Over the last year, I’ve started to notice something at a lot of the electronic music shows I’ve been attending: They are a LOT louder than they used to be.
I’ve been to a lot of shows—hundreds of them—but only recently have I noticed an extra hefty dose of decibels coming through the speaker stacks. We expect live music, festivals, and DJ shows to be loud, but it’s gotten to the point that the ear-ringing has become somewhat intense after these concerts. I like my hearing, as I’m sure you do, and continued exposure to these decibel levels has a bad ending for all of us who don’t protect ourselves: We lose our hearing gradually.
It’s easy to get caught up in the music and just say to yourself, “Next time, I’ll wear earplugs. This one show won’t hurt me.” The question is: How many times have you done that? Noise-induced hearing damage is very real and something you need to pay attention to, especially in dance music culture.
If you are at a show that is 104 decibels and higher, chances are you will leave with some mild tinnitus (ear ringing). Although the ringing is usually temporary, consistent and longer exposure (just 15 minutes) can lead to more severe and permanent damage.
Electronic music shows, clubs, and festivals are particularly bad, because you are listening to loud music for long periods of time—sometimes 12 hours or more, if you are really going for it. That puts electronic dance music fans in a more dangerous category, due to the long hours of high-decibel exposure.
Tinnitus can end up being permanent. A constant ringing sound for the rest or your life? No, thanks.
Many DJs end up getting permanent tinnitus due to the nature of the profession. Only recently have you started to see DJs using hearing protection and preventative measures to stop the damage, like earplugs and in-ear monitors that isolate noise.
So, how can you prevent hearing loss and still have fun at the show? Who wants to hear muffled music through earplugs? Only your parents and the security guards, most likely.
Believe it or not, earplugs have improved dramatically since the last time you might have shoved those orange squishy cones into your ears. A new wave of companies has emerged with solutions that will not only protect your hearing but help enhance the sound through a series of filters built into the earplugs. These filters reduce the overall decibels but still allow you to hear a fairly clean sound, so you aren’t missing the details of the music. In some cases, these filters make the music sound better.
Here are some brands that are reasonably priced, protect your hearing, and allow you to hear the music just fine, if not even a little better.
Pro17 by ACS
ACS Customs has a wide variety of options that range from serious, professional-level protection (like DJs) to the more casual Pacato, which is perfect for most festivalgoers; you can check their site for all the options available. The Pacato cuts up to 19db on average and tucks away out of sight, due to its small size. So, you get all the protection you need, and enough sound is let in so you can still enjoy the music without risking your hearing. Most people won’t even know you have them on. The Pacato is also vented, which allows sound to pass both ways. Any remaining sound can escape through the filters to give you a more natural sound—not that booming awkwardness when you are speaking, like you get with other plugs. The build quality on these plugs is also fantastic; they are resistant to moisture and wax buildup, and they’re easy to clean. If you manage to hold on to them, they should last for years before they need replacing. $185
The DownBeats Ear Filter
These are the least expensive of the four and do the job pretty well. The units are comfortable, inexpensive, reduce up to 18db, and come with a nice metal carrying case. You can barely see them when they are in, and they cut the bass down in a noticeable way, but still let the music in clearly. You might notice the highs getting a little bit muddled if you are at an acoustic show, but it’s not going to ruin your experience all that much. The only downside with these little guys is that you are almost certainly going to lose one, so it’s best to get a couple sets, just to be safe. $9.99
Dubs Acoustic Filters by Doppler Labs
The Dubs are a little crazy-looking and come in a bit high at $20, but they are worth it. The Doppler Lab guys have some serious sound scientists working on their products, and this filter works well for all genres—even quiet, amplified shows. The carrying case is kind of weak for the money, as it’s easy to lose in your pocket and kind of a pain to fidget with in the dark—although the incredible comfort, quality of sound, and solid materials more than make up for “little case” issues. You can learn more about the tech if you want to get geeky about it. $19.99
These guys get bonus points for the cool collaborations: They have one with Excision and Discogs—not what you would expect from this kind of brand. The other thing they do right is give you a third ear filter in case you lose one, which is genius, because this is the #1 issue for most people. They also come with a nice metal case that is easy to find in your pocket, although the third ear filter is a bit tricky to get to in its secret compartment at the end. They are small and fit in your ears nicely, albeit a little tricky to get out without dropping one (don’t worry—you’ve got a backup.) The sound quality is solid and very similar to the DownBeats as a great option for electronic music shows, but not so much for the amplified acoustic or more delicate-sounding stuff. $15.95
All of these earplug/filter brands are quite solid and will protect your ears from loud music, yet still allow you to hear well enough to enjoy it. Wearing filters also helps you hear people talking to you more clearly, which is another added benefit. Screaming at people is never that fun.
The size, fit, comfort, and sound are all going to come down to personal preference, but the cost is low enough to try out multiple brands to find the one you really like without breaking the bank. Ultimately, you are going to lose them, no matter how hard you try. So, it’s always good to have a backup set anyway.
Spread the word, and let your friends know the potential risks of hearing loss next time you roll out to a festival—because having to scream “Ehhhh? Ehhhh?” in your 30s is not a good look.