To earplug or not to earplug? That is the question.   Musicians and concert-goers are all subject to the same problem – hearing loss.  A 2015 World Health Organization study declared that over a billion young people are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss. Etymotic is trying to help musicians, workers and fans hear better while preserving their hearing.

Musicians have been using in-ear monitors for quite some time, and they are custom-molded or universal fit monitors that have drivers (speakers) in them, and with additional equipment are wirelessly connected to a sound board.

Basically there were only three technologies for hearing protection besides standard earplugs.

Custom Molded Ear Monitors

1.   Custom molded or Universal fitting – filtered ear plugs:  A sound bore through the ear plug channels the outside sounds to the inside of the ear canal. On the outside face of the ear plug is a small filter that is inserted, to acoustically reduce sound levels. For musicians and listeners alike, I recommend the Etymotic filters (ER-15, 20, and 25) because they reduce the sound levels evenly across the frequency range from low to high, thus providing natural sounding hearing protection with an attenuation selection from 15dB to 25dB.

2.   Universal ear monitors: These are off the retail shelf, and basically are advanced ear-buds that usually have multiple miniature speakers (called drivers) with separate sub woofers, mid-range and tweeters. They come a selection of ear tips you attach, to best fit them to your size of ear canals. They plug into a radio receiver worn on the musician and the sounds they reproduce are from a transmitter connected to a mixing board and usually controlled by a sound engineer. The sound engineer will mix and send, any combination of instruments and vocals the musician wants to hear. The biggest limitation is they are essentially one size fits all, the ear tips do not adequately stay seated or seal in the ear canal, so sound quality and hearing protection are compromised.

3.   Custom In-Ear Monitors: These connect to a radio receiver like the Universals previously described. These however, are different in many ways. They securely fit and seal in your ears since they are custom molded to fit your ears only, from ear impressions taken before hand. This prevents leakage of sounds between the monitor and the ear, which can greatly compromise the sound quality and hearing protection. Inside the shells of these monitors are a wide range of selectable High Definition miniature speakers (drivers) with custom electronics that control the frequency response. Since they are custom made for each musician, there are a lot of acoustic and electronic enhancements the craftsman can employ to maximize a pro audio experience.

Etymotic Research, who have been in existence since 1983, have come up with a fourth solution: Music•PRO® Electronic Earplugs, which are touted as preventing hearing loss in musicians – and they are different from the in-ear buds. These devices do not connect to radio receiver like the two previous devices, so the musicians cannot get a selective mix from the audio engineer, they hear everything at a 9-15 dB attenuation. Similar to a hearing aid they stand alone, using a microphone that sends sound signals into a digital electronic processor powered by a hearing aid battery, which then reproduces the sounds through a miniature driver into the ear canal. The electronic processor limits certain frequencies beyond a specific sound pressure level. This processor along with the ear-tips provide some hearing protection. So in other words all the sounds present on stage (or from the listeners perspective in the audience), are heard through this device with the adjustable sound pressure attenuation.

Concert-goers, who have been increasingly savvy to  hearing loss  are wearing their own ear protection in larger numbers.  But what do people really think about these Earplugs?   Depends on if you are the musician, or the concert-goer.

Matt Brooks, professional musician for almost 40 years in Austin Texas (Two Hoots and a Holler with Rick Broussard has played Theatre, traveling Grand Ol Opry Shows, opened for major acts on real tours, theatres, sheds, outdoor festivals, clubs, wedding dances, jingles, industrial films, funerals  – everything. Matt can’t imagine using earbuds.While playing, that is. Even though, like many professional musicians, his hearing is permanently damaged, he will never wear them.  Why?  In his words “Like using a windscreen on a microphone, I’ve never gotten used to the perceived lack of clarity.”  We asked if that means he can’t hear well enough to play the music, and he answered  “Man, that’s the question of the century! It’s more that certain frequencies get canceled out, which are both distracting and lead me to make adjustments to my equipment to compensate so I can sound how I like to. Making the non-protection wearing person hear my amp in a way I don’t intend. Does that make sense?”

He continued ” I come from the years of ‘alchemy’ guitar tone. Different rooms, pedals, cabinet combinations, miking techniques, and guitars all reacting in real time to coax out a great tone.”

“The music world these days has processors that create the sound. Sound the same no matter what and no matter how loud. In-ear monitors are standard issue. Which is why I have no advice for the younger folks starting out. They are used to in-ears (even for recording) so plugs aren’t a big issue since they wear in-ears for every show.   A lot of venues REQUIRE no stage volume and in-ear usage….NO AMPS!!  So I stay home a lot.”

Enter the Music•PRO® Electronic Earplugs, which cost about $300. They automatically change output levels as sound levels change. The company that makes them, industry leader Etymotic, touts “Hearing is natural, as if nothing is in the ears, until sound exceeds safe levels. As sound levels increase, earplugs gradually provide 9- or 15-dB sound reduction.”

Depending on the venue and where you sit, any genre of music can reach unsafe levels, so Etymotic also makes the universal fit ER-20XS earplugs, which cost about $20.  “People working in concert venues are now some of our most zealous users, which makes sense given the clear, occupational hazard of excessive volume.”  They are also exceptionally comfortable to wear.

Greg Risley, a filmmaker in Austin, claims he goes to concerts with a handful of the ER-20XS plugs and says “they make live music have more clarity. They don’t dull the sound the way foam earplugs do.”

‘Mike Maurer of Austin, Texas who is the Engineer and Owner of VIBE9 Monitors says, Etymotic Research is a solid company that for years has developed some amazing products for both musicians and concert listeners.  “These ‘Music Pro’ devices are very good, but be aware of  some limitations. For example, if the SPL where you are listening to a band is around 110 db and you are not wearing any hearing protection, you can only listen to that level for 15 minutes TOTAL (entire concert) before you damage your hearing. The model 15 would give you about 1 hour total of safe listening. However, if the levels are above that, say around 115 db SPL, they only gives you approximately 30 minutes total of safe exposure. This of course depends on your getting the tips inserted properly for the entire time (bit risky), and also the comfort of these tips is not always that great for some. A good free apple app (Decibel 10) it can help you get a good idea of how much your ears are getting banged. As far as Etymotic’s products for hearing protection, I recommend their custom molded ER-20’s and ER-25’s (acoustic hearing protection). They are a better bet because they filter and attenuate all the frequencies fairly flat and the custom molded seal, gives you better protection. Also because they are custom fit, they do not make your ears uncomfortable or sore like the universal tips used on the ‘Music Pros,’ For musicians I recommend custom in-ear monitors for some of the same reasons, plus the sound quality is impressive. There are a lot of good companies out there that provide in-ears, including mine.”

Concert-goers who have used the Music•PRO® Electronic Earplugs say that they work well, and laud them as an industry leader, but be aware that the batteries don’t last long (ten days at most).  However, the #10 batteries are relatively inexpensive, Costco sells 50/$7.99.

Ultimately, the choice is up to the individual when choosing which Earplug to use.  The Music•PRO® Electronic Earplugs work as advertised, but should probably not be used on stage while performing.  The audience and sound engineers would greatly benefit from the use of these types of earplugs.

Are you a musician who uses earplugs?  Please sound off in the comments section and give us your feedback.

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