Words: Pete Mason
In the fall of 2010, I went to a series of concerts over a three week span. At midpoint of these shows, October 30th in Atlantic City for Phish, I became acutely aware of a ringing and slight pain in my ears. I ignored the sensations, but they persisted the next day as well. Over the next week, the ringing faded to non-existence. When I later saw Cornmeal at Red Square in Albany, I found myself taking pictures near a speaker and then felt the ringing come back, strongly. The ringing this time did not go away. I continued to see live music but kept away from speakers.
In December, I contacted my doctor and he informed me that I had tinnitus, a constant ringing sensation in my ears that did not go away, and was noticeable especially in the silence before I went to sleep each night. I decided it was time to invest in a good pair of ear plugs. For nearly ever show since last December, I have worn earplugs to shows and not missed a note, not had an earplug fall out of my ear and the ringing has subsided substantially. While I have a couple pairs of ear plugs that work well, I noticed many of my friends and regulars at shows did not wear earplugs, typically because they didn’t want to miss the sound of the show. After talking to them about how the sound doesn’t get lost in the process an the harmful noise is filtered out, it seemed that the benefits of earplugs were valuable to all live music fans and sought out different styles and brands of earplugs so that others may benefit from earplugs and not succumb to tinnitus, or worse, hearing loss.
I interviewed Dr. Michael Devito, an ear, nose and throat specialist, or Otolaryngologist, practicing in the Capital District area of New York regarding hearing protection, benefits of earplugs and what can happen without proper hearing protection. “Tinnitus is a subjective noise that some people describe as a motor running, a high pitch, etc…, but because it is subjective, there is no real objective way to solve it, and thus, treatment is difficult. It was originally thought Tinnitus came from the ear cells in your inner ear as they get floppy and move around, which gives a neural impulse to the brain and the sound is then interpreted as a ringing. However, instead it may originate in the auditory cortex of the brain.” Dr. Devito continued regarding the hazards associated with lack of hearing protection. “If it is continuing to ring for a month, then the ringing might not go away at that point. Hearing loss is the other concern for protracted, long term noise exposure. Depending on the music artists and your proximity to the speakers, the sound can greatly impact you. The more decibels, the worse it can be on unprotected ears.”
READ ON for the basics about how to wear ear plugs and how they can help as well as a comparison of different brands and types…
Ear Plug Basics
When looking at earplugs, the most important thing to look for on a package or website is the Mean Attenuation. This refers to how many decibels the hearing protection will reduce the sound, or how much the sound will be dampened based on quality of hearing product. If a given earplug gives you 20 db of attenuation, it will make 100 db sound like 80 db, without lessening the sound.
Make sure to insert all earplugs properly. This is done by putting your left arm behind your back and pulling your outer ear backwards from the lobe. Gently insert the earplug with a light twist with your left hand. Repeat for the other ear. This is sometimes called the ‘monkey grip’ (per KillNoise). Do not over-insert into the ear, only to the point where you can remove them successfully.
Keep earplugs in a case (most of those sampled below come with cases) and gently wash with soap and water – earplugs do need to be cleaned from time to time.
Of the brands surveyed below, none of these fell out at any given point, let alone felt like they might slip. They fit in securely and did their job, to varying degrees as seen below. I danced, I rocked out, I raged proper – the earplugs still stayed securely in my ear. While this article is based solely on my use of these individual earplugs, you may have a different experience wearing any of these, but generally and based on multiple experiences, both indoor and outdoor, I rated the earpieces and discuss their benefits and drawbacks.
This pair is tough to get in but when in they don’t dull the music much, it feels almost the same as not having them in. The one time I wore these, I couldn’t tell if I was getting them in right, at what angle to squish them and how to get them into my ear securely. Although they had the sensation of falling out or not being secure, they never fell out.
Mean Attenuation at 2000 hertz: 36 db
These are the smallest pair yet and very light. They can hide in your ears so well, no one can see them at all. I can almost not feel them at times, but the benefits are amazing, it feels like I am seeing a show without the earplugs in. They can be a bit weird to remove, as there is a tiny rubber end that allows you to pull the entire plug out at once. Removal becomes easier the more you use them. Bonus – these come with an awesome case on a small keychain. One size fits all.
Mean Attenuation at 2000 hertz: 22 db
Yes, I have small ear canals. Size doesn’t matter with ear canals though. I’ve had this pair for six months and love them but at times can feel tight. They fit well and can be angled in at three depths denoted by soft ridges on the plugs. Occasionally they will feel tight, but that could just be me. It comes with a decent case, which is always a plus.
Mean Attenuation at 2000 hertz: 22.5 db
This is the first pair of earplugs I had and I still use them on a regular basis. They have a cord that attaches the two earplugs together, so that you can put them in and take them out and let them hang around your neck when the music isn’t playing. They fit in nicely, much like the HEAROS mentioned above (Etymotic makes HEAROS) and keep the static out evenly without lessening the music experience.
Mean Attenuation at 2000 hertz: 20 db
At first I was skeptical of these, as they are made out of soft squishy foam. They make music easier to tolerate close up, without making it quieter. These ear plugs simply take away the bass and static that you don’t recognize otherwise. When away from the music, it can be difficult to hear so I have to pull one out slightly or altogether. They roll up nicely, fit tight and are soft to touch.
Mean Attenuation at 2000 hertz: 38.6 db
Rating – 8/10 – no case is the main drawback, but they could easily fit in your wallet
Developed in Sweden, these small rubbery earplugs fit in easy with four depth levels and a rubber disk to stop them from going in too far. They definitely kill the noise, but only the bad stuff. The music gets through cleanly and clearly. It took a few tries to get them in right, since they were a bit too flexible and could have used more rigidity. Once they were in, they fit just right. They came with a snap-shut case, perfect for carrying them.
Mean Attenuation at 2000 hertz: 23 db
Rating – 8/10
I have a pair of ear plugs in my backpack, a pair in the glove compartment and always have a pair waiting for me to bring to a show. I can’t see live music without them now because I want to continue seeing and hearing live music for many years to come. Taking care of your hearing is the most important thing live music fans should do for themselves, to ensure that the music never stops.