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Erstwhile I've read an article somewhere which claims that listening to music continually in MP3 format is harmful for ears. Since MP3 is a compressed format of audio tracks, some sounds in tracks are deducted and eventually the size of MP3 file is reduced. As humans, we cannot notice the difference between MP3 (e.g. 320 kbps) and original audio track while listening, but in fact, our ears can distinguish. As a consequence, the article claims that if we continually listen to MP3, this results in losing the distinguishing capability of ears, and finally ears won't notice the fine differences between sounds anymore.

Is this completely true? Are we doing harm to our ears with our MP3 addiction?

And which digital format is closest to original audio? Is it FLAC?

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Sorry, I couldn't hear you linking to the source... –  Ivo Flipse Nov 5 '09 at 9:43
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Probably the source won't cite anything scientific or even explain testing and methodology so it'd be useless anyway, I guess :-) –  Joey Nov 5 '09 at 9:53
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i wonder what "the source" would have us do as remedy. listen to AAC? –  quack quixote Nov 5 '09 at 10:01
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If I as a human cannot distinguish between these sounds being there and not being there, should I even care if my ears lose the ability to distinguish them? –  dertoni Nov 5 '09 at 10:57
    
@Ivo: I don't remember the source exactly, that's why I didn't include it in the question. One possibility is Chip magazine. –  Mehper C. Palavuzlar Nov 5 '09 at 11:48

8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

It is more likely to be the loud volumes in your ears that will damage them.
Differentiating a 320Kbps MP3 from a FLAC or Audio CD is difficult even for most healthy ears.

The BBC article referred above may be similar to your source.
If so, it is an excellent example of incorrect titles for articles that source many urban-myths.
The article title goes: MP3 users hearing damage warning ...
But says things along these lines,

A recent study by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) found
39% of 18 to 24-year-olds listened to personal music players for at least an hour every day
and 42% admitted they thought they had the volume too high.

Another article clearly mentions high decibels causing hearing loss,
Experts fear iPods, MP3 players may lead to hearing-loss epidemic

"The iPods have been measured at nearly 130 decibels.
A jet engine is 133 decibels from 100 feet away,"
said Rick Kottler, executive director of Deaf and Hard Hearing Services of the Treasure Coast.

Bottom line, check the volume button rather than the audio bitrate.


Further reading for ear-phone users (that includes me).
Causes of Tinnitus - Protect Your Ears -- How Loud is Loud.

To hear music against the background city noise (90-96dB),
you will most likely push 20dB beyond it -- (somwhere like 110dB).
Compare that in the linked article -- add in any more references you get.

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Yes. As for quality, most people should really rather worry about the quality of 1) their speakers and 2) the soundcard that does the D/A conversion. High quality MP3s cannot really be distinguished in blind tests by practically anyone. In fact, from some tests I did myself, I'd claim that even a 128 kbps CBR MP3 created with Lame is, for most people, often indistinguishable from the original WAV. –  Jonik Nov 5 '09 at 10:57

Is this completely true? Are we doing harm to our ears with our MP3 addiction?

No.

Music broadcast over FM radio is compressed and even though I've been listening to that for years I can still spot the different between an radio broadcast and a CD.

It's hard to tell without reading the source, but it sounds like pretentious audiophile drivel IMHO.

My guess the article was written by someone with a $10,000 Hi-Fi system and when someone pointed out they couldn't hear any difference between that and a $1,000 system the author said, "You can't hear the difference because you've broken your ears by listening to MP3s."

There is a separate issue that listening to music too loud will damage your hearing but that will happen no matter what the format the music is stored in. Plenty of rock musicians have damaged their hearing listening to live music which has no encoding whatsoever.

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Would be nice to have more source than your only opinion, if you could find. –  Gnoupi Nov 5 '09 at 10:03
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Would like to see the original article; I'd try to respond directly to its claims then. Not sure I'd be able to find many articles saying "Listening to MP3s won't make your hearing less accurate" since in my opinion the original claim is such obvious nonsense. –  Dave Webb Nov 5 '09 at 10:12
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Well, that's true. I guess it's like finding articles for "no, the gravity doesn't work backwards if you jump". –  Gnoupi Nov 5 '09 at 10:14
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Dynamic compression is something entirely different than data compression (mp3). –  simon Nov 5 '09 at 10:55
    
@simon - Dynamic compression is processing which reduces the quality of the audio. So as an example of how listening to lower quality audio doesn't mean we can't spot better quality audio I think the comparison is fair. –  Dave Webb Nov 5 '09 at 16:29

It sound like bunkum to me and should be assigned to the "woo" section along with gold plated connectors and kettle leads.

To answer your second point - any lossless format will be closer to the original source, so FLAC is a good candidate.

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Persistently listening to loud music will result in a loss of hearing capability. Listening to one sound or another at safe volumes will not physically damage the ear, but listeners will most likely become accustomed to the sound of MP3s. However, most people use crap ear-buds and MP3 quality isn't the problem there. Besides, it's not a one-way street.

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1)
No, MP3's won't damage your ears any more than any other audio format. The problem is not what audio format is used, but the volume at which audio is played.

  • Choose any audio format you want (whatever is convenient in your situation)
  • Keep the volume down, don't play it too loud.
  • Use headphones of decent quality - but still keep the volume down.
    Headphones don't have to be super expensive, but those you get with MP3-players and cell phones are too cheap and provide sound that is uncomfortable.

2)
Any lossless audio format will do, for instance FLAC or WAV. These formats make much larger file sizes, and some players only understand MP3, which is why MP3 is often more practical.

Keep in mind that even lossless audio formats are only as good as the source that's being recorded, so it wouldn't make sense to convert MP3 to FLAC, or use FLAC for recordings off the radio or a cassette tape.

Note:
I thought there were good answers, but not very precise. I've tried to be precise and informative.

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My rule of thumb: if the music doesn't interfere with normal conversation, the volume should be fine. –  David Thornley Nov 5 '09 at 14:28

There is some evidence to suggest that continued exposure to mp3s over lossless formats tends to make you prefer the artefacts introduced during compression to the raw, unadulterated audio.

As for damage to hearing, as other people have commented it can't damage your hearing unless it is deafening you with excessive volume.

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I've dug into this a little bit after realising I was consistently picking the MP3 instead of the lossless sample as the better sounding audio fragment in a blind listening test. Prolonged exposure to a lossy codec sounds plausible and is indeed being backed up by empirical data. A similar effect can be observed with people prefering the technically inferior sound of an analogue gramaphone record player as opposed to digital systems. –  Marcks Thomas Jun 13 '12 at 19:59

I don't see how it could cause physical harm JUST because it's MP3. As mentioned by others, excessive volume is the problem. However, some people do find listening to digitized music to be annoying versus analog (just like some people find noise-cancelling headsets to be annoying/give them a headache versus regular headsets).

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The claim sounds more like the lament of an audio connoisseur. In much the same way that a food connoisseur might lament that people who regularly consume foods containing corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, supermarket "meat and carrageenan" deli products, etc. that they now fail to notice or appreciate the superiority of foods made from more natural unprocessed fresher ingredients.

When listening to MP3 files was something new, the compression artifacts stood out and bothered people more, in sort of the same way that the first audience to hear Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring" in 1913 literally rioted. In time, just as people a generation ago got so used to the distortions of vinyl recordings that some actually preferred them to CDs, we got used to the MP3 compression artifacts and just learned to accept them.

You can still appreciate how an audiophile must feel when some whipper-snapper contends that his 128kbps MP3 file sounds "better than the CD" once you punch a little EQ in there and turn on the 3D stereo ambience effect.

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