At some point in every musician or music lovers career, there has to come a moment where you make friends with earplugs, and fortunately for us, there are now many more options than the old rusty foam plug.
Broadly speaking, there are two main types of hearing protectors available; passive and active. Passive hearing protectors reduce sound physically at a set level on purchase, where as active hearing protectors involve electronics that respond and change to the musical environment around them. Globally, both can lead to benefits such as reduced listening fatigue, improved comfort in volume, or less tinnitus after a gig (winning), but they can also come with some difficulties too. These can often be traced back to the comfort, fit and level of protection ordered, so it’s good to know what you’re getting into and what to look out for just in case something doesn’t feel right. The more you know, the more you know what to ask for if you need any help or changes.
Passive hearing protectors
The Foam Earplug
Foam earplugs have a bad wrap, and from a music listening perspective, probably rightly so. They were developed for a very different environment, full of steady-state broadband noise, mising all the dynamic fluctuations and intricate peaks of music. A typical foam earplug when inserted correctly, can offer up to 40 dB attenuation, which is a lot. However, research indicates foam earplugs are often poorly inserted, reducing the level of protection to as low as 5 dB, especially in the low frequencies, making them highly dependent on how you insert them (see vintage graph below for how much the attenuation can vary with insertion across frequencies; Casali & Epps, 1986). From a music perspective, they also alter the surrounding sound greatly, reducing hearing of the high frequencies far more so than the low. This can create a muffled, cold-like effect, leading to detachment and disengagement from the music. These are two of the most commonly reported reasons individuals reject hearing protection when performing, reporting they cannot hear the band, their instrument or the music clearly.
If it’s all you have available to you, and the music is loud, it’s certainly worth using – however, for a longer term solution, you might want to consider investing in another option.
Pros: Affordable, strong attenuation if inserted correctly
Cons: Difficult to insert, high levels of occlusion, muffled sound, non-reusable, variable protection
There has been a flourish in availability of off-the-shelf, filtered earplugs for music – which we think is great. Generally, what these earplugs do, is aim to reduce the sound of the music more evenly across the spectrum than foam plugs do. They also tend to provide a more comfortable, semi-moulded, fit. They are available in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes, which can be helpful or anyone with a particularly narrow or windy ear-canal needing to find something that works for them. They do however, still fall prey to being at the mercy of how well you insert them, so checking you have them in correctly is vital. As they are not made for your ears, you may also find a degree of occlusion (hearing your own voice loudly in your head) occurs. However, considering the price-point, easy availability and variety, they’re a great first step in hearing protection in music.
Lucky for us, HEARsmart and Choice recently released a review of available musician semi-custom hearing protectors you can use to help you pick.
Pros: Affordable, reusable, many different types available
Cons: Rely on good insertion, occlusion effect (own voice loud), spectral distortion (uneven reduction in sound)
Custom Musicians’ Hearing Protector
These earplugs are somewhat the gold standard for hearing protection in music. According to the manufacturers, they offer ‘flat’ attenuation of sound across the frequency spectrum. We know from independent research, however, that there is a degree of sound alteration through using them, yet they undeniably far exceed the other passive protectors in quality of sound.
Custom, filtered hearing protectors work by balancing the natural acoustics of your ear with the stiffness of a filter that is inserted into it’s end. By doing so, they can offer a range of attenuation strengths from mild (9 dB) to strong (25 dB), with the moderate level of attenuation (15 dB) being the most even in it’s reduction (exact attenuation values will alter depending on the manufacturer). In this way, custom plugs can be tailored to your listening goals, you can even buy spare pairs of filters so you can adjust the protection from gig to gig where needed.
If you are thinking to invest in a custom pair of earplugs, there’s a few things you’ll need to consider. Firstly, if you work in the industry – they’re tax deductible – get you your rebate. Secondly, you’ll require the help of an audiologist to take quality impressions of your ears to have them made. This involved placing cotton or foam ball deep into your ear, and then filling the outer portion with a two-part putty, that slowly sets over 3-5 minutes. Once set it is easily removed, and tells the shape of your ear to the manufacturer.
Here’s what to ask when visiting an audiologist for custom plugs:
- Ask for the ear impression and earplug to be made ‘beyond the second bend’ of the ear canal. This is to reduce your likelihood of hearing occlusion – your own voice or vocal instrument echoing loudly in your head.
