The speakers are screaming, and you’re in front of an ear-splitting drummer who’s pounding away as if he’s Thor. So, you stuff some toilet paper in your ears. We’ve all been there. It’s something, but better solutions abound.
If you’re ever exposed to really loud sound, ear protection is needed. In general terms, an ear’s hair cells become overloaded, causing tinnitus (a generalized ringing), which can cause temporary or permanent damage with high-frequency (treble) hearing loss, says Julie Glick, founder of Musicians Hearing Solutions in Manhattan. In her more than two decades in private practice, she’s worked with musicians likes Jay-Z and Alicia Keys—some very expensive ears.
“The ear wasn’t really meant to handle super-loud, unnatural speakers,” Glick says.
The Occupational Safety & Health Administration states that a person can withstand a noise level of 90 decibels for eight hours. With every sound increase of five decibels, the time is cut in half. For some perspective, Glick says that most concerts—venue and band depending—range from 100 to 115 decibels. Without ear protection, you can withstand the former for two hours, the latter a mere 15 minutes.
Ear protection reduces decibels before the sound hits your ear, so you don’t have to leave that heavy-metal show after 15 minutes. Glick discusses several options, regarding price, decibel-blocking capabilities and overall sound.
Toilet paper, free
“Use it only if you’re desperate,” Glick says. “This is a guestimate—although some studies have been done—it would drop about five decibels. It won’t sound good; there’s no preservation in sound quality. And, in general, don’t stuff anything too deep into your ears.”
Styrofoam earplugs (often sold at drug stores and at venues), 50 cents-$3
“These mostly work by blocking out high frequency,” she says. “They don’t sound good, but there are some benefits—unless they aren’t sealed properly. I find that I’m usually hassling with them more than enjoying myself.”
ETY Plugs by Etymotic Research, $12.95
“From my experience, the sound quality is great,” Glick says. “I could talk to my friends, and I forgot I was wearing them because they’re comfortable. It’s the best option for the money.” Etymotic Research claims that these provide almost equal sound reduction (20 dB) across the range of hearing. Hearos makes similar high-fidelity earplugs.
Ultimate Ears Custom Earplugs, $170
“These retain sound quality the best [across the whole sound spectrum],” she says. “Interestingly, the filter is made by Etymotic Research; it is designed to retain that high-frequency boost [which gets lost in other earplugs]. These are for a serious audiophiles or the musician who relies on perfect sound for a certain level of performing. Jay-Z just came in the other day to get fitted for a pair.”