Beats by Dre: Giving Def a Whole New Meaning

If you have a tween or a teen, you know what Beats by Dre are. And if this recent, breathless piece in the New York Times business section is right — there are going to be Benetton-hued, obscenely-priced headphones under a lot of trees this Christmas. While there is some debate about whether the sound quality of the Beats is crisp or craptastic, there is no doubt about one thing: Plug those ‘phones into an iPod, crank the volume, and your child can have permanent hearing damage in just two songs.

That’s because even the postage-stamp tiny iPod Nano 6G can pump over 105 decibels into those bass-enhanced Beats at max volume: more than enough to mow down the tiny cilia floating in the child’s cochlea that enable hearing — damage that is permanent and irreversible. The problem is compounded in kids because of their smaller ear canals (would you rather set off a firecracker in a field or a phone booth?). Sound is louder in more confined spaces.

So should parents go Grinch on the Beats?

Not necessarily.

All iPods (and most MP3 players for that matter) have a feature that allows parents to set safe, pass-coded volume limits in only a few seconds.

Settings a limit on the 6G iPod Nano (touch screen) is dead simple. From the home screen tap settings, then tap music, scroll down and tap Volume Limit. Use the slider to set the volume limit (80% or less is recommended) then tap Lock Volume Limit. You will be prompted to tap in a four digit code and then to re-enter it (good luck if you have big fingers on this tiny touch screen). The volume is then locked. Done.

Limiting the volume on older iPods is equally easy.

Even with limited volume, experts suggest an 80/90 rule — no more than 90 minutes at 80% volume or less.

Parents in the EU are excused from reading this post because all MP3 players available there must be internally limited to producing 80 decibels. Which is good because they’ll be able to hear us when we condemn their socialist ways, and, conveniently, we won’t be able to hear their reply.

Of course, iPods aren’t the only things that kids plug their fashion-forward, rapper-endorsed ear-bling into. And, unfortunately, most do not feature volume limiters. Even Apple computers lack this feature as part of the suite of parental controls. While there are several apps available in the App Store, like Boom, that allow users to increase the sound output of their Macs, there is nothing available to try and protect kids’ hearing.

For that reason, parents should consider disallowing kids from plugging earphones into devices that don’t have a volume limit set. This has the added bonus of allowing parents to hear what the kids are playing and at what volume. Or maybe that’s a downside. If the kids do plug into an unlimited sound source, a good rule of thumb is that they should be able to hear you talking to them with the phones and music on.

Nanny-state hand-wringing when a nice firm “no” should do the trick? Maybe, but music releases endorphins and kids sometimes lack judgment. With a parental control that takes less than a minute to implement, this seems like a small incursion into a kid’s freedom. Besides, Beats and their oft-sued siblings are as much about fashion and status as they are about fidelity. Making a deal — new phones but with a volume limiter — should be easy.