I don’t think it would be presumptuous of me to think that readers of this site probably spend quite a lot of time at gigs. Whether on stage or in the audience, musicians (and VJs) spend plenty of time in loud environments.

I find it quite surprising then, that relatively few of the artists I know use any kind of hearing protection. Stereocilia damage in mammals is permanent, and tinnitus is no fun. Most people know that cheap foam earplugs can help prevent damage, but few seem aware that a slightly larger investment can make gigs considerably more enjoyable.

Etymotic ER-20

Etymotic ER-20 are affordable (around US$12), semi-professional, one-size-fits-most earplugs. Their biggest advantage over disposable, foam plugs is their reasonably flat attenuation. Foam and other disposable plugs tend to cut out more high frequencies, causing everything to sound muffled.

When I was learning to VJ, playing 6-hour sets alongside whichever DJs or live acts were in town on the weekend, I always kept a box of foam earplugs in my box-of-adapters-and-miscellaneous-cables. They stopped the tinnitus after a night of throwing photons around the place, but I was loath to use them at bands I’d paid to see. If I was exchanging money for music, I wanted to hear every nuance, even if it made my ears considerably less nuanced the following day.

Fortunately, I was introduced to nice earplugs by a mild-mannered musician who happens to make bionic ears when he’s not hanging upside down playing guitar. The ER-20 plugs aren’t quite as easy on the ear canal as the soft foam-rubber disposable ones, but the slight physical discomfort is definitely worth the increased listening comfort. Not only do they protect your hearing, but for particularly loud PA systems, I find that they allow me to hear the band much more clearly.

The first show I used them at was Mogwai, one of my favorite groups, who I hadn’t been able to see in 7 years. In the middle of the set I tried a couple of songs without the plugs, but found that replacing them allowed me to discern more detail in the wall of sound.

One caveat: I’d be careful using them in a boisterous crowd.  The plastic stems extend a bit beyond the outer ear, and I can imagine a physical blow to the side of the head could lodge them somewhere near your brain stem. To protect yourself from that fate, 20x the investment will give you some custom molded earplugs, and the molding can be used for in the future for an excitingly expensive in-ear monitor system.

For now, I’m happy with the ER-20.

(Available from Amazon.com: US$10)

  • Nasir

    Great plugs! It's like turning the volume knob down on the real world. After they've been in your ear for 30 seconds, you forget they're there. And they're cheap enough to throw an extra pair into your man-purse and your gig bag.

    Rousing recommendation here. Though those stems sticking out are a little bothersome. If you're in NYC and don't want to wait for shipping, check 'em out at J&R downtown:
    http://www.jr.com/etymotic-research/pe/ETY_ER20BP

  • s ford

    Great plugs, I have a pair myself!

  • http://ideletemyselfbitbyebit.blogspot.com/ ideletemyself

    Awesome! I had no idea they were this cheap! I'm getting a couple right now!!! Thx Peter.

  • Justin Reed

    These plugs are great, very even reduction in dbs. I found they actually makes having conversations easier in loud environments because your brain isn't fighting the huge sound. Form someone who owns a custom set as well i would actually recommend these higher as they are far more comfortable for me while being comparably kind to the sound. due to the sticking out factor neither works for me while djing but 1 hour at 115 dbs is > then 4 hours.

  • http://soundcloud.com/hah205 hughh

    everyone should own a pair of these. although I still think some bands/venues should just play a little quieter.

  • http://www.document02.com Document 02

    I have similar (unfortunately more expensive) plugs from protac and am very happy with them also.

    Clubs & concert halls should promote this type of equipment.

  • http://www.aavepyora.net Taika-Kim

    here in europe quite many musicians use custom cast plugs, there's several manufacturers, mine was Elacin, and I was very very happy both with the comfort of wearing and sound quality. The downside was, that I lost them after using them for a couple of years, and they are rather costly :P

    And also in-ear monitors are available for them, which would be very useful for a DJ I guess, because with ordinary phones the sound is often so loud even at outdoor parties, that I have problems hearing properly unless I crack the _phones_ to a dangerously loud level…

  • http://www.WesleyWong.nl Wes

    It's great to see CMD writing on hearing protection!

  • http://www.bluejumpers.com/filip Filip Hnizdo

    Well done on helping raise awareness about this sort of thing. Even though they were just foam ones I loved how My Bloody Valentine had people handing out earplugs before their gigs last year. Great idea.

    I have a pair like the ER-20s and have to say they sometimes even make the gig better as you can hear vocals and other usually masked parts more.

  • kris

    i have a pair of Hearos that look almost identical to these. Is there enough of a difference between these and those that would warrant me picking them up?

  • http://www.myspace.com/bewareofsafety Morgan

    I play drums/keyboards for the instrumental rock band Beware of Safety (very similar to Mogwai). We are very loud. When I first started with the band, I used the foam plugs. Never in my music career had I the trouble I did with breaking cymbals, sticks, etc. The combination of loud volume and inability to hear high frequencies resulted in me playing louder and louder. I switched to the Hearos equivalent of these a number of years ago and the results were fantastic. The overall volume of the band came down, and I could hear things much, much better. The only problem I've had is that wearing them several times a week for several years started to really irritate my ears (to the point where the Hearos design refuses to stay in my ear). I've had to switch back to the foam plugs, which unfortunately brings with it all the original problems. I'm reluctant to spend the money for custom plugs, so maybe I'll try these to see if they fit better.

  • empolo

    I just picked up the 6i Isolator last week for use at work – it does a great job of passive noise cancellation. The best part is that I can set my iPod volume level to about 25% max and still hear details in the music that aren't as clear with standard earplugs (not to mention that you can still hear ambient noises which cause you to turn the volume up in the first place).

  • Jake

    These type of ear plugs are fantastic, sound reduction is reasonably flat (although not perfect, i find they particularly cut the speaking frequency of my female co-dj, which isnt always a bad thing!). I use these

    One tip, if you find the sticking out a problem, with the ones above you can trim down the stem a little which is an advantage of their design over the ones above.

  • Jake

    Hmm, it appears i slightly messed up the html there…

    /Jaymis: Sorted that for you Jake. We'll have a WYSIWYG editor on comments for CDMu soon!

  • a1g0rhythm

    I wear them at the Decibel Festival events, tames 12,000 watt sound systems. My wife wears them when playing last row viola in front of the trumpets, or with the Seattle Rock Orchestra. She hears all the other symphony musicians, but no more horn induced headache.

  • http://www.dietervandoren.net dtr

    I've used similar Alpine's for years. Started using them too late to save me from the teenage-punk-band-guitar-playing and techno-raving induced tinitus though…

  • Gabway

    I really recommend buying custom made plugs. It's an investment you'll never regret. Gigs sound good and you don't feel them in your ears after a while.

  • http://masonbach.com Mason Bach

    I have been using the Etymotic ER-4 noise canceling headphones for about 6 years. Not only do I reference every mix I do on these things but I worked as the sound guy @ Guvernment Nightclub in Toronto for a few years and used these suckers as earplugs as well……They are a great Investment!!

    Less than 1/3 the price of molded IEM's or plugs too.

  • aidan

    i need to get a new pair. mine are well grimey! :)

  • Ben

    How do these work with wearing headphones then? Because the comments suggest they stick out so surely that means that you can't use them? Sorry if i'm missing something really obvious here!

  • Scott Flavin

    God, until I read the 'extending plastic piece' part of your review, I really wanted to get these. I just have a sneaking suspicion that some drunk asshole is going to destroy my ears if I wear these at any show…i guess its foam for me until I miraculously get enough money to buy custom-mades.

  • http://www.jaymis.com Jaymis Loveday

    Thanks for the comments guys! Guess I should have expected that CDMu readers would be passionate about hearing.

    @ideletemyself: Wasn't Peter in this case, but thanks for the compliment!

    @hughh: I agree that most clubs play way too loudly. Another advantage I noticed last week though with earplugs: If the music is loud, and you put in plugs, they tend to block out the inconsiderate idiots who are talking through the set!

    @Taika-Kim: As I understood – once you've had a custom-molded pair made, you can use the molds again in the future if you need a replacement pair, or a pair of in-ear monitors. So they're not as expensive the next time?

    @kris: Can't imagine the difference would be massive, but everyone's ears are different, so I'd expect that different models may be more or less comfortable for some people.

    @Jake: Those Alpine ones look great. I take it that they don't extend past your ears, so you're not in danger of having them thumped inside your skull, and can wear headphones over the top?

    @dtr: Yep, I've heard this from quite a few people who are musical professionals, and have damaged their hearing. So for me the reason of "better sound at the gig" may be enough for people to protect themselves.

    @Ben @Scott: Yep, definitely too much plastic sticking out for comfortable headphone-wearing or moshpit-moshing. For normal, non-jumping-around shows though, they're amazing.

  • http://www.samgreene.com Sam Greene

    Go for the molded ear plugs from your local audiologist. They sit flush in your ears and are ultra comfortable. I use them at work, on planes, at shows and when playing drums. They cost $115 about 5 years ago.

  • http://www.splendidbeats.com Crispy

    My wife and I both have a couple pairs of these. We never go to a show without them. I still resort to the foam plugs on occasion, though, because sometimes 20db is simply not enough protection.

  • http://http:www.cowperband.com Rowley Cowper

    The ER-20s take advantage of the membranes used in Musicians Ears custom moulded plugs. At $300AUD, that's your next step up. Advantage? Customiseable clip in dB rating bits and bobs at 5 db, 15db, 20db (and others I think).

    Awesome, and none of the brain stem lodging. I should probably steal Jaymis' ER-20s or buy a pair to compare…because although the membranes are replaceable, the outer bits take on a pretty icky discolouration after a while despite the regular cleaning I give them!

  • http://www.jaymis.com Jaymis Loveday

    @Crispy: I bought a pair of the Etymotics "Baby Blues" for my girlfriend, who has a small head and accompanying small ears.

    @Rowley: Eww. No borrowing gear that goes inside people. I'm definitely thinking about upgrading to custom molded ones though, so I'll be able to do a comparison down the track.

  • zeitgiest

    I've been using the ER-20's for years and love them. I went to a few too many shows when I was younger and still have some long-term tinnitus problems, but these have made things much better.

    @Mason Bach: I also have Etymotic's ER-4 in-ear phones, and I got custom molds made for the tips for $75 from my local audiologist–much cheaper than I thought it would be and totally worth it for the added comfort and isolation.

  • http://ideletemyselfbitbyebit.blogspot.com/ ideletemyself

    @Jaymis lol, sry I didn't even look to see who was writing the story cuz it's usually always Peter… So thx, hope to see more stories coming from CDM anyway it comes.

  • http://www.jaymis.com Jaymis Loveday

    @ideletemyself: Hey, I'm just happy to have fooled you :)

  • http://fedeciapi.tumblr.com Fede

    If you want something that doesn't stick out as much as the etymotic, check these earplugs from Alpine: http://alpineearplugs.com/prod_musicsafe.htm

  • pete

    I went to an audiologist for a checkup and to find out just how bad the tinnitus in my right ear was. A thorough exam can detect problems early, or indicate what probs you might have down the road. I got fitted for molded plugs, and they have been worth every cent. I also use the ER-20s (so does my wife) and I still keep foamies in my gig kit, car, bass bag… If you can, find an audiologist who deals with musicians, and ask about full depth molds that preserve bass response. I was lucky to hook up with the audiologist who consults to the local symphony. Aside from confirming that I have some high freq weirdness, she said that orchestral players take a lot more hearing damage than most people realize. I hear that brass players have the worst of it. I just have "bass player's ear" from standing next to drum kits! Lucky me…

  • COOLOUT

    I bought some Er-20 type earplugs but found the stems too long for wearing headphones.

    For the past 4 or 5 years I've been using Sennheiser HD 280s which claim to have up to 32db of attenuation. I'm curious how accurate that claim is.

    I tend to do at least a couple 5 hour long DJ sets every weekend…sometimes I'm double booked and spinning for 10-12 hours in one day.

    What I've found comfortable is to just keep the Sennheisers on the whole set, while montoring solely through the headphones, and making sure I never turn the monitor knob past 3 (9 o'clock). Plus I give myself breaks where I keep the volume turned all down and only listen during song transitions.

    Of course that means that I'm pretty much cutoff from having any social interaction for hours at a time.

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  • netch

    Hey all,

    I've been using custom-fit plugs for more than 10 years now (playing drums and attending shows) and always advocate for ear protection at clubs even jazz concerts (every room that has amps always too loud).

