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Time to put your hearing to the test

What did you say?
May 12, 2022
Stock image from Pexels of a baby's ear.

A recurring range of numbers pops up when searching for headphones: 20Hz-20kHz. And if you’ve ever wondered why you should care, well, it’s because that’s the range of human hearing… kind of. Let’s go through some common frequency ranges and put your hearing to the test. This can help inform you if you experience hearing loss of any degree.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on May 12, 2022, to answer an in-line FAQ about headphones and hearing loss.

Is hearing loss normal?

Few of us have undamaged ears because as we age, our hearing naturally declines. Hearing sensitivity diminishes even faster if you’re a frequent concert-goer or someone who works in a noisy environment. Even if you don’t fall into those categories, we subject our ears to loud, abrupt sounds throughout our lives which can impair our hearing in extreme cases. This affects every mechanism of the ear from the tiny hair follicles (stereocilia) to the eardrum.

Human hearing test: A photo of a man wearing Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones.
An easy way to combat noise-induced hearing loss is by using noise cancelling headphones.

While the thought of losing your hearing is upsetting, it’s just a natural part of aging. There are certain ways to protect your eardrums (wearing earplugs at a concert, or keeping the volume below 85dB when listening to music), and we can’t stress enough the importance of protecting your kid’s hearing.

But at the end of the day, and during it, most of us don’t even notice our own auditory deficiencies, and we bumble through life just fine.

Great question! When used responsibly, headphones will not cause hearing loss and therefore, tinnitus. The problem is that many of us unwittingly crank up the volume on our headphones to drown out background noise and that can cause hearing loss and its subsequent symptoms. You can read more on the topic here, but listening at lower volume outputs at or below 75dB(SPL) should mitigate your risk of hearing loss.

Hearing test: Can you hear these sounds?

Okay, our test is pretty easy: put on some headphones and play the following tones that range from 20Hz-20kHz.

First up is a 20Hz tone, it flanks the lowest range of our hearing

If you heard that, nice job. We’re impressed. This next tone shouldn’t be a problem for people with average hearing. It falls in the middle of the human hearing spectrum and is the fundamental frequency of some higher-pitched voices: 2kHz.

All right, that was an easy one. Now’s where things start getting hard. If you’re in your 30s, you probably can’t hear the next two, so let’s start with 16kHz. This is about where AAC cuts out on many Android phones, so if you can’t hear this: you don’t have to worry about quality loss!

This final tone, 20kHz, is the hardest tone for adults to hear that still falls within the human hearing range.

Chances are—unless you’re a bat—you just enjoyed 30 seconds of silence. Congrats, you’ve meditated for the day.

Can you regain your hearing?

A man holds a Q-tip to a pair of AirPods Pro earbuds as he cleans them with isopropyl alcohol.
Anyone who uses earbuds on a daily basis should clean them at least once a week.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), many types of hearing loss are permanent and even surgery can’t remedy Sensorineural hearing loss, the most common permanent type. Fortunately, not all hearing loss is permanent and you can regain it under certain circumstances. Acute issues like an ear infection from improperly wearing your earbuds or forgetting to clean them are fairly easy to resolve.

Mayo Clinic states that excessive earwax buildup and obstruction can result in a temporary reduction in hearing sensitivity, and if it’s impacted you can go to a doctor for treatment. What’s more, certain medications cite temporary hearing loss as a side effect, so it’s always important to have a full understanding of side effects before you begin a new medication.

Why should you care about auditory health?

A woman wears the Mobvoi Earbuds Gesture true wireless earbuds in profile to illustrate the stemmed design.
Healthy ears make it easier for you to enjoy your music for years to come.

While all this testing is fun and interesting, we don’t want it to scare you: a certain degree of hearing loss is normal, and too often we overestimate our sensory abilities. Hearing is especially fragile, and making decisions based on the assumption of perfect “golden ears” only leads to confusion and overcomplicating simple decisions. Seriously, Bluetooth headphones are more than fine enough—even if that tech isn’t perfect.

If you’ve ever gone to too many concerts, did construction work sans hearing protection, listened to your music above 85dB for long periods of time—you don’t have perfect hearing. So stay safe and enjoy the music, after all, we have a vested interest in your ears remaining healthy.

Frequently asked questions about hearing health

Tinnitus is described by Mayo Clinic as the perception of noise or ringing in the ears when no external sound is present; these are also referred to as phantom noises. Tinnitus isn’t a condition in and of itself, rather it’s a symptom of a condition, often age-related hearing loss, an ear injury, or circulatory system disorder. Those experiencing tinnitus report perceived sounds like buzzing, roaring, clicking, hissing, humming, and ringing.