Let’s face it, being a musician is a very loud line of work, and with amplification becoming more common these days (even in an orchestral setting!), more and more musicians are being exposed to sounds that could damage the ears after even only a few minutes. Considering that musicians make their living playing music, and presumably enjoy hearing the sounds that they create, this is a significant health problem worth addressing with great urgency. What’s worse? Hearing loss is cumulative and can lead to lasting effects such as distortion and tinnitus (persistent ringing in the ears) that can be extremely uncomfortable and a huge barrier to music creation even without total hearing loss. So, you might be thinking, why not just wear ear plugs? Well, this is easier said than done for many musicians, because we don’t just need to hear, we need to listen.
Problems with traditional ear plugs
There are three main problems with basic ear plugs. First of all, most earplugs are disposable products intended to eliminate as much sound as possible across the board for industrial use. Listening with them in, then, is impossible by design.
When you play an instrument like the clarinet with this type of ear plug, you also experience something called the occlusion effect. This is basically a booming effect that results from the sound reverberating through bone conduction. This is also not an ideal situation for making music! A common solution for proactive musicians these days is to use musicians’ earplugs.
What about Musicians’ Earplugs?
Musicians’ earplugs are custom fit deeply into the ear canal. They provide a deep seal to prevent the occlusion effect, and reduce frequencies evenly across the spectrum to a more moderate degree. This allows for sounds to be heard clearly, but brings the volume down to a safe level so that it can be listened to for a much longer duration without any risk of damage.
Although musicians’ earplugs are a highly advised purchase, the problem is that there is no discrimination between loud and soft sounds. ALL sounds are reduced equally. What happens when the music stops and you need to hear your conductor speaking across the stage? What if the loud section has passed and you need to blend and tune with a delicate passage in the violins? Well, you have to take the earplugs out, and in the average rehearsal means adjusting many times. Obviously, this is a huge hassle and is not possible in most situations. I believe this inconvenience ends up being the main reason so many musicians understand the risk of not wearing hearing protection, but don’t protect themselves.
Etymotic’s Brilliant Solution
This is where Etymotic comes in. (Their company’s interesting name means “True to the ear” and is pronounced “et-im-oh-tik”). The Music Pro is the world’s first electronic earplug. It is a brilliant, over-the-counter product that provides the ability to hear soft sounds naturally, but yet protects against loud, damaging sounds at the same time.
What are they like?
Wearing these ear plugs for the first time is a very interesting experience. Although you feel as if you are inserting an ear plug (you are!), you can still hear after you’ve put them in! As soon as sound levels become unsafe, the device automatically attenuates to either -9 or -15 dB. You can adjust the settings easily at the flick of a switch.
The Music Pro sports a fantastically small form factor that fits very comfortably into the ear canal and is barely noticeable, especially from a distance. In the box there are many types of ear tips included for varying ear shapes and sizes. I found that the tri-flange ear tips were the most comfortable, but that the foam ones allowed the most reduction of the occlusion effect.
Do they use batteries?
The Music Pro is an active product, which means it uses power to operate. It uses hearing aid batteries, and generously includes an entire pack in the box. New batteries can be purchased almost anywhere. The batteries need to be replaced a couple times a month with regular use, and it’s worth noting that hearing aid batteries start to deplete slowly as soon as the package is opened, so it might be best to keep backup batteries with you just in case.
All Etymotic products are fitted with small filters that need to be changed for best results. This is a very minor concern with extremely minimal cost, and only needs to happen once or twice a year with heavy use. This is part of what helps these products last so long. I had my pair of their handmade ER4 headphones last well over 10 years and even at the price of $299 USD I can tell you they are worth every penny. The new model coming out soon even has a replaceable cord, which I imagine would allow them to last nearly forever! But that’s another review!
What’s in the box?
- Music Pro (one for each ear of course)
- Batteries (a full pack!)
- removable cord
- extra filters
- filter changing tool
- carrying case (very durable and handy)
What could be improved?
The inclusion of an on/off switch would be desirable. The only way to “turn off” the plugs is to leave the battery door ajar, which is really hard to remember to do for some reason. It’s also a bit tricky to tell which attenuation setting is selected at first without reading the manual (and who wants to do that these days!). A light indicating whether the installed batteries have charge would also be nice, even if it just blinked once when the battery was inserted, but if any of these supposed “improvements” increase the size or discrete nature of the product then they are definitely not worth the trade off. It’s pretty obvious if the product is working or not based on what it sounds like when you put them in, and even the attenuation setting is immediately clear because the sound gets louder or softer accordingly. It’s far from rocket science.
The product does color the sound slightly, since it adds a bit of artificial reverb and compression to the natural sounds around you. But this is designed to mimic the natural resonance of the ear, which is obviously lost when they are plugged. This did not bother me after some use, but I can imagine someone very exacting who is not used to wearing ear plugs might be bothered at first. But you have to consider the alternative. Is it really worth risking your hearing and entire career to avoid a little bit of re-learning on how to listen with proper hearing protection on? It is rather ironic to me that musicians who pride themselves in musical versatility are often incredibly stubborn in other ways, even to their own detriment.
In a teaching situation with large groups and extended rehearsals these plugs are a godsend, and they are amazingly good for going to moderately loud events and even performing tasks where loud equipment is used. But in a playing situation it’s worth noting that although I really wanted these plugs to provide a perfect solution, playing the clarinet was not immediately comfortable because the occlusion effect which, although it was greatly diminished when compared to any other plug I’ve used, was still present to a degree. Etymōtic has suggested first of all practicing with the ear plugs to get used to them because it will never be exactly the same, and that the absolute best solution for wind players and singers is to use properly fitting, custom mold musicians’ ear plugs. The Music Pro’s best feature is that custom ear molds can be fitted to the product to provide the ultimate in hearing protection, comfort, and reduction of this occlusion effect. These are available at an audiologist and are usually covered under your health care plan. I will be getting some custom plugs made for the music pro and look forward to reporting back!
As someone who’s owned Etymōtic products for over a decade I have to say that their professionalism, customer service, warranty, and product quality set them apart from virtually every other company these days. Their dedication to stay true extends well beyond just the ear, and is admirable and inspiring. The Etymōtic Music Pro 20s are the closest thing to a perfect solution to what is, after all, an extremely complex issue. At $299 this product isn’t cheap, but you do get what you pay for, and if you consider the costs and risks associated with not wearing hearing protection the Music Pro 20 is a no-brainer for all. Overall a great product and I look forward to more from Etymotic in the future.
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Disclaimer: As with all Clarineat reviews, this product was provided by Etymotic for review purposes. The review was not influenced or edited by the manufacturer in any way, and conveys the author’s subjective, personal opinion.