Safe and Sound: Gear to Protect Your Ears
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September 11, 2012

Safe and Sound: Gear to Protect Your Ears

The ability to hear is the one thing most of us can't afford to lose. So why do we abuse our ears so often? Fortunately, you can protect yourself without losing the clarity we've come to expect from unprotected hearing.

By Emile Menasché

safe and sound

How's your hearing? Unless you've been tested recently, you probably don't know the medical answer to that question, but that doesn't really matter. Take a second to ask yourself how well you think you hear, and how your ears feel when you listen. Now take a minute to reflect upon this: However good or bad your hearing is at this moment is the best it's going to be for the rest of your life.

Hearing loss is a natural part of aging that starts right after our teen years, when most people start losing the ability to hear the very highest frequencies. It happens so gradually and has so little to do with our work as musicians that few but the most golden-eared engineer would even notice or care.

The Audio Engineering Society (aes.org), has been encouraging musicians and audio pros to get their hearing checked and protect themselves for years. "The problem is not only of deep concern to our members whose livelihoods depend on their hearing," says AES Deputy Director Roger Furness. "The findings of organizations such as Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers [or H.E.A.R.] apply to virtually everyone, and can have significant impact on reducing hearing problems for future generations."

safe to listen table

How long is it safe to listen? Check out the table above. Higher dBs damage your ears faster.

You don't have to be playing stadium rock at Who-like decibel levels to be in danger, either. The volume at even small clubs can push 100dB or more-way above the safety zone (see the table above). Even acoustic instruments can do damage when exposure is long and the output loud. According to Gail Gudmundsen, an audiologist and executive at Etymotic Research, Inc.-which makes earplugs and in-ear monitors- orchestral violinists tend to lose hearing in their left ear, while flutists suffer loss in their right. "It's because they spend so many hours a day exposed to sound levels," she explains.

For musicians, a lot of the problem boils down to balance: We all want to hear ourselves while we perform and record. This can be especially problematic on stages where the monitor mix isn't perfect. You do sound check and set levels, but when the adrenaline kicks in, the drummer is suddenly louder, so the guitarist turns up, and the singer starts screaming, and pretty soon it's an audio arms race.

In practical applications, the best solution is to block out unwanted sounds and replace them with a carefully balanced mix. In-ear monitors are designed to do just that. When inserted correctly, their tips work as earplugs to reduce the ambient sound onstage. An audio mix is then pumped into the earpiece; because the ambient sound is lessened, this mix can be relatively quiet, and therefore safe.

A typical in-ear monitoring system consists of three basic components: the ear-piece, a bodypack receiver, and a transmitter. Each performpush er's mix is fed into the transmitter, which beams it to the receiver. Users can adjust their overall level on the bodypack.

level on the bodypack. Shure, Sennheiser, and Audio-Technica are among the companies making in-ear systems for pros, which can be used with stock ear pieces or, in some cases, with optional units from Etymotic, Crescendo, Bose, Westlake, Sony, and others. "A snare drum crack onstage can reach 120 dB," says Shure's Kevin Spiegel. "A properly fitted in-ear system offers 20-40 dB isolation from the sound onstage."

Music PRO earplugs

Etymotic’s battery-powered Music•PRO earplugs can adjust attenuation of loud and extra loud environments.

Such systems are ideal for touring artists, especially those who have control of their own audio mix onstage. And while high-end in-ear systems can still be pretty pricy, the growing popularity of personal monitoring has made some more affordable systems available. Soundblocking in-ear monitors are also useful for general listening in noisy environments. Using the Crescendo DS-11 to block out the ambient music at the gym, I was able to hear my own iPod well at comfortable volume. And unlike noise-cancelling headphones, they work without batteries. But in-ear monitors aren't for everyone-and they do nothing for you if you're in the audience at a live show.

Earplugs, on the other hand, will protect you if you put them in correctly. However, if you're like a lot of musicians I know, you may find that the blanket attenuation makes the sound seem muffled or muddy-back to the word "balance" again. Etymotic makes a range of passive earplugs ranging in price from about $15 to a couple of hundred, which are designed to lessen the "mud" effect by scaling the frequency attenuation to create a better balance. These and other passive plugs, such as Planet Waves' new Pacato, protect you by attenuating all sound- loud or soft-by a fixed amount. That's fine if you're listening to a loud show. But when you want to talk to the person standing next to you, you may feel the desire to take them out.

UE SPL app

The free UE SPL app for iOS is one of several ways to monitor exposure to sound levels.

Get Active But what if you could adjust the performance of the ear plugs without removing them? Etymotic's new battery-powered MusicoPRO MPo9-15 model uses internal electronics to offer active ear protection in two switchable modes. In the first, all sounds up to 60dB (the typical level of speech) are boosted by 6dB-so it's actually easier to hear quiet sounds with the plugs in. Once the sound crosses the 60dB threshold, it's reduced by as much as 9dB to protect your hearing-good if you're in a moderately loud situation like a jazz show. In the second mode, there's no boosting of lower-level sound, and the maximum reduction can be up to 15dB- better if you're at a rock show.

I had a chance to test them at a recent presentation and concert in New York. I actually listened to the Etymotic's rep's unamplified speech from the back of the room while the plugs were in, and with the 9dB mode engaged, I could hear the words just as well with the plugs in as with them out. Later, we went to New York's Bowery Ballroom for a show, and I kicked in the 15dB attenuation. Here, they worked a lot like other high-end plugs; the music sounded balanced with plenty of top-end clarity.

With any ear plug or in-ear monitor, fit is critical for both comfort and protection. You want to block the sound from your ear canal by creating a good seal. So I also liked the fact that the MPo9-15 came with an assortment of tips for the ear pieces. Some users might still opt to have custom tips fitted by an audiologist, but everyone in the group at the demo seemed to get a good fit with the included tips.

In-ear monitors

In-ear monitors with sound-blocking earpieces can protect you onstage.

Block the Noise Some reports suggest that as many as 60 percent of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members suffer significant hearing loss. How safe is your listening environment? Audiologists say that any time you hear ringing or feel pain, you're doing some damage, and that damage can add up to permanent hearing loss.

So, how do you prevent such problems before they happen? You can start by understanding the relationship between exposure time and decibel levels. You can listen to loud sounds safely, but only for very brief periods. The lower the dBs, the longer you can listen without harming yourself. You can listen to 85dB for about eight hours. If the level goes up to about 111dB, the safe time is exactly one minute. You'd be surprised how often you may be exposing your ears to levels that high. According to hearinglosshelp.com, some portable music players can produce levels up to117 dB- perfectly safe, for 15 seconds a day.

Fortunately, you don't have to walk around with metering equipment to measure sound pressure levels. We're in the app era, after all. Etymotic makes an app called Awareness that lets users of its earpieces measure ambient sounds and adjust levels accordingly (it's currently for iOS but a Droid version appears to be coming soon). But you can also check out a range of other sound pressure level apps, including the free UE SPL. At that Bowery show, a similar app showed that audio was exceeding 100dB-safe for about 15 minutes. But with the MusicoPros firmly in place and set to their maximum protection mode, my ears only felt about 85dB of impact-a nice safe level that let me enjoy the music without experiencing any ringing when the show stopped.