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.
List price: $15.95
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.
3M E-A-R Classics
List price: $23.24 (for 200 pairs)
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.
DUBS Acoustic Filters
List price: $24.99
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.
The carry case is nice. I like that it pops open with one hand, so you can insert these plugs while holding a drink. The package also comes with a necklace of some sort, but I don't think I'll ever use it.
The ETY-Plugs do seem to slide in a bit farther than some other brands, which can make your ears feel a little more snug. These are effective at blocking sound without compromising audio quality and give you more of a range than DUBS when it comes to the sonic spectrum. Overall, these were the best plugs I tried.
List price: $299
These are marketed toward directors, composers and others in the entertainment industry, which makes sense because those are they types of people who can drop $300 on a pair of earplugs. Maybe it's just me, but such a price tag made me want these things to do a lot more than they did.
The ETYMotics require tiny hearing-aid batteries, the only pair of earplugs I tested that need a power source. This is so the circuitry can automatically adjust output levels as input levels change. In other words, if you happened to be standing by a large speaker, talking to your friend, you can hear them just fine — as if you didn't have earplugs in at all. But if a blast of feedback suddenly rocketed through the sound system, you would be protected almost instantly. Wow! The future is here!
In practice, this didn't work quite as well as advertised. First of all, there is no on/off switch. To turn the earplugs off, you must pop open the battery compartment and remove the small batteries. Either do that, or you'll slowly drain the batteries. Good luck if you don't realize this until you're front and center of the stage. Furthermore, there is no indicator light to tell you if the device is on or not. The instructions are very succinct, if not outright confusing, and it took me a while to understand how these work.
Trying it out was trippy — the ETYMotics filter all ambient sound through a microphone, which makes you feel like you're in a spaceship. Which was kinda cool, but I didn't really notice any profound difference in sound quality compared to other earplugs when I tried them out in my living room with the stereo on full-blast.
At a Le Butcherettes/Melvins concert, I brought these along, incredibly paranoid that I would drop them or damage them in some way. They worked well for the first couple of songs, but then seemed to fizzle out (perhaps the batteries were dying — but how could I tell that without some kind of light or indicator?). Finally, they started screeching in my ears, which instantly made my head throb. Instead of being able to pay attention to the music, I was fiddling with these tiny things in the dark.
These are comfortable and with interchangeable eartips, they can create a good seal for any size earhole. But other than that, they are not worth the price. The concept is great, but the execution just isn't there yet.
Macks Acoustic Foam Earplugs
List price: $3.54 (for seven pairs)
Call me wasteful, but I really like that these are disposable. Not because I'm afraid to reuse them, but because it sucks spending upwards of $20 on something you might easily lose at a concert. I didn't want to risk dropping one of my DUBS or my EarPeaces or especially the ETYMotic Music•Pros and having to search for it on the dance floor in the dark.
Plus, being cheap and numerous means I can keep a pair in the car, in my bag — pretty much anywhere I might find myself in need of them. I can't adequately express the frustration of arriving to a show, only to realize I had forgotten my earplugs.
More importantly, these Macks seemed to do an adequate job of balancing sound, just like the so-called "flanged" earplugs like the ETY-Plugs and the EarPeaces. From now on, I'll probably stick with a mid-tier brand like the DUBS or the ETY-Plugs, but I'm definitely going to keep some Macks around as backup.
My history teacher always advised us to invest in hearing aids and tattoo removal services — because in 20 years, our generation will be clamoring for both. Finding the right earplugs is important for anyone serious about music and about not damaging their ears. These are just the few brands that I sampled — there are many others, and if I missed any that you think are particularly good, let us know in the comments. But more importantly, don't think you're invincible — start taking care of your hearing.