Ever left a concert with your ears ringing? How about after mowing the lawn? Working in the shop? Listening to your in-laws?
We've all been there. Here's the scary truth, if your ears are ringing, you've done permanent and irreparable harm to your ears. Over time, this leads to hearing loss.
The sad thing is, it's so easy to prevent.
The easiest solution is cheap foam earplugs, available at any drug store. I've never been a fan of these for two main reasons: One, they overly attenuate high frequencies, making everything sound muffled. Two, they never fit me right. I know other people who swear by these cheap fixes, but I have never been able to get them to sit correctly, and they always fall out.
When was 19 and marginally playing in a band, it only took a few shows ear-level with cymbals to know I wasn't doing good things to my ears. I purchased custom earplugs. They lasted about 5 years well, and another 5 not so well. Turns out, they had shrunk, letting in sound and defeating their whole purpose.
So I was on the hunt for some new customs. By chance I needed ear molds for my review of the JH Audio headphones in the June/July/August issue (look for it on the web soon). While there, I had molds made for a new pair of custom earplugs.
ACS Custom is a 15-year-old English company that specializes in custom-fit, in-ear monitors and hearing protectors ("earplugs" in my Colonial parlance).
The first step towards your own custom plugs is the aforementioned molding process. You'll need to find an audiologist. They'll sit you in a chair and squirt goo into your ears. It is not exactly pleasant. If you have them mold both ears at once, you'll have a few moments of the most incredible silence you've ever experienced.
A few weeks later, you'll receive your plugs. It's hard to judge size from the images here, but they're designed to fit in the ear like a tiny hearing aid. Mine aren't much larger than my thumbnail, though your thumbnail may vary.
I ordered the ACS ER-25, which provide 25 dB of attenuation. That's a lot, and ACS recommends them for "highly amplified performances and drummers." You could probably add "audiophile" to that and not receive any doubting comments. The beauty of the ACS design is that the sound is reduced using removable and interchangeable filters. Nine and 15 dB reduction filters are also available, with a few more intermediate steps coming soon.
What makes the ER's different from foam plugs is they reduce frequencies more neutrally. There's still a high-end drop, but it is far less severe. In the handful of concerts I've gone to with the ER-25s, I was amazed at how well I could hear cymbals and other high-frequency instruments and sounds, they were just lessened compared to my naked ear. Voices were a lot clearer than my old plugs as well. I never had trouble making out what people were saying, even over the din of the concert. Human nature being what it is, that meant I spoke softer, making me hard to hear for everyone else. Even after I noticed this I kept doing it because I'm "that guy."
The fit of the ACS plugs is incredible and comfortable. They feel like a great set of ear buds, with a slight pressure on the inside of your ear. One show I wore them for 5 hours with no problem.
When you get home from the show, you can pop out the filters and clean the medical-grade silicon of the plugs with warm water.
ACS's MSRP is $185, and it's the smartest money you can spend. I will say this, if I was performing on stage, I would probably get the 15 dB models, as 25 is a lot. Perfect for audience, but I'd want to hear a bit more on stage.
Everyone loses hearing as they get older, but how much isn't set in stone. If you attend a lot of concerts, or spend time near loud anything, you owe it to yourself to buy a pair of decent ear plugs. You'll be able to enjoy the music more, be less fatigued after a show, and still hear your grandkids tell you your music sucks when you're 90.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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