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Hearing Protection Options for Musicians

Hearing Protection Options for Musicians

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I would expect very little argument if I were to state, “You don’t really know the true value of what you have until you lose it”.

Many things come to mind as we ponder this concept. Your first bass, your hair, your physical condition as you age, and of particular value to musicians, our hearing!

I am sure that we can all look back at our lives and identify occasions where we should have protected our hearing.

I recall when I was playing with a band back in the 70’s that we would occasionally do an evening variety show on local TV. This show had a house band and it was there that I noticed that the bassist had some sort of metallic plugs in his ears. It didn’t dawn on me that this might be a great idea and instead I played for years without taking any protective measures.

Life in general is a very noisy existence. We are often assaulted by excessive noise and hearing loss is a much greater concern than ever. A recent article from Men’s Journal suggested that twice as many people have hearing loss now than in the eighties. It is not surprising to note that the increased use of devices with headphones or earbuds has had a significant effect on this trend. In addition, we are constantly subjected to ambient noise that is often a lot higher than we might realize.

The sounds of living in cities, work environments, movies, home appliances, power tools, clubs and music venues are often excessively loud. And… how often do you wear protective equipment? Do you have a recent memory of going to a concert and having prolonged ringing in your ears after the fact for a day or two?

When we look at noise reduction, we use units called decibels.

Without going into great mathematical detail, it is important to point out that the decibel scale is logarithmic, meaning that it is kind of a curve where small numerical increases in value represent large increases in sound volume. For example, 30 dB has a power ration of 1000 compared to a 10 dB power ration of 10.

The Noise Reduction Rating tells us by how many Decibels the surrounding sound is reduced.

This rating is essential in the selection of the correct gear for the job. Wearing insufficient protective plugs will be better that nothing but you may still suffer damage from the excess.The key is to find the right amount of noise reduction that still allows you to enjoy the sounds you want to hear.

I think I have made my point… we need to do more to protect our valuable hearing!

That said, we have decided to take a look at just some of the options that are available. It is really important to consider the user’s needs as well as just how much sound reduction we desire. We are also going to limit our search to music related applications (Not shooting range, swimming pool, sleeping, etc.).

Musicians on stage often wear “In Ear” monitors. These allow ‘in’ enough sound, while preventing excessive noise. They can be custom fitted or stock sizes.  Here are some videos we have about in ear monitors and related gear.

Fender Professional in Ear Monitors

More info fave.co/2sNa7yY

Ultimate Ears in ear monitors

More information at fave.co/2tnbK3y

If you aren’t plugged in to the sound system, the next best thing would be ear plugs.

First, we look at what I would describe as “Smart” earplugs. They let you hear clearly when the sounds are not loud but protect you when things get extreme.

The sample we tested was the Etymotic MP9-15 Music Pro

These devices can be set at a noise attenuation level of 9 dB or 15 dB  (They are rated at 25 dB noise reduction ) and will actually boost softer sounds for greater clarity. Note that sometimes when you are in a quiet area, your earplugs will pick up sounds you would usually not hear (like when you are in line for the restroom) so I suggest taking them out when you don’t really need them. These little guys run on a #10 Zinc air battery for about 300 hours.

The great thing about these is you can hear conversations without having to remove them and this lends itself to situations where the sounds vary frequently. They are a stock fit but the manufacturer has included a variety of accessories that you can use to find a comfortable format (either a three flange array or a foam tip) and maintain the units functioning optimally. The applications for this kind of earplug are endless, as we are often in environments where the sound levels vary greatly. How many time have you been at a show and wanted to talk in-between songs? These earplugs offer professional level protection for both musicians and the general public.

These are great for venues where the music isn’t too loud or you won’t be too close to the speakers.

More information at fave.co/2sNuRGK

Next we look at the more familiar variety of earplugs that are designed to reduce the ambient noise at different levels depending on the material and designed used.

