Wednesday, August 3

Review - Westone Concert Custom Earplugs


Dragonforce's Herman Li and Sam Totman (from Wired.com)
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.

Fitting


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.

Wearing


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.

Performance

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

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