For those who enjoy going to clubs and live music venues, exposure to unsafe levels of sound can be a regular pastime. Exposure to noise at such levels, however, can do lasting damage to the ears and hearing.
A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) last year stated that around 1.1 billion teenagers and adults face the risk of hearing loss due to exposure to unsafe levels of sound. WHO define unsafe levels as exposure to sound that is 85 dB or over for 8 hours, or 100 dB or over for just 15 minutes.
The risk is real, but there is no reason why the danger of hearing loss should prevent people from attending loud sporting events or going to nightclubs and live music venues. Hearing protectors are widely available and can make a real difference to the health of their wearers.
In fact, a growing number of venues in the US are now providing them, with some offering free pairs to those who walk through their doors. Last year, Minneapolis City Council declared that all bars and clubs in the city that feature live music would have to make free earplugs available to patrons.
For this Spotlight feature, we take a look at a range of hearing protection products that are on the market, to evaluate what kind of options are available for people that want to protect their hearing while still enjoying all of their regular noisy pastimes.
In order to test each of the following hearing protection products, I wore them in live music venues where the levels of sound were deemed to be unsafe without protection. I paid attention to how they affected my perception of the music, as well as how easily I was able to communicate with my companions, how comfortable they felt and how simple they were to use.
Auritech's Music Hearing Protectors are made from a silicone-free, hypoallergenic thermoplastic. They contain a frequency-selective ceramic filter that should allow the wearer to hear conversation and background sounds as normal but at a reduced volume.
The packaging states that the product has been independently tested and found to reduce sounds by 28.5 dB at the highest frequencies (8,000 Hz).
Wearing these earplugs was a comfortable experience, and after a short amount of time I had forgotten that I was wearing them at all. I was still able to hear mid- and top-range sounds very clearly, and holding conversation was no problem at all. I did find, however, that bass frequencies were slightly muffled.
The earplugs came with a handy container that can be clipped easily onto a keyring. I found these earplugs easy to use, extremely comfortable and effective at reducing noise with only the slightest compromise to my enjoyment of the music.
Auritech also produce a number of products tailored to different situations - their Sleep hearing protectors, for example, are designed to filter out certain disruptive sounds such as snoring while allowing the wearer to remain receptive to "alert" noises, such as alarm clocks or crying babies.
If purchasing from Auritech's website, a pair of Auritech Music hearing protectors cost around $30, with additional postage costs depending on where the product is being ordered from. The earplugs come with an aluminum storage case.
Alpine Hearing Protection PartyPlugs
Alpine Hearing Protection have recently been awarded the Red Dot Award 2015 - "the biggest design competition in the world" - for the design of their latest earplugs. The seal of approval granted by the Red Dot Organization can now be found on the packaging for their PartyPlugs.
The product has also been tested independently in the same manner as the Auritech Music hearing protectors and was found to reduce sounds by 19.2 dB at frequencies of 8,000 Hz. Similarly, the PartyPlugs are also made from a hypoallergenic thermoplastic and contain acoustic filters.
I felt as though the PartyPlugs provided full levels of protection across all frequencies of sound. However, I had some difficulty with hearing the conversation of my companions properly.
An insertion sleeve was provided with the earplugs, designed to make the insertion of the earplugs into the ear as easy as possible. I found this complicated matters unnecessarily, particularly in comparison with some of the other hearing plugs, and although I felt comfortable wearing the plugs, inserting them using this sleeve detracted from this.
The sleeve also did not fit into the plastic carrying case that was also provided, meaning that should I continue to use this product, the insertion sleeve would likely be left at home.
If purchasing from Alpine Hearing Protection's website, one pair of PartyPlugs costs $17.50 and comes with an insertion sleeve and storage case.
EarPeace HD Ear Plugs
EarPeace HD Ear Plugs are made from hypoallergenic silicone. What sets them apart from other earplugs is that they come with two different sets of filters - one offering high protection and the other offering medium protection.
The medium protection filters reduce sounds by 31.5 dB at 8,000 Hz. The high protection filters reduce sounds by 29.6 dB at the same frequency, while offering better protection at lower frequencies.
