Wednesday, August 3

Review - Westone Concert Custom Earplugs

Dragonforce's Herman Li and Sam Totman (from
It was 2008 and I was watching Dragonforce, at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco.

That is when I knew I had to buy myself some hearing protection... It was loud, so loud I actually thought I would rupture an eardrum.

What a great show!

That sent me on a journey through the world of earplugs, from the foamy things you get on airplanes, to Etymotic earplugs I got from Amazon for about $14 a pair (definitely worth the money if you want good protection for cheap) through to what I am looking at today, which is the Westone Concert earplugs.

Custom fitted hearing protection

So first up. These are noise attenuating filters. I think calling them earplugs is a little misleading. They reduce the noise pressure, but are designed to sound clear and not muffled, like using those cheapo foam things. So you hear sounds clearly, just at a lower volume. But I am going to call them earplugs, because saying 'noise attenuating filters' makes me sound like an arse.

I actually have two pairs of these fitted earplugs.

They are essentially identical, different colours obviously and right now fitted with different rated noise filters from Etymotic. These filters are interchangeable and replaceable, so you can upgrade or downgrade the noise protection as needed for the situation. We'll talk on that later.

The Westones are a lifesaver for me. I watch live music a lot, I play guitar, and I want to hear without tinnitus or hearing damage for long into my old age. Certainly the recent stories of Brian Johnson from AC/DC are scary. So is his voice; how he screams and wails without blowing a kidney through his back I will never understand, but regardless, your hearing is precious. I wish Brian every good thought for recovery of his hearing.


I got both my pairs of Westone Concerts from the lovely people at Sound Hearing & Speech in the Potrero Hill area of San Francisco. Melissa Wilson is one of the owners and a California-certified Audiologist, and she did both fittings for me. The process is pretty quick, and some people might find it a little uncomfortable, though I didn't have any problem with it.

It goes like this.

Melissa does a very quick exam of your ear canals, to make sure that there is nothing untoward going on (this is precautionary as you will have silicone shoved in your ear in a couple of mins time...)

Assuming all is good, then a very small piece of foam is inserted in your ear, attached to, what looks like a long piece of dental floss. Melissa very gently maneuvers this down your ear canal till it reaches essentially your ear drum. The foam is used to create a buffer space between your eardrum and the silicone that she is about to inject with a big syringe into your ear. You don't want the finished earplug to irritate or even damage your ear, so this is a preventive step.

The said syringe is full of a semi runny silicone paste, and this is gently squeezed into your ear until it fills it completely, right down to the foam spacer.  This is repeated on the other ear too.

The silicone sets in about 6-7 mins, firm enough for Melissa to gently pull on the 'dental floss' and the now molded silicone plug slides right on out.  Another quick check in each ear, to make sure nothing is left and we're basically done with the fitting.

NOTE: Having your ears completely filled with silicone is an odd auditory experience, there is minor pressure (from the silicone), silence (obviously) and a hyper awareness of every sound you make, because you hear it all internally, not externally.

The last step is to choose colours, and filter types.  Westone has a huge array of colours - solids, sparkles, etc. I have a pair of very Christmassy candy cane red and white plugs and a swanky pair of black with gold sparkle flecks. You can choose if you want a cord attached (and what colour that is too, though I believe you're limited to black and white only). I highly recommend the cord, coz you don't want to be losing a single plug at a concert.

The filters for the Westones are from Etymotic. There are three types of filter - 9dB, 15dB and 25dB. I suppose technically there is a forth which is a solid plug, but that doesn't really count.

As the plugs are all interchangable, and I now have two pairs, I have ultimately got a set of each filters.

When you're done, these are sent away to Westone for molding. Takes about 10-15 days, and then you will just need a quick fitting check when you pick them up to make sure all is good. Takes about 10mins for that.


In a word, COMFORTABLE. I always struggled with premolded earplugs, especially the conical shaped ones, as according to Melissa, my ear canal is actually tapered, so it narrows closer to my eardrum.

Most commonly, the ear canal is more of a straight tube, so the conical shape usually works pretty well to insert in to a natural depth. I just found I would keep pushing my old earplugs deeper into my ears and they would continually fall out, then irritate my ears.

The custom fitted ones are just that, fitted to your ears. Just slide 'em on in, and they stay there for hours. No getting sore ears. No continually falling out earplugs. Neato.


The main reason I invested in these earplugs, aside from hearing protection, was the way the filters work.

These earplugs are designed to lower the sound pressure that is hitting your eardrum. This pressure is measured in decibels (dB).

The filters in the earplugs are designed to attenuate this sound pressure by either 9, 15 or 25 dB. That is a pretty big range, even though there is only 16dB between them.

Hearing damage can occur at as little as 80dB, depending on the person, and the exposure level, but it's generally accepted that 90-100dB will start to cause serious damage if exposed for around 8 hours. So sustained regular concert going will definitely start to have an impact - back to poor Brian from AC/DC.  Here's a breakdown of noise pressure levels... Industrial noise comparisons

Live rock music is generally in the region of 108-115dB, this is essentially the same as standing 200ft away from an airliner at takeoff speed. It can be more, but not much.  In comparison regular conversation is generally at about 60-70dB (the higher range being more like being in a restaurant).

Interestingly, sound pressure doubles with every 10dB. So live music is actually about 16x as loud as regular conversation. No wonder 2 hours of that will give you a nice ringing for a while afterwards.

So back to the filters. I use 9dB when practicing with my band or when I am at a live show and fairly near the back. 15dB for the average show, and 25dB if I am right up front in a venue. Or watching Dragonforce.  Each one is clear, you can hear the music, the vocals, clearly. I like how they remove the 'distortion' which is your ear drum overloading from the high pressure. I think you hear more of what's actually going on.

