Volume filters for your ears
Your ears. For a musician, they are just about the most valuable tool imaginable. They're also one of the most fragile and easily damaged, and if damaged, they're irreplaceable - all of which makes hearing protection an essential occupational safety consideration. But let's face it, a lot of ear plugs are uncomfortable, and their attenuation is far from balanced; leaving us with a quieter, but unsatisfyingly muffled and bass-heavy sound, or worse, leading musicians to abandon their use entirely because of the discomfort. Comfort aside, it really is important to protect your hearing whenever you're going to be exposed to high volume levels. Hearing loss is cumulative - it only gets worse the more often and the longer you're exposed to high sound levels. The very nature of what we do as musicians means we're likely to be at increased risk of hearing loss, and it's not just drummers and rock guitarists who need to worry - all musicians need to be concerned about sound exposure levels and hearing preservation. Fortunately, there are other options available besides all-foam ear plugs that are more comfortable to wear and offer more balanced sound. One affordable option that addresses these concerns is made by Etymotic Research. Let's take a closer look.
What You Need To Know
- The Etymotic ER-20XS ear plugs are acoustical filters for your ears. They are constructed in such a way as to lead to nearly equal attenuation of sound (with a target of 20dB of mean reduction) across the frequency spectrum. Unlike foam ear plugs, this gives them a much more balanced sound - the effect is somewhat like turning the volume down evenly on the entire world around you instead of just the high frequencies.
- There's much less of the unbalanced and muddy character to the resulting sound than what you get when using foam ear plugs. This is important for musicians since it allows them to more accurately monitor their own timbre and the sounds of the music going on around them, which in turn allows for better interaction and performances. Similarly, this is also very important for music fans - concertgoers can experience a more full-range listening experience, only at a lower level that is less likely to lead to hearing damage.
- There are three different pairs of tips included in the Etymotic ER-20XS package. While they lack the ultra-precision fit of ear plugs that have been custom-molded to your individual ear canals, chances are you'll find one of the three sets of ear tips to be plenty comfortable. For me, it was the standard 3-flange tips, but if you have larger ears, the larger 3-flange tips will obviously be a better choice for you. The way the foam tips expand to fit the shape of your ear canal will feel familiar to those who have used all-foam plugs before, but the Etymotic design with the hollow center and attached filter provide a far more balanced sound than traditional all-foam plugs do. In fact, the subjective sound quality seemed to be about the same, regardless of which type of tip (foam or flanged) I used.
- Etymotic offers two other optional foam ear tip sizes that can be ordered separately - one larger and one size smaller than the regular sized foam plug tips that are included with the ER-20XS universal fit kit.
- A nice plastic pouch and neck cord are also included, making it easier to keep the Etymotic ER-20EX ear plugs with you - which is a habit you should get into; by keeping them on you at all times, you're more likely to use them when you need them. And don't limit wearing them to just band practice time and when you're at the club or a concert - everyday activities like mowing the lawn and working with hammers and power tools (even a vacuum cleaner) can subject your ears to unsafe sound levels, and wearing the ER-20XS plugs during such activities can help reduce the chances that your hearing will be damaged.
- The Etymotic ER-20XS earplugs are reusable, and should be cleaned regularly with a damp cloth and stored in their protective pouch when not in use.
- Unlike some plugs (such as the Etymotic HD-15), these plugs do not let soft sounds through while blocking only the loud ones - they attenuate all sounds, regardless of how loud or soft. Soft sounds will consequently be even softer and harder to hear while wearing them.
- The attenuation, while far more broadband and even than all-foam ear plugs, is not completely linear. There are some deviations from the targeted 20dB of reduction. For example, reduction is 20.4dB at 500Hz, but only 17.5dB at 250Hz, and 23.8dB at 3.15kHz, but only 20.7dB at 4kHz. As you can see, these variations are all within 3-4dB, and are relatively minor compared to standard foam ear plugs.
- While reusable, the ear tips won't last forever. Expect to have to replace the 3-flange ear tips every three to six months, and the foam tips even more regularly. Fortunately, replacement ear tips are available directly from Etymotic Research.
Hearing is one of the most precious things a musician or engineer has and it needs to be protected, but the uncomfortable nature of foam plugs and their unnatural and unbalanced sound have made it hard for many musicians and sound engineers to embrace their use. Active noise reducing ear plugs and In-ear monitors with custom-molded plugs are viable options for some, but they are relatively expensive. Fortunately Etymotic offers an alternative solution that provides significant reduction in sound pressure levels while avoiding the excessively colored and unbalanced sound of other affordable hearing protection solutions. Even better, they provide enough tip options to properly fit and satisfy the comfort concerns of the vast majority of wearers, meaning people will actually be more likely to use them. And wearing them religiously whenever the volume level starts rising is the key to protecting your hearing and avoiding a premature conclusion to your musical career. As insurance goes, the ER-20XS ear plugs are dirt cheap, and a no-brainer. Every musician should have a pair!
Etymotic Research ER-20XS Universal Fit High-Fidelity Earplugs ($24.95 MSRP for the Universal Fit version [as reviewed]; the single tip large or regular 3-flange version is available for $19.95)
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Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.