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An amplifier, like that found in your stereo, smartphone, or computer, supplies the electrical power to the headset. With passive headphones, the power of the external amplifier determines the maximum sound pressure level (SPL) or volume.

Apart from their location, volume limiters can also differ on a technical level. Our audio engineer AJ Wykes explains: There are different approaches to output limiting depending on the complexity and cost of the headphones.

Active headphones have a battery to power the electronics, typically to provide onboard EQ or active noise cancelling (ANC); though these are rarely analog nowadays, as digital technology is superior and more cost-effective. Devices like this have active amplification stages that drive the transducers. Analog limiting circuits (automatic gain controls) can impose a maximum output voltage to the transducers, calibrated to correspond to a maximum SPL (output volume level).

Not all level limiting is made equal. Resistors passively limit the volume by restricting the amount of power converted to sound. Hence, headphones that rely on this method can surpass safe listening levels when the amplifier, such as your stereo system, is powerful enough. Digital limiters are a little more foolproof, but implementations can vary.

The study highlights that more powerful devices, such as laptops and CD players, can achieve higher volume outputs, suggesting that these devices used resistors. In Bluetooth mode, however, both tested headphones stayed within safe limits.

Many headphones for kids feature level limiting. Based on the study mentioned above, we recommend a volume limiting model from Puro Sound Labs; our favorite choice for children is the JLab JBuddies. These headphones are spill-resistant, feature a fun and kid-safe design, and limit the volume to 85dB(SPL).

If you already have a good pair of analog headphones, you could simply switch out the audio cable. Puro Sound Labs, for example, offers 3.5mm auxiliary audio cables that limit the output volume to 85dB(SPL). Keep in mind that since these cables use resistors, a more powerful device might crack the 85dB ceiling.

Since Apple devices max out at 102dB, staying within 70% volume should put you within the safe zone. You can set a hard volume limit under Settings > Sounds (or Sounds & Haptics) > Headphone Safety.