Have you ever sat next to someone on public transport and been able to hear exactly what song they were listening to, right down to the lyrics? This is an example of sound leakage, but it’s not only limited to cheap headphones or excessively loud sound levels.
In fact, solving the root cause of sound leakage may even help protect your hearing.
All Headphones Suffer from Sound Leakage
Headphones and earphones create sound by vibrating particles in the air. Sound leakage occurs when the barrier between the driver in your headphones and the outside world cannot contain these vibrations.
The louder the volume, the greater the vibration, the more sound will leak. Sound leakage is exacerbated by headphones that don’t create a tight enough seal with the ear, particularly on-ear headphones and in-ear headphones that don’t use a sealed in-ear design.
Depending on where you use your headphones, sound leakage can be a real problem. For example, if you like to study while listening to music in a library, sound leakage will distract and annoy those around you. On a loud train or in a busy office, sound leakage doesn’t pose the same problem.
If you’re especially self-conscious, you might be concerned that sound leakage will draw more attention to you. Not everyone wants those around them to know exactly what they’re listening to, whether it’s music, an audiobook, or a podcast.
No headphones are immune to sound leakage, though listening at quieter volumes can mitigate the problem. You can also buy a pair of headphones or earphones that don’t cause sound to leak quite so much.
Which Headphones Minimize Sound Leakage?
Over-ear headphones tend to leak less than on-ear headphones since they create a tighter seal with your head. Ultimately this depends on the ear cup design and materials, so it’s difficult to make a definitive statement. Open-back headphones (like the Audeze LCD-1) that use an open-air design are the leakiest.
In-ear headphones are a mixed bag. Those that don’t form a tight seal with your ear may leak just as bad as open-back headphones. Noise isolating earphones that use silicon tips to create a seal fare much better and don’t only trap sound in, but also keep ambient sound out.
Turning the volume down is the best way to minimize sound leakage, regardless of which headphones you use. Unfortunately, many people find that they need to turn the music up to block out ambient sound. The answer to this conundrum is to buy headphones with active noise cancelation (ANC), like the best-in-class Sony WF-1000XM4.
By removing as much ambient noise as possible, you can turn the music down to a pleasant listening level that’s much less likely to cause sound leakage. You’ll also protect your eardrums by avoiding hearing damage caused by prolonged exposure to loud sounds.
Apple users should check out our recommended wireless headphones for iPhone and iPad, which include several excellent ANC models (they can be used with Android and Windows too). For a different solution to the problem, consider a pair of bone-conduction headphones.
Sound Leakage Is a Two-Way Problem
You can test your headphones for sound leakage by playing music at your usual listening volume in a quiet room and asking a friend to report what they hear. You can also record yourself using your smartphone’s microphone, but you might not get very accurate results.
A better way of checking might be seeing how much ambient sound makes its way into your ears while listening. The more sound that gets in, the more sound that escapes too.
For a quick hack that won’t cost the bank, consider upgrading your in-ear headphones to noise-isolating headphones with a new pair of eartips. For best results, you can even create your own custom silicone ear molds for a perfect fit.