According to the Canadian Hearing Association, tinnitus affects 10 to 15% of the population. Of them, 5% report that it severely affects their day-to-day activities. It’s fair to say Inspiral Carpets drummer Craig Gill was one of the severely affected, so much so that it drove him to take his own life, even though he reportedly showed no outward appearance of depression or anxiety. It was an affliction he suffered with for over 20 years caused by his love of loud music and career as a drummer and DJ, which exposed him to noise levels harmful to his hearing. There was little awareness of tinnitus when Gill got started in the music business, and it’s really not that much better today.

So, what is tinnitus, anyway?  It’s usually described as a constant buzzing, or whining in the ears, not caused by an external auditory source, otherwise known as phantom auditory. Ever been to a really loud concert and hear “ringing” in your ears the next day?  That’s tinnitus. For most, it’s a temporary effect that wears off, but it’s a warning that you have exposed yourself to damaging decibel levels. Keep it up, and it might not wear off.  There is no known cure for those who suffer with it permanently and it can also cause tension in the neck, head, and jaw.  It can affect concentration, deprive one from sleep, and cause irritability. These symptoms often lead to anxiety and depression. Doctors originally believed that damage to the nerve endings in the inner ear was the cause of tinnitus, but newer research has suggested a more central area in the brain (dorsal cochlear nucleus) may pinpoint the problem.

After years of unprotected exposure to noise in nightclubs, concerts, and loud music in headphones, I have permanent tinnitus.  Fortunately for me, my case is fairly mild and is only detectable in very quiet spaces.  A little white noise from a fan is usually enough to offset the whine and allow for a decent night’s sleep. After realizing what that persistent whining noise was, learning more about tinnitus, and reading about how severe it can get, as illustrated in the tragic loss of Craig Gill, taking action to prevent the worsening of the condition became very important to me. Prevention should be a priority for anyone exposed to high decibel levels be it from music, or industrial noise common in many work places. The best way to prevent this kind of tinnitus is to avoid excessive decibel noise levels entirely, but we don’t live in a sound proof bubble, and let’s face it; live music is life! So, if you work in a noisy environment or attend live gigs, take the extra step and protect your ears.

This chart gives an indication of some of the more common noise environments we are exposed to and how they can impact and/or damage our ears.

There is a plethora of hearing protection options available on the market ranging from simple and inexpensive foam inserts, commonly used on construction sites, to sophisticated electronic inserts that automatically change the amount of protection based on the noise conditions to allow for optimal, but safe, listening.

We tested several different types and brands of hearing protection at some very loud concerts and here’s what we found:

 

Disposable Foam Ear Plugs – Pack of 10 pair
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) – Approximately 20 to 25 decibels

 

 

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Effective

Cons:

  • Sounds are muffled and conversation is challenging
  • Uncomfortable when worn for some time
  • Disposable so replacement becomes necessary eventually
  • Bright orange or green colours make them hard to disguise

Foam inserts are a great option for the casual concert goer who wants an affordable hearing protection option. They are widely available at pharmacies and home renovation centers and will definitely protect your ears from damaging decibel levels. The downside; they muffle all sound and make the concert experience less enjoyable as they can give the effect of listening to music while underwater. Conversation is near impossible while the foamies are in and they can start to get uncomfortable and itchy if left inserted for more than an hour at a time.  If fashion sense is a concern, most foamies are not subtle as they often tend to manufacture them in fluorescent orange or green.

 

Alpine Party Plug Pro
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) – 21 decibels

 

 

 

Pros:

  • Reusable (Alpine case, carry cord, and cleaning solution provided)
  • Comfortable
  • No sound distortion
  • Clear, small and discreet

Cons:

  • More expensive than foamies, but far from unreasonable

I tested the Alpine Party Plug Pros at one of the loudest shows in Toronto: Swervedriver.  The first thing I noticed was how easily they fit into my ears and how comfortable they were. I was admittedly concerned at first, because they didn’t seem to block out any noise. Conversations were audible and clear, and I could hear hear the click of guitar strings being plucked during soundcheck. My concerns were unfounded. When the music started and the wall of sound hit, there was no distortion, but there was also no wincing in pain from the intense volume. Pulling one of the plugs out momentarily revealed just how loud the music really was and how well the Alpines were blocking the damaging decibels.

My partner was wearing the less expensive Party Plugs (non-Pro version) and reported the same. Very effective noise reduction (NRR 19 decibels), with very little distortion. The non-Pro models come with a Miniboxx for storage and a handy carry tube that can be added to a keychain or belt loop. She’s so happy with them that she gave up testing other models then and there and brings her set with her everywhere.

 

Decibullz Custom Molded Earplugs
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) – 31 decibels

 

 

 

 

Pros:

  • High hearing protection rating
  • Reusable and custom molded for comfort
  • Carry pouch provided
  • Affordable price point

Cons:

  • Bulkier than other hearing protection options
  • Some time needed to make use ready (not grab and go)
  • More distortion than music-specific earplugs

I tested the Decibullz earplugs while at the Afghan Whigs. Before using them, a few steps must be taken to mold the inserts to fit, which involved heating them in hot water and then shaping them to fit. The process was fairly simple and the end result was a very comfortable fitting earplug offering one of the highest protection ratings of the products I tested, but you can’t simply buy these on your way to the gig and use them.  Although much superior to foam inserts, there was still a degree of distortion that muted the music.  That said, if you have very sensitive ears and want a comfortable fitting earplug that really offers top-notch protection, Decibullz are an excellent option.

 

Downbeats High Fidelity Hearing Protectors
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) – 18 decibels

 

 

 

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Reusable and come with a nifty aluminum carry case
  • Very little noise distortion
  • Comfortable fit

Cons:

  • Low protection rating when compared to other options

Coming in at under $10 USD a pair, the Downbeats earplugs are by far the best value in the reusable hearing protection options we tested and aren’t that much more than a pack of disposable foamies. Because of their lower protection rating, I chose to test these earplugs at a less raucous gig and found them to be both comfortable and provide the just right level of protection with practically no distortion. The aluminum clip-on carry case makes transport and storage a snap, and their clear/white colour is discreet for the fashion conscious. A very solid option for acoustic and singer/songwriter concert goers. Fans of bands like My Bloody Valentine that stack their amps to the ceiling should probably choose a higher decibel protection rated product.

 

Flare Isolate Pro Mini Titanium
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) – 33 decibels

 

 

 

Pros:

  • Highest rated hearing protection of the products tested
  • Reusable with storage pouch included
  • Beautiful sleek design
  • Comfortable and easy to insert
  • Next to no distortion

Cons:

  • Expensive

The Isolate Mini Pro Titanium ear plugs are lovely to behold. Made from machined titanium, they fit easy and comfortably into the ears and are actually designed to fit smaller ear canals. I tested the Isolates at Depeche Mode when they performed at the Air Canada Centre, by far the largest venue with the largest speakers (thus loudest) of any of the venues I field tested. The Isolates performed beautifully with next to no distortion and were comfortable throughout the photo shoot, which took place directly in front of a massive tower of speakers. Although on the higher price end, there is no questioning the quality and effectiveness of these plugs. The Isolate Minis also come in aluminum, offering slightly less protection at a reduced price, but in the same sleek design as the Titaniums.

A good baseline recommendation is that if you work in and around loud music, or spend a lot of time at gigs, you would benefit by making the small and worthy investment in one of these products to offset the effects of intense decibels and protect your ears for the future.

As part of awareness raising for tinnitus, The British Tinnitus Association has a helpline, and more information can be found on their website. Their vision is “a world where no one suffers from tinnitus. Supporting the 1 in 10 people with the condition.”

Also check out Plug ’em on Twitter (@Plug_em) which focuses on music lovers in particular. Plug ’em will be offering trial earplugs at this weekend’s Shiiine On Weekender in Minehead, U.K. so be sure to check them out, Shiiine On family!

Dave MacIntyre

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