Ear Plugs for Movies and Concerts
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 girlwho isn't so little any moreand a rollicking good time with SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward, and the crew from Bikini Bottoms.
And it's also time to round up some ear attenuatorsI 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.
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 measuredthough 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 8kHzartifacts 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 timeat least in term of how many times I've been without ear plugs and used it as an emergency measuretoilet 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.
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.