Headphones that block out sound were first invented for airplane pilots on long flights and have for some become a vital part of daily life
Theres one thing other than my wallet and my travel card I wouldnt be without in a big city, and its my headphones. But I dont actually listen to music that much: I just activate the noise-cancelling feature, and leave it at that.
No sound plays into my ears instead a quiet fills my head, as if the sounds of the world have been turned down. Until I got noise-cancelling headphones, I had no idea how loud the city always was, and just how hungry Id been for silence.
On public transport, using the noise-cancelling feature will soften the roar of engine and traffic. In the open-plan office, it eliminates the constant chatter and limits interruptions. On an airplane, its a revelation. Im not alone in using state-of-the-art headphones not for music, but to tune out the constant drone of urban living its becoming a modern life survival tool.
It was like that moment in a film where the sound cuts out
Matt Thomas, an animator and motion graphics designer in London, is a convert. He discovered he could use the silencing feature on its own one day by accident, when his music cut out on the tube: I thought, wait a minute, theres this really nice peace and quiet. It was like that moment in a film where the sound cuts out and everything goes into slow motion.
Heavy traffic generates noise levels of up to 85 decibels (dB), which the Health and Safety Executive deems sufficient to cause permanent hearing damage if were exposed to it for several hours every day. Underground trains can pass the 100dB mark when roaring around a loud corner.
Thomas often puts his headphones on silent when on public transport (he no longer does this in the street after nearly getting run over), but prefers music for work. For Johanna Vogel, an economist in Vienna, Austria, its the opposite: she plays music on the bus but works in silence. Vogel bought her noise-cancelling headphones hoping they would help her concentrate in an open-plan office. Its so relaxing, she says. At first I was doubtful it would make a big difference, but now couldnt live without them. In noisy environments I really need some way to create quiet for myself.
Noise damages more just our ears. Research studies have found links between long-term noise exposure and increased risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as low mood and difficulties with sleeping and concentrating. Adverse effects on mental and physical health can start at just 65dB, a level that seems moderate: a refrigerator hums steadily at 40dB, and an open plan office buzzes at around 60dB.