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Audio

Shocker: The most-deaf musicians aren't rockers

Who is? The answer will surprise you!

When I went to Benj Kanters' "Hear Tomorrow" workshop at Hunter College in New York City, I wasn't sure what to expect. Chances were good it would be another boring lecture about the dangers of loud sound. But boring it was not. It was more like be afraid, be very afraid: loud sound will eventually deafen you. Kanters' in-depth knowledge of sound was impressive, but it was his passion about raising awareness of hearing loss that made for a highly entertaining evening. The steps required to minimize the risks are easy and inexpensive, but large numbers of musicians are going deaf. And you'd probably think thrash metal bands would lead the pack, but in fact, classical musicians suffer the most. Kanters explained that an orchestra can get as loud as a rock band, and classical musicians usually play and practice a lot more, so their exposure over time is greater. Kanters added that everybody's physiology is different, so individuals suffer different kinds of hearing loss at different rates.

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Benj Kanters at Hunter College Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Kanters rolled out a steady stream of scary scenarios, starting with sports events -- they're right up there with the noisiest places. Music concerts and dance clubs are also real contenders for deafening large numbers of people, but Kanters cited researchers who measured a 104 decibel average level at a series of hockey games over a three-hour period, with peak volume reaching 120 decibels! A NASCAR race averaged 107 dB over many hours. He also referred to a loudness "competition" between the Seattle Seahawks' and the Kansas City Chiefs' fans' crowd roar that maxed out at a ear drum piercing 137.5 dB! I doubt plugs can save your ears at that point. To put those decibel numbers in perspective, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends limiting exposure of 100 dB sound to less than 15 minutes, at 103 dB, less than 8 minutes. Louder than that for even a few minutes and you'll surely lose some part of your hearing, and once it's gone, it won't come back.

Jet Skis and snowmobiles can also pummel your ears with more than 100 dB of sound pressure levels. Maybe you're lucky and still hear like a bat, but if you regularly experience ringing in the ears after exposure to loud sound, you are at risk of permanent hearing loss.

Ear buds (not in-ear headphones) that let you hear sound all around tend to be played much too loud when listened to in noisy environments, like trains and buses. How loud, Kanters noted that ear bud wearers tend to play their headphones 6 dB louder than the noise in their environment! That's not a good idea, so if you're listening to 'buds in noisy places considering switching over to a noise-isolating in-ear headphone that can reduce external noise levels by as much as 20 dB. You'll then be able listen at a much lower and safer volume. The city of Minneapolis is considering an ordinance to require clubs and music venues to offer free ear plugs to their customers.

If you regularly attend loud concerts or sporting events, or you enjoy snowmobiles, splurging a few bucks on ear plugs would be a wise investment. I recommend the $13 Etymotic Ety Plugs, and if you can afford it, the $200 Sensaphonic custom molded plugs are state-of-the-art noise blockers. These plugs don't make music dull or muddy like foam ear plugs do; the Etys and Sensaphonics just make it less loud.

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Etymotic Ety ear plug Etymotic

The 21st century is a very noisy place, so taking a few precautions to protect your hearing should be a no-brainer. Hearing aids are a lot more expensive than Sensaphonic plugs, and none of them sound all that good.

Benj Kanters is an associate professor and associate chair of the Audio Arts & Acoustics Department, Columbia College Chicago.