The popularity of earbud headphones has exploded in recent years, in part because of the better sound they are said to deliver, their easy compatibility with hats and hairstyles, and in no small part from their association with a certain iconic portable music player. But while functional, and some claim comfortable, earbuds don’t really play nice with the structure of our ears. In fact, they may be hurting us.
The issue comes from the stapedius reflex, where the middle ear undergoes an involuntary muscle contraction in the presence of loud noises to protect the delicate inner ear. This response happens all the time, particularly while talking or humming, which is why you have may have been told to hum right before a loud noise to protect your ears. Because in-ear headphones create a closed space, transferring the sound into a concussive force against the eardrum and middle ear, the stapedius reflex kicks in making the music sound quieter, and often results in users turning up the volume even higher to compensate. The middle ear attempts to compensate further, leading to fatigue on the muscles, leathery calluses on the eardrum, and eventually actual hearing damage from the high volume.
Until recently, the only way to prevent this was switching back to over-the-head headphones or listening at low volumes. But Stephen Ambrose who created “in-ear monitors”, the professional grade progenitors of earbuds, thinks he’s found a way to deliver high-quality sound without deafening listeners. TheAmbrose Diaphonic Ear Lens (ADEL) uses air-filled balloons around tiny speakers to act as a barrier between you and sound. The sound vibrates the membrane of the balloon, transferring the sound to the wall of the ear canal and through the bones of the inner ear.
With the balloon earbuds, or alternatively, tiny membrane inserts for traditional earbuds, listeners can use less volume but experience more sound. Moreover, Ambrose’s research shows that the membranes greatly reduce the force applied to the ear, preventing fatigue and hopefully guarding against hearing damage. The balloon buds are still in the prototyping phase, but consumer grade versions should be in the pipe soon. For music lovers everywhere, this should sound like good news.