How a pair of noise-cancelling headphones could protect your hearing

puro pro headphones
(Image credit: TechRadar)

Our world is full of noise. With bustling streets, blaring TVs, and washing machines with the decibel output of a jet engine, noise is an omnipresent force in our day-to-day lives.

How we escape the noise, literal or figurative, differs from person to person. Some like a good book, others a quiet walk - and many more like to pop in a pair of their favorite earbuds, stick on a few jams, and let the hours roll by.

But with more time spent plugged in comes another issue – the threat of Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL). Roughly put, this is damage caused to the inner ear by prolonged exposure to high levels of noise, in particular through earphones like the Apple AirPods due to their proximity to the inner ear when worn. 

While hearing loss is particularly associated with advancing age, younger people are also threatened.

Ear bashing

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to a billion young people are at risk of NIHL, with nearly 50% of teenagers and young adults in particular being exposed to unsafe levels of sound from personal audio devices.

Action on Hearing Loss describes these unsafe levels of sound as being over over 80bB in volume, with many headphones having the capability to produce far in excess of this – so what can be done to help protect our hearing health, whether old or young?

If young people are at risk, then the problem is particularly acute for children listening unsupervised, explains Dr Michael Stone of the University of Manchester. 

“The main risk is with earphones, some of which are capable of delivering very high sound levels at the ear,” he tells us. 

The portability, and long battery life of the tech means that we can listen for long periods. Your ears are like an athlete: they get tired by the exercise, so frequent short rest breaks from listening can slow the rate of damage accumulation,” he adds, pointing out that such noise exposure leads to NIHL over a period of several years. 

“Very few youngsters believe that they (or a part of them) will soon be old, so there is a psychological, as well as a peer-pressure, barrier to taking preventative measures. They want to live in the ‘here and now’ rather than the ‘here and then’.”

Spreading the message

That there are so many at risk ultimately means the problem is two-fold. While dangerously loud headsets present an issue in themselves, there is a general lack of awareness of the growing issue of NIHL globally.

Nikki Russell, like many a teenager, was fond of rocking out to a good tune with earphones in, keeping the outside world at bay. With time however, the issue of NIHL began to manifest, until she could no longer hear someone talking at the other side of a table. She now lives with the issue permanently, and it is her story which was the inspiration behind her father, electrical engineer Dave Russell, founding Puro Sound Labs.

Their approach to the issue of NIHL is an interesting one: in addition to advocacy they produce a line of noise-limiting headsets, which to date have primarily been aimed at children. This isn’t a new space, many competing options exist across the likes of Amazon, and the wired options in particular have been demonstrated to have often limited efficacy, if any at all.

puro pro headphones

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Taking the next step

Puro is now taking an interesting next step however, in launching the Puro Pro and the Puro Gamer, both headsets aimed at a more mature audience. The Gamer is a more traditional wired gaming headset with a microphone attached, while the Pro wireless headphones are designed for music listening.

Retailing for $200 (about £200 / AU$280), the Pro are advertised as limiting volume to 85dB (the maximum for safe listening) and arrive with two levels of adjustable active noise cancellation (ANC). This works to digitally block outside noise, meaning the listener doesn’t need to raise the volume to compete with whatever racket is bothering them.

The headset, on the surface, certainly looks and feels the part. It is sturdily built, goes for ‘business-chic’ in its design and arrives in a wooden box, going the whole hog for presentation. Its sound is highly pleasant and the volume limit certainly feels nothing like a compromise – if 120dB is the volume of the average rock concert, 85dB is more than enough to sensibly get a groove on.

The sound is neutral, fitting most genres with ease. It has the sparkle for classical, the bass for rock, the attack for punk and the punch for hip-hop, with energy to spare throughout. Given the emphasis that the company gives to its proprietary ‘Balanced Response’ tech, this is hardly a surprise. This aims to provide a clear listening experience even at lower volumes, not using louder levels as a crutch.

The ANC is somewhat less effective than what’s offered by the best noise-cancelling headphones in 2020. It works well to remove more distant noise, such as roadworks, but it will struggle with sounds a little closer – and as such those looking for complete immersion may be best to look elsewhere. 

Based on our  experience, the Puro Pro will likely deal adequately with an average commute on public transport (though our testing of this has been somewhat hindered by the Covid-19 lockdown). For a first-gen product, it's a respectable showing.

A mountain to climb

As alluded to by Dr Stone, the issue of NIHL in young people isn’t just a lack of awareness or alternative options in the market, it is a matter of perceptions. Whether ‘adults’ will want to intentionally limit their experience in any way is the question that only time will answer.

Over-ear headphones from established brands across all segments of the market, from budget to premium, come with varying levels of ANC, and also sport other attractive features. Whether the Puro Pro does enough to stand out will directly impact the fortunes of the firm in this area, entering as a small player with a relatively esoteric USP is no small challenge.

But the fight is more than worthwhile, and at this very early stage it is impossible to tell what level of success they might achieve, from a product perspective as well as their vision. They may limit volume, but not their aspirations.

Sean is a Scottish technology journalist who's written for the likes of T3, Trusted Reviews, TechAdvisor and Expert Reviews.