I found it harder to hear conversation when using the medium filters and high frequencies sounded muffled, but this was not a problem when using the high protection filters. I was grateful for the flexibility that the two sets of filters provided.
These earplugs were very comfortable to wear, feeling softer and more pliable than other earplugs. The plugs also feature a tab that enables the wearer to both insert and retrieve the plugs with the minimum of fuss.
All the plugs and filters fit nicely into an aluminum carabiner that comes with the product, ensuring that this effective and flexible form of hearing protection is easily transportable.
If purchasing from EarPeace's website, one pair of HD Ear Plugs costs $17.95 and comes with three ear plugs (one spare), two sets of different filters and a storage case.
Etymotic ETY•Plugs high fidelity earplugs
ETY•Plugs high fidelity earplugs are each comprised of an eartip, stem and end cap. According to Etymotic, the earplugs provide an almost equal sound reduction of 20 dB at all frequencies, ensuring that music and speech are not muffled.
When wearing the plugs, I found that while the volume of both music and speech were reduced, just as promised, they remained clear and even. The earplugs allowed me to talk to my companions and I was able to understand every word simply. The full range of sound frequencies were clear, just quieter than before.
The earplugs were both comfortable to wear and easy to insert and remove. My only issue was that I felt the end caps were perhaps slightly too long. They protrude more than those of other ear protectors. However, Etymotic also make earplugs with a low-profile, stemless design - ER•20XS high fidelity earplugs - that sit in the outer ear without protruding.
A benefit of the long end caps, however, is that they connect easily to the neck cord that is provided. Having this provided is useful as it means that in periods where noise levels return to safe levels, the ear plug can be removed from the ears and hung from the neck, rather than stowed away in a case or left in.
Overall, I found the ETY•Plugs very effective at protecting my hearing, comfortable to wear and easy to use.
If purchasing online from Etymotic's website, one pair of ETY•Plugs costs $12.95 and comes with a neck cord and storage case. Etymotic state that ETY•Plugs will also be available at 35 amphitheaters and several large music festivals in the US this summer.
Ultimate Ear Musicians Plug
If you are looking for something a little more comprehensive - perhaps if exposure to loud noises comes on a daily, occupational basis - then something more specific may be best. Something tailored personally to your ears.
I was sent a sample of some semi-custom ear protectors from Ultimate Ear. These earplugs are made from medical-grade silicone and can be made to attenuate at either 9, 15 or 25 dB. The plugs I was sent were semi-custom; normally with these plugs, Ultimate Ear would take impressions of the wearer's ears to make a product that fits the ear precisely.
Although my pair were not molded for my ears only, they still felt as though they fitted my ears comprehensively. Part of this may have been due to the way the plug was inserted into the ear, with the top part of each plug tucking into the outer fold of the ear and creating a total seal.
These plugs quietened the sounds across all ranges significantly. Although conversation was slightly obscured, the protection I felt I was given by these earplugs was unparalleled.
It did take me more time to adapt to this different style of earplug compared with the others. I needed to have a bit of practice before I was able to quickly insert and remove the plugs before and after being exposed to live music.
If ordering from Ultimate Ear's website, a pair of custom-made earplugs would cost around $229, not including additional fees for postage and having impressions of the ears taken. The earplugs come with a storage pouch, cleaning tool, and fitting and cleaning guides.
The tip of the iceberg
These hearing protectors merely represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the products that are available for people who want to protect their hearing.
Many cheaper alternatives are out there, including simple foam plugs that are widely available at drug stores and are sometimes provided for free at certain venues. These certainly offer good protection for the ears, although I have found that they do mask sounds significantly more than the hearing protectors I have examined in this feature.
No matter how much you are willing to spend on buying hearing protection, it is vital for your overall health that precautionary measures are taken whenever you are exposed to unsafe levels of sound.
Hearing loss is irreversible and can affect how you experience life for good. Wearing hearing protectors is an easy way to avoid hearing loss and does not have to affect how you experience live music venues, clubs or any other situations where the noise levels are dangerously high.