YOU PROBABLY KNOW that listening to music and podcasts on your smartphone can harm your ears, depending on how loud you pump up the volume when using headphones.
There are very delicate structures in your inner ear; tiny hair cells known as stereocilia do the job of turning sound waves into electrical signals that your brain can understand and process. When these cells are damaged, they’re not replaced, which means hearing ability can degrade over time.
To keep these stereocilia intact, experts recommend keeping the volume coming into your ears at 70 decibels or less—that’s about the level of a washing machine. Once you get to 85 decibels, the equivalent of a gas-powered lawn mower, hearing loss can start to happen after just two hours.
Many smartphones and headphones will go way above this, often to 100 decibels or even a little higher. It’s the equivalent of being in a loud nightclub, and at that level hearing loss is possible after just five minutes. The more prolonged the exposure is, the higher the risk of serious damage.
With all that in mind, the volume controls on your smartphone (or on your actual headphones) shouldn’t be neglected. Resist the temptation to crank up the volume, and your ears will thank you.
Even better, if you don’t want to fiddle with the volume all the time, you can set a limit on how high it can go, which is very handy if you’re on the move and aren’t sure exactly what level the volume is set to. This is easier to do on iOS, but you have options on Android devices as well.
Apple is concerned enough about the state of your ears that your iPhone will automatically display a warning if it detects that you’re listening to audio through headphones at a volume that’s too high over too long a period. The next time your headphones are connected after this warning appears the volume will be lowered for you, though you can ramp it up again if you want to.
In addition, you can get your iPhone to step in more directly and reduce sounds in real time that are over a set decibel level. From Settings, pick Sound & Haptics, then Headphone Safety: Turn on the Reduce Loud Sounds toggle switch and you can choose your level. iOS will give you some guidance, so you’re not completely guessing.
Above this setting you can see how many headphone notifications you’ve been given by your iPhone in the past six months. For a more detailed readout of your headphone listening habits, go to the Health app that’s included with iOS and choose Browse, Hearing, and Headphone Audio Levels. You’ll be able to see the volume you’ve been listening at, for how long and when.
There’s one more step Apple recommends for making sure this all works properly: classifying your Bluetooth devices so Apple knows how to treat them. To classify a device, from Settings choose Bluetooth, then tap the blue info button next to the headphones that you’re using. On the next screen, choose Device Type and pick Headphone. (Apple-made headphones will be automatically identified.)
Finding the right setting on Android is trickier, as the software menus tend to vary between phone manufacturers. We’ll guide you toward the right options on the version of Android that Samsung pushes out for its Galaxy phones, but if you’re using a handset from a different smartphone maker, the process should be broadly similar.
From Settings, choose Sounds and vibration and Volume, then tap the three dots (top right) and choose Media volume limit. You can turn the feature on here, and adjust the slider underneath to set your desired maximum sound level—there’s also the option to set a PIN to protect this setting (if you’re configuring a child’s phone, for example).
Android being Android, there are numerous third-party apps you can use to limit the volume on your device. One of the best is the freemium Volume Lock: Not only does it let you restrict how loud the volume can go, it lets you do this based on the type of audio, so alarms can go louder than music, for example. A one-off fee of $5.49 unlocks all the options, but media volume can be limited for free.
Alternatively, give the free Volume Limiter, Volume Lock a look. It enables you to set different volume limits based on the audio outputs you’re using (speakers or headphones), it puts warnings about excessive volume right in the notification bar, and it’s straightforward and intuitive to use. There’s even the option to exclude particular apps from the volume limit.