The last time I watched a major European soccer match on TV I could barely hear the commentary. At first I thought it was because there was so much background noise from the stadium crowd, which was cheering and chanting non-stop. I blamed Fox TV for doing a lousy job balancing the audio.

But it's more likely I have hidden hearing loss from my many years as a rock musician. You can probably pass a standard hearing test if you have this kind of hearing loss because the test measures your hearing when the background is quiet. Symptoms of hidden hearing loss — a newly discovered phenomenon — include problems hearing when there is background noise. Experts link this kind of hearing loss to damage to nerve fibers inside the ears, versus lost hair cells, which causes hearing loss more likely to show up on a test in the doctor's office.

Related: How to Avoid Hearing Loss at a Rock Concert

“Jackhammers, concerts and other common noisemakers may cause irreparable damage to our ears in unexpected ways,” said M. Charles Liberman, PhD, a Harvard Medical School professor and director of Eaton-Peabody Laboratories, in the August 2015 issue of Scientific American. The ear’s nerve fibers, he says, can suffer “immediate and irreversible damage.”

Lots of sounds in our regular lives take us into the danger zone of hearing loss, according to, a Colorado-based organization dedicated to reducing noise-based hearing loss.

Related: Are Earbuds Safe for Your Kids?

Sounds above 100 decibels (dBs) are considered dangerous without ear protection. But concerts and clubs often reach 115 decibels; jackhammers and sirens, up to 125; and fireworks, up to 145 dB, according to 3M’s Occupational Health and Safety Division and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The louder the sound, the faster the hearing damage takes place. CDC experts warn that if you are using a chain saw (109 dBs) without ear protection, for example, you will suffer permanent damage to your hearing in only two minutes. At 112 dBs, you have less than a minute to prevent hearing loss, and at a concert reaching 115 dBs, less than 30 seconds.

Popular noise meter apps

How can you know when a noise is too noisy? There's an app for that. Sound-level meter apps available for phones “can have a tremendous and far-reaching impact in the area of noise control," says the CDC. Here are some of the most popular ones.

dB Volume Meter and TooLoud Pro. These iPhone apps, available for 99 cents, let you measure audio volume in the environment around you. TooLoud Pro also warns you if the sound levels mean you should be wearing earplugs. (There’s also a Too Noisy Pro app, which costs $2.99 and is made for teachers to measure classroom noise levels.)

Decibel Meter. This is a free Android app that uses the phone's microphone to measure Sound Pressure Level (SPL), displays the current minimum and maximum values of sounds around you in decibels and turns this information into user-friendly sound level charts and graphs.

NoiseTube. This free app is available for both iPhone and Android devices. It turns smartphones into mobile noise level meters so you can measure your exposure to noise in everyday environments or do collective “noise mapping” of your neighborhood with your neighbors.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal agency dedicated to workplace safety, offers its own free educational NIOSH noise meter. The app gives example of different decibel levels in the environment but doesn't measure sound levels. 

Ear protection is key

Ear plugs are an excellent way to do that, and many are sophisticated enough to still let you hear conversations or concert music with little loss in sound quality. By using ear protection, experts say, you can reduce the sound level by up to 30 dB (or 10 to 20 dB of attenuation during concerts) to protect your precious hearing.

I still play and record rock music, but these days I try to protect what’s left of my hearing by wearing high-fidelity ear plugs. These inexpensive plugs reduce decibel levels by as much as 12 dB without effecting the overall quality or the treble, mid or bass tones of the music. Plus, if I wear them while watching the big game, I can crank up the volume and — at long last — manage to hear the commentator’s razor-sharp insights over the roar of the crowd.

Related: How to Unblock Your Ears and Equalize the Pressure

Luke James is a freelance writer and musician who writes about music, soccer, kids, pets and life with his family in northern California.