The cost

Okay you say, this sounds great, how much? Well the kicker is that these are about $200 fitted. Two hundred bucks? Look at it this way a) how much is your hearing worth? or b) if you go to 10 shows a year, that is $20 a show. And of course it means that the 10 shows you go to next year you can actually hear. :)

Also if you can even put a price on your hearing that isn't astronomically high... I won't even finish that thought.

By the way, I think I have used these earplugs for more than 50 shows so far, so amortised over that range, we're into a couple of dollars per show per ear...

The bottom line

I can't recommend good quality earplugs enough. You will enjoy the music more, have clear, non ringing ears in the morning after a show, and be more confident in protecting your hearing for years to come.  These Westone Concerts are the best I have tried yet.

For more info on them, check out the Westone Concert Product Page

Saturday, March 14

Custom guitar journey - pickups are in!

The pickups have arrived! Excited about this, I think Monique at SF Guitarworks was too, as she emailed me as soon as they had arrived. 

The spec page for these is here on Bare Knuckle's site They are a super hot P90, designed for Matt Bellamy of Muse. The bridge is 10.6kohm and the neck is 9.5kohm. So much more in the PAF humbuckers territory than a single coil. 

Switching is going to be via 3 way toggle (not blade) with the mid position being hum-canceling. There will also be a series option for a thicker sound, on a push-pull and also a bypass. Knobs will be two volumes and a tone (with 0.015 microfarad paper in oil capacitor from Angela).

Friday, March 13

The custom guitar journey - handling the timbers

Well the body and neck materials have arrived at Luttrell Guitarworks! I spent some time with Geoff looking at the timbers and picking out what I liked.

We have a mahogany body, curly maple neck and an Amazonian/Brazilian rosewood fingerboard.

The curly maple blank I chose was very resonant even in it's uncut form - it has a real 'ping' to it when you tap it. It also has really beautiful flame going both lengthwise and laterally across the neck. This will look great once finished.

The rosewood fingerboard overlay I chose is also just a very beautiful example of very straight grain, a lovely chocolate colour.

The mahogany back is very resonant too, with very uniform grain. I think it will look great when finished. Geoff wants to make the control cavity cover from a slice of this too, rather than a piece of plastic. I have of course seen that before. But never even crossed my mind to do. That will be lovely.

The neck build is underway now. It will take a month-6 weeks to finish, as following the build it goes under tension for a while to make sure that it doesn't move, twist etc.

The spec for the neck is 25 inch scale (so right in between the classic Fender at 25.5 and Gibson at 24.75) It's the PRS length which is a very nice combination of roomy but slinky!

It will have jumbo stainless steel frets. Scalloped from the 12th upwards and have the truss road adjustments at the body end, much like a Music Man. No messing about with truss rod covers.

Nut will be graphite and the tuners will be the locking/open back type from Hipshot.

We are going small simple abalone dots for markers on the front and side. Very classy.

Sunday, February 22

The custom guitar journey - choosing the top

Geoff and I sat down last week to talk materials, body and top wood, neck, finger board etc.

After talking this all through, we settled on a Birdseye maple top, mahogany back, curly maple neck, rosewood fingerboard (he's actually trying to find some Brazilian rosewood as it is gorgeous, but hard to find due to it's protected nature to stop over farming).

This week he got some sample images back from his timber suppliers. I think they did a great job in sourcing the perfect maple top for what I am looking for. The first board on the left is what I am thinking, it's got some good even birdseye knotting in it, so up close it looks great. Further away it is a little more understated and I like that a lot.

Anyway all the timbers are ordered up and the project is underway...

More to come.

Friday, February 13

Messing with some of the night modes on my new Panasonic Lumix DMC-GM1

The custom guitar journey

So I am finally taking the plunge and having a fully custom guitar built for me. Been thinking about this for a long time and had many thoughts about what I want it to be.

In the end, I have chosen the awesome Geoff at Luttrell Guitarworks to build it for me. Not only does he run SF Guitarworks, but he has been building some amazing guitars under his own brand for a while. They are beautiful, play fantastically and are totally bespoke to the player.

I am going to blog about the process, choosing the materials, components, the choices we are making and show the journey.

This is a beautiful example of one of Geoff's guitars.

Step 1: What do I want? And can I get it somewhere else?

I really came to the decision to have something built as I want a specification that can't be easily bought of the shelf. That specification combined with the types of materials means that I could either go the build yourself, with Warmoth for example, or go fully bespoke.

Taking the route with Geoff will certainly give me something very special, unique and unlike anything else out there.

So what do I want?
  • Double cutaway
  • Birdseye maple top, satin finished
  • Curly/flamed maple neck, gunstock oil finish
  • Alder or swamp ash body, heavily contoured
  • Rosewood fingerboard
  • Abalone dots
  • P90 high output pickups, most likely from Bareknuckle in the UK
  • Locking machines, probably Hipshots
  • Stainless steel jumbo frets
  • Original non fine tuner Floyd Rose (single locking)
  • Bypass and Series wiring
Does it make sense?

This is an interesting question, and certainly one of the things that Geoff and I talked through. Am I making any stupid decisions or picking things that don't make sense. Luckily the answer to that in Geoff's mind is no. All these choices would make sense, and lead to something that performs very well.

In my next post I am going to start to talk about wood choices, as we should get some cool images back from the timber supplier on neck stock, tops and body blanks.

Winter in CA is a hardship...

Messing about with my new four thirds mirrorless camera.