It’s a miracle that my hearing is still in a good state. At 38, I’m firmly of the Discman and iPod generation. I spent countless hours tuning out the world with those devices throughout my teens and 20s. And then, there are all the concerts. Early on, they included some wretched (and obnoxiously loud) punk shows. These days, I’m shooting photos at most of the concerts I attend — right in front of the stage near professional speakers meant to fill arenas.
All of this is to say that I should have amassed some hearing damage along the way, but somehow, I’ve made out okay. Every few weeks, I might hear a faint tinnitus ring, but it fades away within seconds. What I don’t want is for that ringing to become a steady, persistent aspect of my life. So even if it admittedly took me too long, I’m trying to stay consistent in wearing hearing protection at concerts and other blaring events.
It’s easy to find foam earplugs on the cheap at any pharmacy, and you can buy them in bulk at Amazon for under $10. They’ll do a better job than if you were to go without any protection. But there’s nothing elegant about jamming foam into your ears; the cheapest earplugs can noticeably diminish your listening experience at concerts and rob live music of clarity and precision. If you want to safeguard your ears and get the most from a performance, it’s worth stepping up to earplugs that focus on preserving some fidelity.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying out Sennheiser’s $39.95 SoundProtex earplugs. In the box, you get three sizes of triple-flange ear tips that you insert deep into your canals and two sets of filters that fit into the center of them. One is a “full block” filter meant to completely deaden any noise around you. This option is best if you want near-total silence for sleep or relaxation time. The other “mid” option includes an acoustic filter membrane and sound-dampening mesh that makes it suitable for concerts, plane travel, and other scenarios that involve a heavy dose of loud noise.
Sennheiser also sells a “Plus” version of the SoundProtex (priced at a much higher $79.95) with two additional filters that let through different levels of noise. So many options can be too complex or finicky to deal with, so I prefer the simpler two-filter route. But if you’re concerned about the cacophony of daily life, the “light” filters that come with the SoundProtex Plus can wrangle common noise without reducing the decibels to the same degree as the mid filters. (The latter have a Single Number Rating of around 17dB.) But there’s no denying that $80 is a steep price for earplugs — and that’s assuming you haven’t already balked at the $39.95 for the standard pair.
I always default to large-size tips when fitting earbuds, and that was the right pick with the SoundProtex as well. These tips are made from hypoallergenic TPE material, and while they stick farther into your ear canal than earbuds (there’s an elongated piece sticking out from each tip that makes them easy to remove), you don’t need to worry about them getting stuck deep in the recesses of your ear or dealing with an embarrassing visit to urgent care. When the show’s over, you can just rinse them off so they’re ready for the next concert.
My first test run with the SoundProtex earplugs came while shooting Dave Matthews Band at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. This isn’t the gentle, acoustic-oriented DMB ensemble of the ’90s, mind you; there’s no more violin, and a full-time electric guitar, two-piece horn section, and keyboardist have both made their shows, well, loud. It’s not Metallica, but you wouldn’t want to be standing directly in front of the stage loudspeakers for an extended time. No matter how much you love a band’s music, that can get unpleasant — and carries a real risk of hearing damage.
Sennheiser says the SoundProtex are designed to preserve the overall audio balance of a concert and “keep enough of the higher frequencies to preserve ambient awareness so users can still have a normal conversation at a concert.” Once the band took the stage, nothing sounded muffled or stuffy, which I can’t say is true of throwaway foam earplugs. I’m not confident I’d have been able to easily have a conversation with someone from the photo pit with the stage speakers blaring. But that’s an extreme test case, and I didn’t have any issues understanding people once I was done shooting and took my spot in the regular audience.
No matter how “hi-fi” earplugs are engineered to be, you’re always going to lose some vitality and punch at a concert. Some of my friends will wear theirs for the majority of a show but pop them out for a favorite song or two to feel the full power and intensity of the performance. If you’re content leaving them in at all times, that’s even better. I’ve added the little SoundProtex carrying pouch to my keychain so I’ll have them at the ready when needed.
Forty dollars for earplugs isn’t cheap, but it’s in the ballpark of what other brands like Loop charge for fidelity-first hearing protection. More and more, we’re also starting to see people experiment with using AirPods Pro and other noise-canceling buds to give their ears some relief. I think this is perfectly fine for many everyday scenarios, but I’d be wary of going this route at shows. Can they help? Sure, but with earplugs, there’s no battery to worry about. The seal is deeper and more secure. And companies have to conform to stricter standards and thoroughly test for decibel attenuation.
But any of these measures — even the most basic foam earplugs — are better than nothing. If you’re like me and have been slow to get into the routine of wearing earplugs, this summer concert season is a perfect time to start being better to your ears and looking after the hearing you’ve got.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge