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 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)