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How to Protect Your Ears

Posted by Andrew Rivers at

Note:  This is not sponsored content, it’s just my view on things.

The Problem

It is a well-known fact that loud music damages your ears, and the degree of loudness and the length of exposure are factors in this.  Everyone knows Lemmy is hard of hearing.  So is Iggy Pop.  And as for Pete Townshend….

I’ve been trying to look after my ears for a while now.  I use foam earplugs when I am watching gigs and when I’m practising in my band.  I stand right in front of the drums during practice and if I don’t wear any protection I really struggle with the volume levels.

What is less well known is the safe amount of exposure time to music and how this varies with intensity.  The thing is, music is measured in dB,  which is a logarithmic scale.  This means that the intensity of the sound goes up much faster than you would think given the decibel numbers.

At the Birmingham Guitar Show in March I took the time to visit the ACS stand (see http://www.hearingprotection.co.uk/ for more info), and Jono on the stand there explained to me the way in which safe exposure time decreased with volume levels.  From a safe volume level where you could listen all day, the exposure time halves every additional 3 dB of volume above that.  This means that by the time you get to concert volumes of perhaps 100-110 dB you can be causing permanent hearing damage in a matter of minutes.

 

Noise Level (dBA)

Maximum Exposure Time per 24 Hours

85

8 hours

88

4 hours

91

2 hours

94

1 hour

97

30 minutes

100

15 minutes

103

7.5 minutes

106

3.7 minutes

109

112 seconds

112

56 seconds

115

28 seconds

118

14 seconds

121

7 seconds

124

3 seconds

127

1 second

130–140

less than 1 second

140

NO EXPOSURE

 (from http://www.noisehelp.com/noise-dose.html )

The Solution

Of course, there are only two real solutions.  First, don’t expose yourself to loud music.  Second, protect your ears.  The only other option is to gradually go deaf.

Given this, I think most of us would choose to go for option 2 and protect our hearing.  After that, it becomes a matter of what protection is right for you, and how much you are willing to spend.

Foam Ear Plugs

Foam ear plugs are very inexpensive, and can even be bought in bulk quantities on the Internet for very little.  I did a quick search on Amazon for “foam ear plugs” and the first result was 20 pairs for £2.79.  That’s cheap enough that cost should not be an excuse.  If you can afford a ticket for a gig, you can afford earplugs to go with it.

One of the problems with foam ear plugs is that they are designed for situations where you just want to block sound out.  They are especially good at blocking out high frequencies, hence it’s common for sound to be very muffled with foam ear plugs.  This means that in situations where you want to hear all frequencies clearly but at a reduced volume you might be dissatisfied with these.  However as a first step you know that you can at least protect your ears safely for very little cost.

Professional Universal Ear Plugs

If you want to pay a bit more, you can purchase ear plugs with a universal fit that have sound attenuating filters in them.  This type of ear plug costs a bit more, but is not prohibitive – coming in somewhere around £12.99.  These are much better in terms of the sound quality because of the filters, and you are able to get a known reduction in dB from these.  For me, these feel a bit like the earplugs you get for swimming.  However, if you’re serious about protecting your hearing and listening to the quality of the sound then a pair of these may be the way to go.  They’re still affordable relative to the price of a gig ticket, and as they can be cleaned they will give excellent protection for a long time.

Professional Moulded Earplugs

If you need to wear your earplugs for hours on end then you can go a step further and have some moulded to the shape of your ears.  This eliminates all the issues with fit, and these earplugs also come with noise attenuating filters.  Interestingly, you can get different filters depending on the type of noise level you’re going to be experiencing.  You can get some especially for singers with a 15 dB noise reduction; these cut out some of the higher frequencies but keep the lower and mid frequencies clearer leaving you better able to distinguish vocals.  There are general musician / gig ones with a flat 17 dB noise reduction (enough to go from a damaging 105 decibels to a safe 88), and these leave the tone of the sound pretty much unchanged.  There are 20 dB ones that are tuned to remove the higher frequencies again, and are especially good for drummers with the frequencies they can get from cymbals. 

There is a downside to these of course, and that’s price.  With the RRP for a pair of professionally moulded earplugs at £139 it’s a big leap up that most will not be able to afford to make.  However, if you’re a musician exposed to high volume levels on a daily basis then this investment will prove worthwhile.

The pair in the picture above are my ones, which I received recently.  The fitting procedure was a little strange, like having cold water poured into your ears when the mould is taken.  I had to wait two weeks for the finished earplugs to come back but I am very pleased with the fit and comfort of them.  Playing in a band where we typically practice 4 hours a week means that hearing protection for me is important enough to invest in.  I’m looking forward to a long lifetime of use out of these plugs and I’ll do a follow-up post later to describe how I get on with them.

Conclusions

If you look at the table above of safe decibel levels you can see that normal concert and rehearsal room situations can cause hearing damage in a short space of time.  There are options for hearing protection that range from pence to many pounds, and you should really be thinking about this if you want to be able to spend the rest of your life appreciating music.


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