Loud music can permanently damage your hearing. Learn about hearing loss and the different styles of hearing protection available to musicians.
As a musician, your ears are your greatest asset in the studio and on stage, so it’s essential to protect your hearing at all costs. While hitting the stage for consecutive nights can really take a toll on your hearing (and, in severe cases, permanently damage your ears), there’s no shortage of proper protection designed to block harmful noise levels available to you.
Instead of being ‘that guy’ who whips out an SPL meter at every show to monitor the volume, protect yourself proactively with products that attenuate dangerous sound pressure levels and shield your ears in any situation. If you’re not sure where to start, we have you covered.
In this article we take a deeper look into the risks of listening to loud music, as well as options you can use to prevent hearing loss in loud environments.
What Are The Symptoms of Hearing Loss?
Although hearing loss is typically associated with the inability to hear clearly, pushing your ears to the point of fatigue can lead to other conditions, like hypersensitivity and poor sound localization.
The most common symptom of hearing loss is called tinnitus—that ringing sound you hear in your ears after a concert or a sudden instance of loud noise. Tinnitus can turn into a condition you battle with long-term. Even if it vanishes shortly after a loud show, your ears suffer whether you realize it or not. Left without protection, you can damage your ears beyond repair.
How Loud is Too Loud?
You can probably guess that extremely loud noises like jet engines, cranked Marshall amps and the space right in front of the O2 Arena’s main PA is too loud. But you can still get hearing damage at lower volumes than you might expect. Anything above 80dB, like busy city traffic, can cause harm over a period of time. The average concert produces noise at 94-110 dB, which is generally much higher than what’s considered safe over even short periods of time.
For reference, the point at which sounds become painful is 130dB. If you’re performing at a loud show with noise reaching as high as 110dB, you can damage your hearing in just two minutes. Even if you’re playing at rehearsal at lower volume levels, it’s wise to protect your hearing whenever possible.
Considering the risks, adopting a way to protect your ears on stage and in rehearsal should be a priority, especially if you perform multiple nights a week. Hearing protection comes in a few different forms, but it’s important to choose a comfortable option that fits well, offers adequate noise reduction, and has good fidelity. If you’re taking your first step, here is an overview of different protective solutions available.
If you’re a musician or a regular concert attendee, you’ve probably seen those big foam earplug dispensers before. Foam earplugs are convenient, disposable, abundant and affordable; however, what’s okay in a pinch for attendees isn’t a great option for performers.
Foam earplugs offer minimal noise reduction to protect your hearing from loud music. Most of them advertise that they block noise levels up to -20dB—less than the protection offered by IEMs.
In terms of affordability, foam earplugs are very budget-friendly. They're easy to find—even gas stations sell them—but offer the least in regards to fidelity. Wearing foam earplugs can shield your ears excessively, making it difficult to hear high frequencies. It also produces something called the occlusion effect, which is where your own voice sounds booming and hollow while everything around you sounds muffled. Given these reasons, we only recommend foam earplugs as a last resort for hearing protection.
Reusable Higher-Fidelity Earplugs
Deciding to switch to reusable earplugs won’t be a game changer, but it's definitely a step up in quality and fit. Manufacturers commonly use silicone or plastic, and multiple sizes are available from small to large. The size variations give you a little more to choose from, but you shouldn’t expect a perfect fit, no matter how they’re advertised.
The quality of these earplugs is an improvement compared to the foam variety, but how do they affect sound? Since they’re made for listening to live music, the sound quality is a bit more acceptable. Many of these reusable earplugs that are advertised to music fans use filters that let more of the higher frequencies through, but reusable earplugs aren’t durable enough to last a lifetime—they just last a few shows longer than the foam ones.
For a custom option, you can get earplugs that fit the exact shape of your ears. The noise reduction and fidelity of custom earplugs is quite an improvement over both foam and reusable earplugs. At UE, we offer custom microsonic earplugs that can provide up to 25dB noise reduction, filtering all frequencies evenly to avoid the skewed, muffled sound effects common to over the counter earplugs.
Custom earplugs offer better noise reduction because they create a better seal and reach further into the ear canal to block out sound. You can get custom earplugs by getting precise ear impressions of your ears taken by a professional audiologist. They’re also the most expensive option of the three types of earplugs, but the superior protection is worth the added price.
Among all the options available for hearing protection for musicians, in-ear monitors are the best for performing live. In-ear monitors, or IEMs, are specifically designed for musicians to hear with unparalleled clarity and musicality. On top of stellar noise reduction, unrivaled sound, and road-ready durability, IEMs create a highly immersive experience.
IEMs excel at keeping loud noises from reaching your ears. The noise reduction ratings are far superior than the average pair earplugs. Our UE PRO IEMs offer up to 26dB of passive noise isolation, which is achieved by the form-fitting seal that matches the exact contour of your ears. Our IEMs are made to reach the second bend of the ear canal (our CSX earphones, an alternative fit, reach the first bend) to completely shield your ears from loud music, even in the loudest venues.
Even the high-end custom earplugs sacrifice sound quality for sufficient hearing protection. Unlike earplugs, IEMs are handcrafted by professional engineers using a series of tuned drivers and crossovers for high-fidelity audio across a wide frequency spectrum. The frequency response of UE PRO IEMs spans from 5Hz to 40kHz, which extends well beyond the range of human hearing. That means you’ll hear and feel all the details of your music in full.
Have you ever gone back and forth with the engineer to get a decent monitor mix? We know the struggle—it’s frustrating. Aside from being difficult to work with, wedge monitors output a lot of noise that can put stress on your ears. Instead of relying on stage wedges, you can use IEMs to control your own in-ear mix and hear yourself clearly. Armed with small mixers, your entire band can sculpt personal mixes without interfering with one another.
To sum up, hearing damage can grow into a serious issue if you go without proper hearing protection. Of all the hearing protection options available, UE PRO IEMs offer the perfect balance of sound quality, comfort and hearing protection. Despite the affordability and abundance of headphones and earplugs, they don’t measure up to all the advantages that IEMs provide musicians.
Are you ready to pick up your own set of IEMs? Shop UE PRO IEMs