We Tested Six Brands of Earplugs to See if Any Of Them Don't Suck

Are you really gonna trust your hearing to these things?
Are you really gonna trust your hearing to these things?
Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

Troy Farah A high-pitched mewl, a mosquito's whimper, the shrieking voice of a dentist's drill. This is the sound of tinnitus, a side effect of noise-induced hearing loss and a sound I had become far too familiar with. I don't remember which extremely loud concert had been the tipping point -- maybe Deafheaven, or Destruction Unit, or The Black Lips -- but a little ringing after a show was normal, just lasting a few hours.

Then it started to last a few days. Then a week.

If I actually have tinnitus (without going to an otolaryngologist, or ear doctor, it's hard to know for certain how bad the damage really is), it's faint. Only in really quiet areas do I consciously notice it. But whatever it is, I don't want it to get worse and I want to be able to hear music the rest of my life, so I finally started wearing earplugs at shows.

Only, wearing earplugs kind of sucks. They're uncomfortable, they muffle the music, and I often forget them. (I won't even get into how neon-green pellets stuffed in your ear look stupid, because I don't really care about that.) But I don't want to risk going without them. So I decided to find the best pair of earplugs on the market -- something that gave me protection, but didn't ruin the experience of going to a show.

I tested these earplugs in the field (i.e. at concerts and other loud environments) and also at home using my stereo on full volume. My neighbors were thrilled. Anyway, here's what I learned.

It's a pun on "piece"/"peace"...get it?
It's a pun on "piece"/"peace"...get it?

EarPeace List price: $15.95 Grade: C

This was the first pair that I bought. For some reason, it comes with three earplugs. I guess in case you lose one? The keychain carry-case was convenient, except I don't usually bring my keys to shows (I prefer my pockets as empty as possible for moshing, dancing, etc.)

They're slippery little buggers, but once you get them in, they're comfortable and they do their job. However, any high-end sound will not make it through unless it is very distinct. So if you're going to see shoegaze, heavy metal or some other genre where vocals get mixed down, you won't be able to detect them. At all. Which blows.

However, when I saw Mac Sabbath, these were just fine -- I barely even noticed I had them in -- given that the vocals were very upfront. Still, having to pick and choose which shows I might bring these earplugs to makes me far less likely to use them.

The cheapest option, and still not worth the price
The cheapest option, and still not worth the price

3M E-A-R Classics List price: $23.24 (for 200 pairs) Grade: F

These are like sticking tiny foam bricks in your ear. If they get old, the foam gets harder to smush and shove into your ear canal, which sometimes doesn't create the right seal you need for full protection.

At a concert, these make everything muffled and far away, turning musical nuance into a gooey sludge river. It's like holding your head underwater. True, they aren't specifically designed for live music settings, but the only reason your ears are safe is because they're encased in a padded cell of boredom. Buy these if you're really that broke or if you want to hibernate for the winter, but unless you're listening to dubstep (wubwubwubwub), these are not ideal.

Not as high-tech as they look -- but not bad, either
Not as high-tech as they look -- but not bad, either

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DUBS Acoustic Filters List price: $24.99 Grade: B

Serious points here for style -- but if that's all you're looking for in ear protection, you might deserve to be deaf. The compact carry-case was small, so it doesn't take up much space in your pocket, though it's a little unwieldy. And out of all the plugs I tried, these were the most comfortable.

If I cared how earplugs make me look, these made me feel the least like a geek. In fact, these more closely resemble little wireless earbuds, which lots of people already wear in public. The little speaker-shaped holes give you the impression that the sound quality will be more balanced, but I think I expected something more spectacular. At least I can pick up vocals better and the bass isn't muddled too much, but I think this brand focuses too much on packaging and appearance.

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