions of people--particularly young people--spend hours with their earbuds each week, the research will undoubtedly get done. If this potential health risk turns out to be an actual health risk, Apple will have helped itself by being ahead of the curve--both in terms of competitive positioning versus rivals, by limiting exposure to ambulence-chasing lawyers, and by giving its customers one more reason to remain loyal to the company.

02:58 PM

iPod and iTunes

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I would not be surprised to see a redesigned earphone released at the same time they come out with a new ipod to watch movie one. They will say something like "With such a big step in the iPod's evolution, we figured it was time to redo the headphones you listen to it with." (Yes, evolution does exist.)

Posted by: Scott at March 15, 2006 02:35 PM

Judging by the number of responses, I don't think that we are hearing you. :)

Almost everyone accepts that loud sounds will damage hearing over time. What needs to be studied is the long term effects of using ear buds with a "medium" level volume setting.

Posted by: Perry Clease at March 15, 2006 02:48 PM

iPods have a firmware configuration option to set the maximum volume (in dB) that can be output from the device. This option is not enabled on iPods sold in the US - but is required for iPods in the EU due to regulations. You can, of course, override it if you know how. But most people won't. Maybe they just need to activate this already existing feature on the US sold ones.

Posted by: jay ball at March 17, 2006 02:36 AM

What is this article doing in Businessweek?

And by the way, portable music players with earphones have been around for more than 20 years, Where is the epidemioloy showing the real risks?

CONCERN that Earbuds cause more damage than ear muffs? Hearing loss is caused by sound pressure levels. What does the shape of the headphone have to do with anything?

Posted by: joe at March 17, 2006 06:14 AM

All Apple needs to do is put in a menu item in "Settings" that allows the user to choose "standard" or "high" volume.

Standard would limit output to, say, 80dB, High would allow the full amplifier output.

As I recall though, the documentation that comes with new iPods states that listening to loud music may lead to hearing loss. Frankly I'm all for social darwinism. If you're too stupid to not understand to learn about that warning then you deserve what comes of you.

Posted by: gerard J at March 17, 2006 09:57 AM

Part of the problem is balancing isolation from outsice noises. If you can't hear the outside world, you don't need to turn your music up as high. Of course, if you can't hear the outside world, it's a lot easier to get run over by that semi you didn't hear...

Posted by: Nox at March 17, 2006 09:59 AM

The maximum output power of a music player is not the only thing affecting the maximum output volume of the device. Try using hi-end Sennheiser earphones with Ipod Nano!

Until we have a superior technological solution to this problem, the maximum output power of a devise should not be limited. Maybe someone will invent in-ear earphones that can actually measure the sound pressure in a closed system and then limit the output power of the audio player to desired predefined maximum level.

What we are lacking here is common sense!

Posted by: Anonymous at March 17, 2006 10:35 AM

Blah, blah, blah. Sony has already gone down this road with the original walkmans. Why do you think there is so much extra warning stuff in packaging now? This isn't a buyer beware condition, but, "the jackass don't care condition. Until damage is done. Pure ignorance.

Posted by: Brian Hagen at March 17, 2006 10:39 AM

>What is this article doing in Businessweek?

Business of course. I recommend investing into hearing aid and other hearing technologies. Seriously, consider those people "bumping" window rattling bass in their autos, what will their hearing be like 20 years from now.

Apple should take the lead. Not just from a health point of view, but in business as well. Suppose they develop technology that prevents users from using too high of volume from the earphone jack, but allows higher levels out of the dock.

Posted by: Perry Clease at March 17, 2006 10:52 AM

hm...if they reduce the output level, let's see...oh they lose the music professional audience (like me!) who use real headphones (read Sony MDR-7506) because they won't be able to drive them! ...although those earbuds are great for working out and checking my mixes on...

Welcome to Ohms Law, people!

Posted by: Ben at March 17, 2006 01:43 PM

Why is Apple getting the bad PR? ALL portable music players have the potential to be turned up too loud; not just the iPod.

And what ever happened to personal responsibility? If a person wants to blast their eardrums everytime they listem to their MP3 player, they have no one else to blame but themselves when they suffer hearing loss.

Posted by: Mark at March 17, 2006 02:07 PM

I have significant hearing loss (not because of listening to things too loud, i was born with messed up eardrums) and if apple cuts the volume in there iPods i would not be able to hear anything in the headphones. I say let the idiots who listen to the music too loud lose there hearing, if someone stares at the sun and loses sight no one would be suggesting to block out the sun. Maybe that analogy was a little to extreme but i hope the point got accross.

It is already hard enough for me to find a cell phone that is loud enough for me to hear, dont make me find a new mp3 player.

Posted by: Andrew at March 18, 2006 02:34 AM

Don't listen to music too loud. that solves everyone's problems.

Posted by: Ryan at September 14, 2006 10:10 PM


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