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Small heads, safe ears: The best headphones for kids

Dan Frakes | Aug. 25, 2014
These days, kids need headphones, too. We looked at a slew of cans designed to fit your child's head while protecting their hearing.

Children tend to be even rougher on their gear than adults, and their headphones are often lugged around in backpacks filled with books and other can-crushing items, so kids headphones need to be designed with kid-level abuse in mind

Volume level Hearing damage from loud volume levels is a risk for anyone listening to headphones, but children are especially susceptible, as they're less aware of the dangers and, in my experience, more willing to put up with too-loud audio rather than turning it down. Specifically, the CDC recommends avoiding extended exposure to volume levels about 85dB.

You can use iOS's volume-limit feature to cap the maximum audio output of an iPhone or iPad, but that feature isn't available on Macs. It also doesn't account for the varying sensitivity of individual headphones--a setting that results in the optimum volume level for one set of headphones might produce volume that's too loud on another set, and not loud enough on another. And, of course, kids are resourceful, and eventually they'll figure out how to get around this setting.

A better solution is a set of kid-focused headphones that includes circuitry to limit output volume to 85dB, no matter how high the volume is cranked up on the source. While testing headphones for this review, I used an Ear3 meter to measure actual volume levels at the ear. (The Ear3 measures loudness in dBA--A-weighted decibles--which refers to a method of measuring noise levels that approximates the loudness perceived by the human ear.)

Volume-limited headphones do have a couple drawbacks. First, the volume-limiting circuitry usually affects sound quality noticeably. Specifically, treble can sound muffled, bass is sometimes emphasized, and midrange is just a bit off. The second is that in some noisy environments, such as a car, train, or plane, volume-limited headphones may be unusable--your kids won't be able to hear the headphone audio because of background noise. The solution, however, isn't to use non-limited headphones, which will subject your kids' ears to potentially damaging sound levels when turned up loud enough to be audible in these environments. Rather, it's to make the environment quieter, or to use headphones that block external noise or include active noise-canceling circuitry.

A family affair

I, along with a 1st-grader and a 3rd-grader, tested six sets of full-size headphones designed specifically for kids. My kids helped me evaluate each model's fit, comfort, and ease of use, while I evaluated sound quality and general fit and finish. Unfortunately, I couldn't perform long-term tests for what may be the most-common headphone failure: cable and cable-connection issues. But all five models survived a few weeks of kid-level use. (If, during subsequent use, any of the models fail, I'll be sure to update this article.) All six models connect using a standard 3.5mm (1/8-inch) headphone plug; one also can connect using Bluetooth. They're listed here from least to most expensive.

 

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