Erik McClure

The Earbud Loudness Wars

I have a Zune I got as a prize at a Microsoft Hunt The Wumpus competition back when Microsoft was still under the delusion that they could actually compete with the iPod. My Zune has served me faithfully for almost 7 years. I am now on my third pair of earbuds for my Zune, and have noticed a disturbing trend.

The Zune has a volume control that goes from 0 to 20. I have sensitive ears, so with my first pair of earbuds, which came with the Zune and were presumably made by Microsoft, I listened to music at a volume of 3. Sometimes it was bumped up to 4, but never higher unless a particular song was abnormally quiet. I wish I could say this will let me keep my hearing pristine for many years to come, but standing next to the freeway for 4 years has probably screwed me over anyway.

Eventually these gave out and I had to get new ones. I picked the “Gumy” brand because it was almost identical to my previous earbuds and I like that style. I can’t even hear bass properly due to a hearing defect so I really don’t give a shit about “EXTREME BASS LOUDNESS!!!11!1!!one!!”, and I’ve heard bad things about Skullcandy, which was literally the only other brand there. After plugging in my new earbuds, however, I noticed that a volume level of 3 was too loud - I thought my ears might be playing tricks on me, but after several tests, including a blind test, I was absolutely positive 3 was definitely too loud, and I’d have to reduce my volume to 2. Once again, volume level 3 would be used for quieter songs.

After another 2 or 3 years, my old Gumy earbuds have finally died, so I just went and bought new ones. Not interested in trying any new brands, I got the exact same brand, type, and color, such that my new earbuds were almost completely indistinguishable from my old ones. Then I plugged them in. Once again, they were significantly louder than my previous ones. Thinking perhaps my ears were not accustomed to the sound or perhaps my old earbuds had decreased in volume, I ran several tests, but I eventually realized that my comfortable level of listening had been reduced to a volume level of 1.

There is nothing below 1. If this trend continues, I will be forced to either find an exotic brand of earbuds I can only buy over the internet from a manufacturing plant on the moon that lets me actually listen to songs at a volume that does not cause hearing damage, or I will be forced to stop listening to music on my Zune. I’m not entirely sure how this trend is even possible, although it may have something to do with a miniature amplifier inside the earbuds, but it seems to be mirroring the infamous Loudness Wars. The issues involved with the Loudness Wars are a topic for another day, but this same phenomenon has occured with my headphones plugged into my computer. A comfortable volume is something like 5 on a scale from 0 to 100. At least in windows I can punch it into behaving reasonably, but it’s still just as ridiculous.

I have always been annoyed at people listening to music at volumes that are obviously going to cause hearing damage for no real apparent reason, and its also why I avoid concerts like the plague, but now it seems that our society’s obsession with loud music is making it almost impossible for me to not listen to loud music and it’s pissing me the fuck off.

For now, my earbuds are working fine, and I can still listen to them comfortably on a volume level of 1 without problems, but if anyone knows a pair of non-stupid earbuds that does not fall victim to this trend, it would be useful information 3 years down the road when this pair gives out.

Also, if you are going to have a volume control, make it actually useful, please. I’m sick and tired of volume controls with a range from “Almost Too Loud” to “What The Fuck?!” At least some of us don’t want to listen to music at offensively loud decibel levels. I can still tweak the volume in FL Studio when I’m mixing my tracks, but studio-quality headphones become a lot less useful when they have an effective integer volume range of 0-8.



You probably need something like this...

So drop the volume on the cable and up the volume on the Zune. At least then you might be able to put the Zune volume at about 10 and have more volume adjustability than just 1 up or down.

Erik McClure

The fact that I need that at all is really disturbing.


Try and pick headphones with more resistance. This reduces the current thereby reducing loudness.

Many of today's simple headphones (earbuds) have only 16 Ohm resistance, instead of 32.
This makes them twice as loud.

Erik McClure

Thank you! I will look for that next time.


The little tiny drivers in earbuds tend to need less power as we get better at making them. On the same volume settings, you'll usually get more noise from high-priced buds from the same year. When this starts to become a problem, device-makers will adjust to it. It wasn't a problem seven years ago and it's not quiiiiite a problem yet, but soon. (oh, and if you're stuck buying trash like Skull Candy, I suggest you watch ebay for Xears, they're great and sometimes you can snag them for pretty silly prices)

Erik McClure

I avoid skullcandy at all costs but I just got cheap gummy earbuds and I'm not sure if they're any better.



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