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Caution: Contents hot!

The Washington Post is reporting that a man named John Patterson, from Louisiana, is suing Apple for its iPod music player in San Jose, California U.S. District Court. He says that it is capable of producing up to 115dB SPL (or sound pressure level—the physical loudness of sound and how much air it moves.) It is unlikely that anyone would ever need to turn up to 115dB SPL. Why?

120db SPL is right around the level of a jet engine taking off. 120dB SPL is generally regarded as the “threshold of pain” by audiologists, because it is the level that most people are feeling actual physical pain. Some people have higher or lower levels. But that fact leads me to is this question: If it hurts you at that level, why don’t you turn it down?

Sometimes it’s inescapable, as in a rock concert or workplace. But in those places, we usually have safeguards. Rock concerts have engineers that are paid to keep levels at a tolerable level, but with the idea that everyone can hear it, so it’s got to be loud to a point. Most knowledgeable engineers try to keep it below 95dB SPL. The workplace has a thing called OSHA, an organization that says if you absolutely must be around loud machinery, then you better be wearing hearing protection, or your employer will get hit with a fine and you’ll probably be going home for a while.

Furthermore, there are dozens of musicians who speak out against hearing damage. Notable among them is Pete Townsend, guitarist for The Who, whose own deafness/tinnitus was caused by drummer Keith Moon putting to much explosive in his drum for a pyro stunt in a show, and has been aggravated by playing guitar at ridiculously high volume (because that’s the only way old tube amps made distortion). William Shatner also has tinnitus (which is characterized by a permanent ringing in the ears, of any pitch, but usually a mid-to-high frequency), also caused by a pyro explosion. Tinnitus is usually caused by one of two things: sudden exposure to an extremely high SPL sound, or long-term exposure to moderately high level sound. Many, many news articles have been written about the potential for hearing loss associated with headphones (not just from the iPod, but any form of headphone from a high-output source), and Apple’s own iPod owner’s manual spells out the damage that high SPLs can have on a consumer’s ears, and it ought to be plastered all over any portable music player. To single out Apple is unfair and irresponsible.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “defective” as “a) imperfect in form or function, or b) falling below the norm in structure or in mental or physical function”. By its construction, the iPod is not defective. It does what it means to do, and it most likely falls in line with most other devices on the market. It is not the means by which the music is delivered–i.e., the iPod–it is the personal choice of the consumer as to how loud they want to listen to something. Earbuds are more likely to cause damage over normal car or stereo speakers, but their impact over traditional headphones is negligible. But in the end, it comes down to the simple fact that high SPLs from any source cause ear fatigue and/or hearing loss. Every time you decide that something that previously was loud enough is now no longer the same apparent level, it’s because your ear is becoming fatigued. The more you turn it up, the more damage you’re doing. And you are the one turning it up… not Apple. The iPod does not have a set volume level. You can turn it down at any time.

An interesting thing to note is that, buried in the article, there is the admission that “Patterson does not know if the product damaged his hearing… But that’s beside the point of the lawsuit, which takes issue with the potential the iPod has to cause irreparable hearing loss.” That’s like suing gun manufacturers because guns could be used to kill someone, suing McDonald’s because they make fatty foods, or, I don’t know, suing the government because they might kill you by starting a nuclear war. No, let’s hope there’s a judge in San Jose that tells Mr. Patterson that he did it to himself, and it’s no one’s fault but his own. If this lawsuit goes through, and it does become a class-action suit, as Patterson intends, then millions of people will frivolously claim their chunk of cash, and they will effectively destroy the iPod, and potentially Apple. This is simply a case of someone being greedy and trying to take a bite out of the front-runner in the industry. The lawsuit is frivolous and must be stopped.

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