Q&A / 

Noise Cancelling Headphones

DEAR TIM: My husband will not listen to me and I grow tired of raising my voice at him. Over the years, he has ruined his hearing by working around loud machinery. Each month it seems it is getting worse. He wears an inexpensive pair of earmuffs and says they work just fine. I tried them when I used our lawn mower and the noise level barely dropped. Is there a way to save what hearing is left and is it affordable? Sally F., Mountain View, CA

DEAR SALLY: It sounds to me like you were talking to my wife Kathy. Your relationship with your husband mirrors mine with Kathy and my hearing problem matches that of your husband. I am also a victim of occupational hearing loss and have gone through extensive testing to see if I can eliminate the distracting tinnitus that has now set in and bothers me while I am awake.

These attractive earmuffs are comfortable and they block vast amounts of low-frequency noise created by engines, fans and motors. PHOTO CREDIT: Kathy Carter

I am by no means a hearing expert, but I have learned much because of my own situation. If your husband won't listen to you, he may read what I have to say. Our ears and the internal components that make up our sense of hearing are like the disc brake pads on a car. Each time you apply your brakes, you wear away some of the disc brake pad. Each time you subject your ears to loud noises without protection, you wear out your inner ear parts and create long-term damage to your hearing.

Motors, fans, engines and many construction tools create powerful low-frequency noise that can contribute to hearing loss, especially if you are subjected to it on a regular basis. The sound travels through the air and the closer you are to the noise source, the louder the noise will be.

The inexpensive ear protection your husband uses is probably a set of passive earmuffs. Some workers use different types of foam earplugs. These devices work by trying to block the air pathway between the source of the noise and the eardrum. These are not bad at blocking mid- and high-frequency noise, but passive ear protection typically does not fare well when asked to block low-frequency noise.

The other problem that many people forget is that low-frequency noise in a workplace can be dangerous. This noise is very effective at cancelling the higher frequency noise produced by humans as they talk or yell. Commands given to warn a worker of a danger might not be heard because the sound waves are masked by the low-frequency sound waves that are entering the person's ears at the same time. Confusion is common when a person hears something but misunderstands what was said. This can lead to errors, injuries or death.

I suggest you purchase a quality set of active noise cancellation earmuffs for your husband. These wonderful devices employ an internal microphone and computer microchips inside the earmuffs. Powered by a single AA battery, the sophisticated earmuffs listen to the incoming noise and using the electronic circuitry they immediately produce a noise wave that matches the incoming sound. This new anti-noise wave actually cancels out a vast majority of the incoming noise.

The claims made by some of the noise cancellation earmuff manufacturers seem unbelievable but I am here to tell you they are not. I have used these electronic noise cancellation earmuffs and am constantly amazed at how they block all types of noise. The earmuffs are also constructed in a way to block a great amount of continuous mid- and high-frequency noise.

But it gets better. When wearing the electronic noise cancellation earmuffs you can clearly hear when someone talks to you. This is a huge benefit if someone is telling you that danger is near or it is time to get some food.

Did I mention you can also connect your mp3 player or iPod™ to the set of earmuffs I have? Yes, a simple input jack allows you to safely listen to music while you work and block out all of the harmful sound waves.

Fortunately, I have stemmed the tide of my own hearing loss by wearing these wonderful devices. These earmuffs are as valuable to me as wearing safety glasses or a mask while working around dust. I always put them away in their sleek protective carrying case.

When I first saw the earmuffs, I felt they would be too expensive. I thought that anything that sophisticated had to be very pricey. Imagine my shock when I discovered they cost less then one visit to the ear doctor including an extensive hearing test. Once you own a pair of the noise cancellation earmuffs, all you need to do is purchase a single AA-sized battery for every 65 hours you have them turned on. That is a small price to pay to save your hearing.

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