Ear Plugs for Movies and Concerts

Top row L to R: V-MODA Faders; Comply Plugs;Dubs. Bottom row L to R: EtyPlugs; 3M Tekk; Dry and Wet Toilet Paper.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water is in the theaters now, and, well, my 18 year old daughter and I want to re-live a little of her childhood together. (Yes, I can sing the song.) So, tomorrow night it's pop corn and Bon-Bons with my arm around my little girl—who isn't so little any more—and a rollicking good time with SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, and the crew from Bikini Bottoms.

And it's also time to round up some ear attenuators—I can't believe how loud they play movies these days. As I was looking for an appropriate pair, the question resurfaced in my head: How flat are these things really?

The problem with the squishy yellow ear protectors is that they attenuate high frequencies much more than low frequencies, causing the sound you hear through them to be muffled and lacking in definition. Speech intelligibility goes way down. These are not the kind of hearing protection you want to use at the movies. The idea behind hearing protection attenuators is they attempt to attenuate sound evenly across the spectrum so that while it's lower in level, it doesn't sound muffled and speech intelligibility doesn't suffer.

Hey, I've got the gear here to measure acoustic attenuation spectra, so why not! I rounded up all the attenuators I had in the house and took some measurements. In all cases I measured at least two different samples of each attenuator, and then added the measurements together and averaged them. Let's take a look at the results.

Attenuators_Graph_Main

First thing to notice is NONE of these products provides a measured flat attenuation. I am not entirely sure, however, that the measurement head and a human head have the same characteristics when taking an isolation measurement. For example, I have no idea how much "bone conducted" energy gets to the microphone. I would expect less, and therefor isolation measurements here may show more isolation than you would hear. It's also possible that the spectral response between the measurements here and what is heard would be different. When I did my listening tests, it certainly seemed like the attenuators were flatter than measured—though I did hear a warm tilt with all of them during listening tests. I should also note that I'm very skeptical of the measurements above about 8kHz—artifacts here could easily be caused by insertion depth and ear canal resonance differences rather than representing actual attenuation.

For reference, let's look at the black line at the bottom of the chart, which is the squishy foam 3M Tekk hearing protectors you may be familiar with. This type clearly does a pretty great job of isolating you from outside noise...but it will be too much isolation for going to concerts and movies.

Going down the list, the green plot is the V-Moda Fader. I tried this measurement with two different sets of Faders because I thought this plot may have been faulty. It appears the Faders attenuate a great deal and roll off rather fast. I have to say that in listening the Faders did not seem as different as they measure. The fit of the Fader is a bit tough as the body of the product is a bit big in the ear, and the tip doesn't go very deep into the ear. I still think there may be some sort of problem in the measurement, but considering how shallow and insecure the fit is, and the sound was a bit more muffled than the other attenuators, I'm not going to recommend these.

The Ety Plug did a good job of delivering a secure fit, and were fairly easy to insert and remove. These use Etymotic's triple-flange tip, but unlike there IEM products there isn't a nozzle inside the tip so the EtyPlug a bit more flexible and comfortable than their IEM products. Also note that the tip is available in a smaller size (blue tip). I would say these were the least colored sounding attenuators, but only by a small margin. Recommended.

The top orange plot is the Dubs hearing protectors. While these provided a decent fit for me, they do not seal very deeply in my ears and didn't feel very secure. The also only come with one size ear tip, which seems almost outlandish to me. Lastly, of all the protectors tested the Dubs had the steepest attenuation curve making them the most muffles sounding of the lot. Not recommended.

Next plot down the chart is the Comply Plug (red). No surprise, this attenuator uses a nice Comply foam tip that's very comfortable in your ears. At the end of the attenuator body there is a little tab to aid in pulling them out of your ears. I found these had about as good sound as the EtyPlug, but the comfort was significantly better. Highly recommended.

Last on the list, probably my favorite ear plug of all time—at least in term of how many times I've been without ear plugs and used it as an emergency measure—toilet paper! I used to wet the toilet paper, but after a while decided it was too much attenuation and just started to use it dry. You can see that, in this case, it doesn't isolate as well as the EtyPlug or Comply Plug, but personally I find they both attenuate a bit too much for movies anyway. The tilt is a little warmer, and the dry TP did sound that way, but only marginally so. Another thing is that you can adjust how much attenuation by how tightly you pack it into your ear. The big trick with TP plugs is that you have to use enough that it doesn't go too deep into your ears, but not so much that it can't be securely packed into the entrance of your ear canal. I generally find that one square of double-ply TP torn in half, one side for each plug, works just about right. For cheap single-ply TP I use about 3/4 sheet for each ear. I don't really recommend this method as you do run some risk of shoving the TP so far into your ears you can't easily get it out (I carefully use a pen tip), but if I'm without my ear plugs I'll definitely use TP as it seems less risky than the loud noises.

