CUPERTINO, Calif. – In a world where hearing problems are real, concerns are mounting and lawyers are looking to make gadget providers liable, Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL) — the maker of the predominant iPod music player — has created new volume controls.
Parents also can use the feature to impose a maximum volume on their child's iPod and lock it with a code.
Sandy Liao, a Fremont, Calif., mother of two, welcomed the development, although she wants to see Apple eventually add the feature to the models she has, the Shuffle.
She had specifically avoided buying her children any kind of portable music or CD player out of concern they would damage their ears, but a friend gave a Shuffle to each of her children, ages 9 and 10, as gifts last year.
"It would be great if I could get the volume controls for them, too," she said.
Apple representatives said little about why they made the change, issuing only a statement.
"As the leading provider of digital music players, Apple continuously brings iPod customers innovative and easy-to-use solutions," said Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president for iPod marketing. "With the increased attention in this area, we want to offer customers an easy-to-use option to set their own personal volume limit."
Whether or not Apple is responding to legal challenges or specific consumer requests, tech industry analyst Michael Gartenberg of JupiterResearch said the issue clearly is a concern, and "Apple is acting in a responsible way to address it."
Earlier this year, a Louisiana man filed a lawsuit against Apple, claiming that the iPod can cause hearing loss in people who use it.
The devices can produce sounds of more than 115 decibels, a volume that can damage the hearing of a person exposed to the sound for more than 28 seconds per day, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif.
Although the iPod is more popular than other types of portable music players, its ability to cause hearing loss isn't any higher, experts said.
More than 25 million Americans, or about 10 percent of the U.S. population, suffers from hearing loss that adversely affects their lives, said Jennifer Weber, an audiology professor at the University of Northern Colorado.
"Any excessive sound level has the potential of causing hearing damage, whether it's an iPod or a Walkman, or a loud hairdryer," Weber said.
Apple ships a warning with each iPod that cautions "permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at high volume."
The Cupertino-based company also has posted online a brief analysis about sound, advising users of iPods, computers and other devices to adopt common sense and "listen responsibly" when using headphones or earbuds.
The company isn't alone when it comes to such warnings.
Some cell phones, for instance, force users to acknowledge a warning of possible hearing damage each time they use the speakerphone.
"These product warnings are definitely on the increase," said James Dorr, a product liability defense attorney with Wildman Harrold LLP in Chicago. "Because of the litigious nature of today's marketplace, manufacturers are much more aware of liability issues and the need to protect themselves."
To avoid litigation costs, Dorr said companies are issuing warnings even though they're not mandated to do so for so-called open and obvious dangers.
And in France, regulators passed a law in 1996 — five years before the iPod debuted — imposing on devices a noise cap of 100 decibels.
Apple said it was complying with that French law with a software update for iPod owners there, limiting the iPod sound to 100 decibels.
Apple has sold more than 42 million iPods since the original model debuted in October 2001. More than 30 million of those sales were posted last year after Apple introduced the iPod Shuffle and replaced its hot-selling iPod mini with the iPod Nano.