    Foam usually distort the sound and give a remote feel.

    I'll definitely recommend those for friends and buy a pair for my girl.

    Thanks!!!!

  • http://www.rutgermuller.nl Rutger Muller

    Exinore/Elacin ER Flexcomfort – 160 Euro, 25dB damping but still ALL the richness. LOVE EM!

  • http://bauerindustries.com bauer industries

    I'll second (or third, fourth?) the Elacin ER Flexcomfort custom plugs. Being able to change filters (I have both 15 and 25db ones) is great. You forget that you have them in after about 5 mins once you are used to them.

    Not cheap, but worth the investment…

  • João Menezes

    It's really cool to see CDM posting about hear protection….

    We aren't just in the party people championship.

    Audio is putting bread in our dinner table and that's why we need to protect from high sound pressure levels.

  • http://www.technoetc.net/blog AO

    I use these as well. They def. sound much better than foam, though I do find them a bit uncomfy once in a while as they sometimes make my ears feel itchy!

  • Nick

    Mogwai play too fucking loud.

  • http://VJzoo.com Kat Black

    We've been plugging these (excuse the pun) for ages. I love that they come in different colours as well, good to be able to tell which are mine and which are my partner's.

    We were using the "Quiet" foam-with-stem earplugs previously http://www.howardleight.com/family/index/11 – they might be a better option than plain foam for ppl who don't want a poking-out stem.

  • nick kent

    I love Etymotic's regular earphones which are very similar in design but of course can be plugged in and used as headphones. They are quite effective as earplugs which means I don't forget to bring them somewhere I might want some. They took me quite a few hours to get used to but are wonderful after that point. I guess the proof is I've had to buy a different brand because they are much too isolating when people are expecting me to answer if talked to.

  • vanceg

    @ a1g0rhythm: Hey, how about that, when I lost my custom molded earplugs this year, I started wearing these as my backup pair at Decibel Festival too…Once I got the sound dialed in, that is…even with the fairly smooth attenuation across the spectrum that these earplugs offer, I don't wear them while running sound. I saw a LOT of folks sporting this style plugs at this year's Decibel – the foam plugs seem to be loosing favor among folks who actually want to hear music.

  • http://timburrell.net/blog Tim.

    In plenty of cases these days concerts can easily exceed 100dB, which means 20dB of noise protection isn't enough. You could be wearing these and still get permanent hearing damage (anything over 80dB for extended periods will damage your ears).

    Look for 30dB noise reduction minimum. My personal faves are EARsoft Grippers (-32dB), and Moldex Purafit (-33dB), which are more comfortable, cheaper, and better in every way than the ER-20s.

  • Polite

    I bought a couple of these a few years back and I can't handle having them in my ears. I'm used to inner ear headphones, but these just make me feel like I'm being violated. :/

  • http://www.jaymis.com Jaymis Loveday

    @Tim: I don't think you can say "better in every way" about disposable foam earplugs, considering that they don't have an even attenuation of sound. I definitely find them more comfortable, and they're obviously cheaper, but they also definitely muffle the high-end, so they don't sound as good.

    Definitely though, people need to be aware that there are different levels of attenuation available, and that having a pair of plugs in place doesn't protect you in all environments.

  • http://www.jaymis.com Jaymis Loveday

    @Polite: They're definitely not for everyone. I don't find them as comfortable as the soft, smooth, disposable foam rubber ones, and I had to buy my girlfriend the "kids size" ones, so they'd fit in her tiny ears. Looks like you've got a great excuse to get some custom molded ones.

  • Airon

    As a sound artist and engineer I cannot stress enough how important ear protection is.

    I once tested a school class in a studio with test tones. A couple of them cried their eyes out when they could hardly hear a thing beyond 10 kHz. I had to tell them they had the hearing capabilities of a 40-50 year old, and it was never going to get any better.

    Wear ear protection in loud places or get used to living in a place where you might not hear the car approaching that's going to kill you.

  • dailank

    Great that someone drives the attention to this subject. I use the ER20 since 10 tears ago and I'm not looking back.

  • Binary

    You can also check out these molded type plugs: http://www.proplugs.com/ I've used them for several years and they are not bad!

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