Summary
Well, these aren't as flat as I'd hope they'd be, but they're a lot better than the squishy foam plugs for movies and concerts. I'd recommend the EtyPlug or Comply Plug as the go to solution, but I do need to mention if your serious about hearing protection and getting a flatter attenuated response you may want to look into the Etymotic Musicians Ear Plugs. These are custom ear plugs, so you have to go to your audiologist for ear impressions, but you can get the little filters in 3 levels of attenuation (9dB, 15dB, and 25dB) and you can swap them out as needed. I'd go with 9dB for movies, and higher for concerts depending on how loud it will be.

Personally, I'll be wearing my 9dB Musicians Ear Plugs for Sponge Bob tomorrow...unless I forget them, and then it'll be a quick run to the bathrooms for a square of toilet paper. But for sure I'll be wearing some kind of hearing protection...movies are too damned loud these days.

Click links to go to the product pages for: V-MODA Faders ($20); Comply Foam Plugs ($19.95); Dubs ($25); Etymotic Ety-Plug ($12.95); 3M Tekk Disposable Earplugs ($2.49/4pr); Toilet Paper ($FREE!).

COMMENTS
pbarach's picture

Consider Mack's silicon earplugs, which you can get at any drugstore. They are moldable and fit into the pinna. They don't fall out and are comfortable to wear for long periods of town. Wearing these in a packed basketball arena with frequent sound levels of just over 105 dB made the game enjoyable. I can't speak to their frequency response, but you get a noise protection rating of 22 (for comparison, the 3M Tekk foam plugs are rated at 32).

zobel's picture

We just got home from a movie and were saying how loud it was, especially the trailers previewing action movies. I've been looking at the Equal Loudness Curves (Fletcher & Munson, and the two succeeding versions) and the hearing health standards concerning dB levels. Since long term exposure to levels of 85 dB is harmful, and higher dB can only be tolerated for increasingly shorter times, movie theater sound has become a public health issue, with legislation pending to control it in Connecticut, and maybe elsewhere. Here is an article about a new measurement system for movie sound;

http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/health/doctor/lhdoc200.htm

Thank you for reminding us of the need to protect our hearing!

zobel's picture

Tyll, what does the frequency response curve through your dummy head look like with no ear plugs in it? Do you play a sine sweep through speakers to get it?

Tyll Hertsens's picture
It's flat. The measurement head is in a chamber that also has a speaker in it. I play pink noise through the speaker and have acquired the response of the head in the chamber with no headphones on. That curve is not flat, but I have inverted it and stored it as a background subtraction. So when I measure the head response in the chamber with pink noise and then add the compensating curve I get a flat line.
zobel's picture

You may have already calibrated the speaker's response in there with a measurement mic?

Downforce's picture

Tyll, can you fix the photo caption? thank you

I use ear protectors for motor sports as well. Race cars can be VERY, annoyingly loud, so I use 3M Tekk reusable corded plugs, which are similar to the 3 element plugs pictured above. Their only drawback is they are slightly too large, and one size certainly does not fit all.

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Fixt, thanks.

Yes, race cars can be AMAZINGLY loud. As an aside, I watched some F1 last year for the first time in a decade or so. HOLY MOLY! It looked like the race was in fast forward; those cars are breathtakingly fast.

firedog55's picture

When I went to the audiologist to be fitted for custom IEMs, I also got fitted for custom musicians ear plugs that cut db levels by 15db, but let frequencies through.

They seem to work as advertised and are very comfortable. Great for pretty much any public venue where music is played these days (been to a wedding lately)?

Great for movies, concerts, and planes - they cut down on all the ambient noise, but you can still hear what you need to.

aufmerksam's picture

I have used the ety plug for many a concert over the years, and generally find it great for that purpose, but that little rod sticking out the back invariably digs into the bottom of my antitragus... I just saw that ety changed their design (they still sell original one) to remove the rod, and include a pull tab: http://www.etymotic.com/consumer/hearing-protection/er20xs.html

At the time I thought, "finally!" but wondered what prompted them to change. Now I see the comply plugs and my question is answered. The new ones are $20, but if they offer the triple-flange isolation without the faux-driver rod, I think its worth it.

wgb113's picture

I've used the Etys for years at concerts as well and always wish I'd discovered them sooner. They make it so that you can actually hear everything being played/sung and still have a conversation with the people you're there with.

