Parents who want their children to turn the music down on their iPods received a helping hand from Apple on Wednesday. The device maker issued a free software update that enables iPod owners, or their parents, to set a maximum volume limit.
Available for the latest versions of video iPods and all models of the iPod Nano, the update also gives parents the ability to set a volume cap and lock it in place with a code to prevent a child from changing the setting without approval.
The California company's actions come on the heels of several scientific studies that found prolonged exposure to music at excessively high volumes can lead to hearing loss.
The reports not only generated headlines, but also prompted Washington hearings at which experts and politicians alike warned iPod users to turn down the volume.
Can You Hear Me Now?
The pressure on Apple has been increasing since the first report surfaced claiming that the earbuds sold with iPods and other MP3 players could lead to hearing loss when users listen to loud music for prolonged periods.
The first report, released in December by Northwestern University audiologist Dean Garstecki, noted that the new warnings are similar to those issued in the 1980s when Sony Walkmans and CD players were must-have items for teens and other music lovers.
"We're seeing the kind of hearing loss in younger people typically found in aging adults," Garstecki said in December. "Unfortunately, the earbuds preferred by music listeners are even more likely to cause hearing loss than the muff-type earphones that were associated with older devices."
In February, the problem reached the boiling point when a Louisiana man, John Kiel Patterson, filed suit against Apple. He claimed that the iPod can generate sounds up to 115 decibels despite studies that have found that listening to music at that level for as little as 28 seconds each day can lead to hearing loss over time.
The suit not only seeks monetary damages on behalf of iPod users who have experienced hearing loss, but also seeks to compel Apple to offer a software upgrade to limit output from the iPod to 100 decibels and provide headphones that block external noise.
"Millions of consumers have had their hearing put at risk by Apple's conduct," the lawsuit stated.
The iPod user manual includes a section titled "Avoid Hearing Loss" and a warning that cautions users that "permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at high volume." It goes on to say that users can adapt over time to a higher volume, which might sound normal but can damage hearing. "Set your iPod's volume to a safe level before that happens," the manual reads.
The lawsuit alleges that the manual's warning is not sufficient because it does not define "high volume" or "safe level." Experts on hearing loss generally recommend that music listeners adopt a "60 percent, 60 minute" rule, whcih means spending no more than one hour each day listening to a digital-music device with the volume set at least 60 percent below the maximum level.
Apple temporarily pulled the iPod from store shelves in 2002 after the French government determined that the device was capable of generating sound levels in excess of those set by government regulations.
The French government demanded that the device maker limit iPod output to 100 decibels. Apple solved the problem, but only for iPods destined for France.