- Ask to have the ear impression taken with your mouth open. This will stretch the outer-ear shape so that it is at maximum expansion, helping the plugs be made as snugly as possible. This again reduces the likelihood of occlusion, but also improves the quality of the acoustic seal and fit in your ear.
- Have them fitted in an appointment to check the fit. They should be comfortable, causing no pain, and easily inserted (this can take practice though). Having the audiologist run through how to insert them, will up your chances of the protectors doing their job properly. If they are too difficult for you to insert, make sure you let the audiologist know so they can potentially adjust the shape of the mould to make things easier.
- Have the sound verified. Sometimes, things aren’t working correctly – and that’s okay, as long as we catch it. Asking the audiologist to verify the fit in the appointment will allow them to make sure you are getting the level of hearing protection ordered, and more importantly, what you need.
- Check in for changes – if things aren’t feeling right, or you are unhappy with the sound, tell your audiologist as soon as possible to have them altered. Any reason, big or small, that stops you wearing the plugs is worth know. Earplugs don’t help anyone if they stay at home in the draw.
Pros: Custom made/personalised, more even attenuation of sound, reusable
Cons: Higher price-point
Earmuffs are fantastic for when you really need to block out the sound for maximal protection, or to cover your kids ears in something adorable (The Bahamas clearly leading by example below). It’s pretty difficult to get the placement wrong, so the level of attenuation shouldn’t alter much from what’s advertised, giving you confidence you’re getting is what you expect.
Pros: Easy placement, strong protection
Cons: Bulky, cumbersome, only appropriate for specific situations
Active hearing protection
Possibly the most well-known option for musicians wanting electronic hearing protection, comes from Etymotic’s Music Pro (TM). These devices offer two levels of protection in the one plug, 9 or 15 dB, and unlike their passive counter-parts, they kick into gear when you need it most. Using a compression system similar to a hearing aid, they become active when the music goes above a threshold deemed to be unsafe. From there a degree of attenuation is applied, so that loud sounds are reduced, but the soft sounds you need hear, are theoretically left unaltered.
Traditionally available in a non-custom form, a custom-sleeve can also be ordered (and our recommendation) with the help of an audiologist. While little research is out there for these plugs, one trial by 26-classical musicians comparing passive and electronic hearing protectors, did find that electronic earplugs were significantly more usable and accepted than passive protectors, especially among those who played brass (O’Brien et al., 2014). If that sounds like you, these could be your preferred fit, however, if it’s available to you, we’d recommend trying before you buy.
Pros: Active protection, flexibility in attenuation, audibility of soft sounds
Cons: Higher price-point, fit and insertion difficulties (if non-custom), some degree of spectral distortion
In-ear monitors are worn by virtually any musician or performing artists once they reach a big enough platform. However, are they hearing protectors? If we turn to research, there currently isn’t enough to answer that question for us. With a tight fitting plug, they should theoretically protect from external sounds – however, they’re filled with powerful drivers that let you pump sound internally through them at your desired volume. Our advice while the research is pending, is to seek a in-ear-monitor that is custom-made, fits well and blocks the surrounding sound out as much as possible. This way you won’t need to boost the sound above any background music leaking in or out of your ear. The less sound you need to put through the speaker, the less pressure on your ear, the less chance of injury.
Pros: Hearing your own personalised mix directly into your ears, custom make option, they look snazzy.
Cons: Research is out on how ‘protective’ they are
Casali, J. G., & Epps, B. W. (1986). Effects of User Insertion / Donning Instructions on Noise Attenuation of Aural Insert Hearing Protectors. Human Factors, 28(2), 195–210.
Beach, E. F., Williams, W., & Gilliver, M. (2012). A Qualitative Study of Earplug Use as a Health Behavior: The Role of Noise Injury Symptoms, Self-efficacy and an Affinity for Music. Journal of Health Psychology, 17(2), 237–246. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105311412839
Killion, M. C. (2012). Factors influencing use of hearing protection by trumpet players. Trends in Amplification, 16, 173–8. https://doi.org/10.1177/1084713812468514
O’Brien, I., Driscoll, T., Williams, W., & Ackermann, B. (2014). A Clinical Trial of Active Hearing Protection for Orchestral Musicians, (July), 450–459. https://doi.org/10.1080/15459624.2013.875187