Bill

tony's picture

The 3M type are god-sends for me, we buy them by the big-box for everyone to just grab. I thought they were 30db worth, now I see they do much better at the high frequencies.
Thanks for showing all these graphs, it confirms my previous tests that always show nothing else to work as well. ( except for the 3M's plus over ear muffs like you see Airport personal wearing out on the tarmac)
These 3M's take a big bite outa the stress of travel, power tool work, Manufacturing Plant visits, car travel on expressways, grocery store shopping, noisy public areas and Wifely complaining!!!

Tony in Michigan

ps. I even keep an emergency pair in my wallet which are squished flat but fluff out in a minute or so

flockofwildcactus's picture

Also check out Ear Peace:

http://www.earpeace.com/shop/hd-hearing-protection/

I've used these while attending concerts for the past few years. I even popped them in when I went to see Interstellar in IMAX because as you stated, some theaters can be way too loud. They utilize passive attenuation filters like many here, but with the HD version linked above you can swap between filters for different levels of attenuation and they all come with a nice aluminum key chain case with a spare (so you get 3 plugs total). Very good for the price IMO, and if you pop the filter out, you can even use the dual-flange component for some narrow barrel BA IEMs (used them on my TDK BA200 when I had it) ;) They seem comparable to the Etys but perhaps a bit more comfortable, I can confirm that they are indeed super comfortable for hours.

MRC01's picture

Great article!

I have custom molds with the Etymotic ER-9, 15 and 25 plugs. Subjectively, they all work well in that they reduce the volume level without muffling the sound - it remains clear just quieter.
Splitting hairs, the 15s have the flattest frequency response.

Subjectively speaking, they don't sound as quiet as one would expect. When I turn down the volume by 9dB on my stereo, it makes a bigger difference than wearing ER-9 earplugs. Same with the 15s and 25s. So my advice getting the plugs is to go one higher than you think you need.

The nice thing about the 9s and 15s is they are low profile and you can wear them underneath earmuffs and headsets for additional protection when shooting, chainsawing, flying small planes, etc.

IgAK's picture

Useful article!

I actually stopped going to movies years ago until I found some good attenuators that I'd like to add to the list, assuming they are still available. Albeit I upgraded my home setup and lost interest in spending the big bucks, except for IMAX presentations anyway - and I used to manage a twin theater many years ago in my youth, too. (No! I DID NOT allow volumes like that in my theater!)

The product I'd like to add to this list are called "Hearos" and they look almost identical to the picture above of the ETY plugs, aside from the color. Originally recommended to me by a musician/recording engineer and they do seem to do a reasonably decent job tonally. When I bought them many years ago (more than 10 years ago and just miraculously haven't lost them)they cost, IIRC, around or less than $5 but the price was not an important datum to memorize over so many years. I do not know if they are still available but if the brand is spotted and still that cheap or even close, recommendable.

Claritas's picture

Etys are just too damn uncomfortable.

The Faders work best if you unscrew the cord and angle the exposed hole away from whatever you want to block. Also use bigger tips (Sony hybrid L or LL) for more secure fit. I'd be curious to see how that measures...

I'll have to try the Complies. Thanks!

theronster's picture

I would be very careful about the kinds of things you put into your ears. I used some of the waxy type moldable plugs and left them in too long. The wax got too soft and I could not get it out. I had to go to a doctor and have the wax removed. I would think TP, especially wet, could cause a similar problem. That said, based on this, I think I am going to get the ETY plugs. Thanks

Dan Thomas's picture

Hi Tyll. Have you heard of, or tried, Docs Pro Plugs? They're a little fiddly to find the right size but once you do, I think, they're great. I use them (vented style of course) for clubbing, concerts and have used them at motor racing events also. They really take the harsh edge of noises and enable me to stick my head in the bass bin of large PA speakers without getting having that tinnitus effect to worry about...;-) Once my ears acclimatise to the difference I don't feel I'm missing out on too many frequencies but if you get the chance I'd be interested to know what you think of them.
Cheers, Dan

2_channel_ears's picture

This article hits near and dear. The mainstream theaters particularly seem to want to blast you through the walls, the indies seem to be a bit better. It's in everyone's interest to ask to speak to the theater manager, and it might snag you some free tix.

But it all came to a head a few months ago at a concert with a guitarist from a famed group at a small venue. The sound hurt, actually hurt. And some guy in front yells, "Man, you guys sound real good." It was all noise!

So I did some research and decided on Earasers. They are said to be flat and let you hear at "normal" levels The sales guy told me everyone in his band uses them. I tried to two different sizes but to no avail; I heard no reduction at all. But your mileage may vary and they're way cheaper than a custom fit, about $40.

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nasirDZ's picture

Earmold Sydney Musicians Earplugs filtered using the ear as the template for the protection and audio clarity for musicians audience.
http://www.earmoldsydney.com.au/musicians-earplugs/