IEMs haven’t been around in the professional music industry for long, so we don’t know how using them can affect one’s hearing long-term. If you’re a professional producer, musician, or audiophile with deep pockets and a pair of IEMs, you’re probably wondering if IEMs are bad for your ears.
IEMs could be bad for your ears if you don’t use them correctly. The gear’s proximity to the ear by itself cannot cause damage. But when you use IEMs the wrong way or listen to loud music for too long, you may permanently damage your hearing.
There are many misconceptions around IEMs, most of them having to do with the safety of the equipment. In this article, I present the facts about IEMs, and their potential to damage your ears.
Important Facts You Should Know Before Using IEMs
Here are a few things you should know about IEMs if you don’t want them to damage your hearing:
IEMs Are a Foreign Body
A foreign body can be defined as an external object that finds its way into your body by design or mistake. An IEMs earpiece certainly counts as a foreign body because you’re required to stick it into your ear canal.
While IEMs being a foreign body doesn’t increase the likelihood of hearing damage, the foreign body phenomenon has its consequences. Chief among the effects of sticking IEMs in your ear is a higher ear wax production. Putting items in your ears also causes an increase in the production of bacteria.
The simple precaution is to ensure that you clean your ears consistently. This Similasan Searinse Ear Spray (Amazon.com) was made precisely for that purpose. Made from natural minerals, all you have to do is spray some into your ears and clean with a cotton swab.
Now, neither ear wax nor bacteria are enough to damage your hearing. Dr. Jasmine Shaikh explains that “…foreign bodies, such as beads, can stay for 1-2 weeks in your ear without causing any complications.”
I don’t imagine that anyone keeps their IEM in their ears longer than a few hours on end. Therefore, it’s safe to say that hygiene is the only precaution you have to take against sticking an IEM into your ear canal. As long as you’re cleaning wax out of your ear, you have nothing to worry about.
The only real downside to using IEMs is that you cannot hear the people around you. Since IEMs were initially designed for stage performers, sound engineers found a way to filter out ambient sound. But if you’re using IEMs for recreational purposes, you may have to take them out and put them back in multiple times a day. This could cause skin irritation, but it’s not something that could hurt your hearing.
Occlusion Can Feel Uncomfortable
Have you ever wondered about the difference between how your voice sounds in your head vs. how it sounds in a recording or to other people? Also, try chewing right now and record that. Bet it sounds louder in your head than it does in the recording.
The occlusion effect can be defined as a perception of self-created sounds being louder than they are. We won’t go into the physics of all that, but you can read more about it here.
But why are we talking about the occlusion effect?
Because when you speak, your voice reverberates throughout your head. Then, the sound waves escape out of your mouth and ear canals. But when you stick an IEM inside your ears, guess what happens? The sound bounces off the gear and goes right back in.
The effects of this occlusion are as follows:
- Your voice becomes hollow in your head. This hollowness implies that you could be speaking very loudly but not realize it.
- The occlusion could increase low-frequency sound pressure by over 20 decibels. In other words, the low-frequency sounds could become louder than usual, which could be problematic.
Again, the occlusion effect alone isn’t enough to cause any damage to your ears. Is occlusion sometimes uncomfortable? Does it increase the loudness of low-frequency sounds?
Yes, guilty on all counts. Yet, the chances of occlusion damaging your ears are far-fetched.
This is however less of a problem if you compare IEMs to headphones.
High Sound Pressure Levels from IEMs Are Bad for Your Ears
The sound pressure level has the most impact on hearing abilities. The sound pressure level is defined as the pressure produced by sound waves. SPL has a spectrum that determines whether you’ll lose your hearing.
On one end of the SPL spectrum is “the hearing threshold,” the lowest sound pressure a human can hear. On the other end is “the pain threshold,” the point where sound pressure is too high. Reaching or exceeding the pain threshold leads to permanent hearing loss.
As a result of this analysis, we see that IEMs aren’t the only devices that could be bad for your ears. I have to admit, though, that the loudness of IEMs can distort your perception of sound such that you need a higher volume to be stimulated.
As a result, there’s a tendency to listen for too long at the pain threshold. If you’re listening to music with IEMs at 85 dB, you’re just asking for trouble. Crank it up to 130 dB, and you increase your chances of temporarily or even permanently losing your hearing.
The primary factor to consider here is the length of time you listen to music that exceeds the pain threshold. If you sustain it for 4–6 hours, you WILL lose your hearing. But then, this is as true for IEMs as it is for headphones and speakers. It’s not about the device but the volume. Unfortunately, hearing loss is a gradual decline, and many people never notice.
Related article: 9 Safest Headphones for Your Ears: Buyer’s Guide
Use the Ringing Test To Check if Your Music Is Too Loud
The ringing test is normally used for tinnitus, but you can do this too:
- Abstain from using IEMs, headphones, or earbuds for three days.
- Go to a quiet place.
- Insert earplugs into your ears.
- Remain still and follow your breathing.
- Pay close attention to your hearing in the silence.
- If you have tinnitus, you’ll hear a faint ringing in your ears.
- Use your IEMs as you usually would and repeat steps 2–6 after a few hours.
- If you hear a ringing that’s louder than last time, you’re listening to music at a higher volume than you should.
Important Safety Guidelines When Using IEMs
Since IEMs have not been in mainstream consciousness for very long, many people misuse them. Yes, there’s a wrong way to wear IEMs. Your refusal to follow the guidelines for IEMs will, at the very least, impact the enjoyment of your music. At worst, you’ll damage your ear canals. This section may very well be the most critical part of the article.
Here’s how to wear an IEM:
- Lift your ears to straighten out your ear canal.
- Open your mouth to expand the auditory canal further.
- Twist the IEM gently while inserting it into your ears. If the IEM has foam ear tips, roll them in your fingers before insertion.
- Repeat the process on the other ear
It’s also essential to remember that you should never take IEMs out abruptly. Twist them gently before slowly removing them. Otherwise, you’ll irritate your ear canal.
Whatever safety issues arise when using IEMs are always caused by a failure to use the gear correctly. IEMs can damage your ears, but only if you use them to blast loud music.