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Comparison of User Volume Control Settings for Portable Music Players with Three Earphone Configurations in Quiet and Noisy Environments

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Listening to music is one of the most common forms of recreational noise exposure. Previous investigators have demonstrated that maximum output levels from headphones can exceed safe levels. Although preferred listening levels (PLL) in quiet environments may be at acceptable levels, the addition of background noise will add to the overall noise exposure of a listener. Use of listening devices that block out some of the background noise would potentially allow listeners to select lower PLLs for their music. Although one solution is in-the-ear earphones, an alternative solution is the use of earmuffs in conjunction with earbuds.


There were two objectives to this experiment. The first was to determine if an alternative to in-the-ear earphones for noise attenuation (the addition of earmuffs to earbuds) would allow for lower PLLs through a portable media player (PMP) than earbuds. The second was to determine if a surrounding background noise would yield different PLLs than a directional noise source.

Research Design:

This was an experimental study.

Study Sample:

Twenty-four adults with normal hearing.

Data Collection and Analysis:

PLLs were measured for three earphone configurations in three listening conditions. The earphone configurations included earbuds, canal earphones, and earbuds in combination with hearing protection devices (HPDs). The listening conditions included quiet, noise from one loudspeaker, and noise from four surrounding loudspeakers. Participants listened in each noise and earphone combination for as long as they needed to determine their PLL for that condition. Once the participant determined their PLL, investigators made a 5 sec recording of the music through a probe tube microphone. The average PLLs in each noise and earphone combination were used as the dependent variable. Ear canal level PLLs were converted to free-field equivalents to compare to noise exposure standards and previously published data.


The average PLL as measured in the ear canal was 74 dBA in the quiet conditions and 84 dBA in the noise conditions. Paired comparisons of the PLL in the presence of background noise for each pair of earphone configurations indicated significant differences for each comparison. An inverse relationship was observed between attenuation and PLL whereby the greater the attenuation, the lower the PLL. A comparison of the single noise source condition versus the surrounding noise condition did not result in a significant effect.


The present work suggests that earphones that take advantage of noise attenuation can reduce the level at which listeners set music in the presence of background noise. An alternative to in-the-ear earphones for noise attenuation is the addition of earmuffs to earbuds.
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Keywords: Music; noise; portable media players; preferred listening levels; recreational noise exposure

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD

Publication date: March 1, 2012

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