Paternalistic Protection Partially Averted, but high sensitivity earphones a’comin

In December it was widely reported that the European Union is to require that MP3 players have a default maximum level of 85dB. Whatever the hell that means. 85dB average? Peak? A-weighted? C-weighted?

Apparently some kind of over-ride will be permitted. Yippee.

Meanwhile, some pains-in-the-arse lost their court case in California. They were suing Apple over the iPod, claiming its product was unsafe because of the possibility of hearing damage due to high output levels. The court held that the iPod was simply doing the job for which it was designed: reproducing music. A lawyer for those aforementioned pitas said that ‘Hopefully someone in the government in the United States will follow suit’, referring to the EU decision.

These people are seemingly clueless.

The output level of a sound reproduction system is determined by two things: the level able to be output by the electronics and the efficiency of the transducer. If you limit the former, you can still get the same number of decibels by having a higher efficiency transducer. Recently, for example, Yamaha gave me a set of its EPH-30 in-ear headphones. If you’re dissatisfied with the sound your iPod earphones are delivering, I suggest you try these ones out. They use silicon plugs (three sizes supplied) to provide a good seal, and offer balanced sound, without the upper midrange harshness that in-ear headphones normally produce, as well as extended bass.

Plus they are highly efficient. Yamaha’s figures aren’t easy to intepret, but with a regular iPod they will easily do damage to your ears within seconds, should you wind up the volume to max. That means that they should work fine in almost all portable MP3 players, since these typically produce lower maximum output levels than the iPod.

But that’s the point. If Apple is forced to set a particular output level, then there will be a premium on highly efficient earphones — probably at the expense of quality.

Back briefly to the EPH-30 units, the only real complaint I have concerns the cables. The soft rubbery material in which they are finished is like a magnet for dirt, and also tends to grab clothing, rather than slide smoothly, so there is some physical noise generation and transmission. In addition, the cable wants to retain the shape it assumed inside the package, rather than falling naturally.

Still, consider these before the penny drops and the regulators decide that in order to protect you from yourself they should also limit the sensitivity of earphones.

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