Etymotic ER-20 xs High Fidelity Earplugs

These earplugs have a Noise reduction rating of 13 dB. They use an in ear design similar to the Music Pro’s, with interchangeable and replaceable tips. This lends itself for these to be a multi-use kind of product where you can get replacement tips every 3-6 months depending on use. With this design you get comfort and clarity at a much lower price.

They come with a carrying case and neck cord. I like the cord because you will be taking them out to hear during quiet times, but you can have them readily at hand when the show gets going.

More info fave.co/2tmWbbW

Flare Isolate ProTitanium Earplugs

These earplugs have a Noise reduction rating of 33 dB. They basically have a Titanium core and an Earfoam tip portion that comes in three sizes, and can be changed easily and are readily available to replace. They are designed to fit over 98% of people. The titanium core is designed to remove “Mud/Muffle” and loud peaks letting you hear more details in music. I felt like the foam kind of pushed the plugs out of my ears as time went by and I was constantly having to push them back into place (maybe I am one of the 2%). As these little guys are a bit on the higher price side, you don’t want them falling out in a dark venue. You might be able to tie a string on them as a neck cord. They come with a pouch for safe keeping.

More info at fave.co/2sNa1HI

Decibullz Custom Molded Earplugs

These have a 31 dB noise reduction rating. These earplugs use a combination system where they have an in ear canal foam or silicone eartip, a sound plug (that can come with a lanyard) and a thermoplastic custom mold. Essentially you heat the mold in hot waters and once it has cooled enough, you can fit it exactly to your ear. If you don’t get it right the first time, you can reheat and remold as many times as you want.  The nice thing about a custom fit is that they don’t fall out easily. The combination in canal portion with the moldable body give enough protection that these guys block out enough sound to be used at the shooting range. This might be too much if you are trying to play a string instrument but could be great for our drummer friends.

More info at fave.co/2tmGv8T

Macks Pillow Soft Silicone Earplugs

With a 22 dB noise reduction rating, these earplugs prove that you don’t have to spend a lot (under $4.00 USD for six pairs) for a comfortable, reusable, ear protection option. They are made of translucent silicone, moldable, putty that shapes itself to your exact ear canal. They are water proof and so comfortable that they often are used to block out snoring (my wife can attest to their efficacy)! Even though they are re-usable, they do have to be changed after about 5 uses when they get dirty or stop being sticky.

More info at fave.co/2t4H8ae

Soft Foam Earplugs

This is by far the most common type of hearing protection you will find. There are numerous brands available and from what I can tell, most are comparable when it comes to the degree of hearing protection ranging from 29-33 dB noise reduction. These are all single use, disposable, and relatively comfortable with a variety of colors and shapes. They lend themselves to be used under “ear muff” style protective devices to double the protective value (at the shooting range). Price wise, these are available in bulk quantities for a low price (I found 50 pair for $8.99 USD) or unit dosed packages, which sometimes are given out free at events.

Here are some options I found

  • Mack’s Ear Care Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs, 50 Pair  fave.co/2vNMi8t
  • Mack’s Ear Care Slim Fit Soft Foam Earplugs, 50 Pair  fave.co/2t4B0Pf
  • The Ear Buddy Premium Soft Foam Ear Plugs, NRR 32 Decibels, 50 Pair  fave.co/2tElx5h
  • HEAROS Ultimate Softness Series Ear Plugs 28 Pair  fave.co/2tDYx6o
  • HEAROS Xtreme 100 Pair Foam Ear Plugs With NRR 33 Noise Canceling Hearing Protection  fave.co/2tEbblR
  • Innerpeace Ventures Chill Box Ear Plugs, 20 Pairs  fave.co/2tEpzee

Summing up, I have no doubt that protecting our hearing is of the utmost importance! There are many options available at different price points and different applications, so you really have to see what feels best and works best for you.

If you have any recommendations, feel free to share on social @bassmusicianmag with some detail so others may benefit from your experience.

Opening Photo by Maelle Ramsay on Unsplash

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