European Commission to make MP3 players ‘sound’ safe

28 Sep 2009

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Up to 10 million people in the EU may be at risk of permanent hearing loss due to unsafe sound levels on personal music players. New guidelines will see manufacturers put safe exposure levels in “default” settings on MP3 players.

Listening to your personal music player at high volume for many hours can seriously damage your hearing and EU scientists say that 5-10pc of listeners risk permanent hearing loss.

The European Commission issued today a mandate to CENELEC (the EU standardisation body), requiring new technical safety standards to be drawn up.

The mandate, proposed by the European Commission with 27 member states, covers all personal music players and mobile phones with a music-playing function and provides that the default settings on products must be set at safe exposure levels. In addition, products should carry adequate warnings for consumers on the risks involved and how to avoid them.

“It’s easy to push up the sound levels on your MP3 player to damagingly loud levels, especially on busy streets or public transport,” EU Consumer Affairs commissioner Meglena Kuneva explained.

“And the evidence is that particularly young people – who are listening to music at high volumes sometimes for hours each week – have no idea they can be putting their hearing at risk. It can take years for the hearing damage to show, and then it is simply too late.

“These standards make small technical changes to players so that by default, normal use is safe. If consumers chose to override the default settings they can, but there will be clear warnings so they know the risks they are taking,” Kuneva added.

“Consumers’ safety has the highest priority for the digital technology industry. DigitalEurope welcomes the approach of the European Commission by using a science-driven process for development of standards,” Bridget Cosgrave, director general of DigitalEurope, said.

“It is important that users have accurate information in order to make informed choices about how they enjoy personal music. DigitalEurope looks forward to working with the European Commission and standards bodies to serve consumer interests,” Cosgrave added.

It proposes that safe exposure levels shall be the "default" settings on products. The mandate makes it clear that safe use depends on exposure time and volume levels. At 80 dB(A), exposure should be limited to 40 hours/week. At 89 dB(A) exposure should not exceed 5 hours/week.

It also proposes that adequate warnings such as labels or digital information for consumers on the risks involved, and on ways to avoid them, including the situation when the original set of earphones is replaced with another type and this causes higher unsafe sound levels.

In recent years, sales of personal music players have soared, in particular those of MP3 players. Overall, in the EU, it is estimated that roughly 50 million-100 million people may be listening to portable music players on a daily basis.

In the last four years, estimated units sales range between 184 million-246 million for all portable audio devices and range between 124 million-165 million for MP3 players. Across the EU, many millions of people use personal music players daily and, if they use them inappropriately, they put themselves at risk of hearing damage.

By John Kennedy

Photo: iPods may soon carry warnings about safe volume levels.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com