Save your ears, savor the detail
I've been a gigging drummer for over 30 years. But it's only in the last few that I've gotten serious about hearing protection. If I'd tried Etymotic's Music PRO electronic earplugs sooner, it may have been a different story. (And I really wish it had.) Are these high-fidelity musician's plugs for you? Read on for my hands-on review.
A 2-position switch lets you select between 15 dB of protection, or 9 dB of protection with a boost for quiet sounds.
Problems with passive plugs
I've used passive earplugs a lot over the years. But there are the hurdles that kept me from using them on a regular basis until recently.
Hurdle #1: passive plugs can drain the life, color, and fun out of the music, making it harder to feed off of the energy onstage. Music is all about tone, and when you can't hear it, you feel out of touch.
Hurdle #2: it's harder to hear the quiet, unamplified stuff. Like when your lead singer turns around between tunes to change the set list on the fly. Or, say, in the rehearsal room, when your bandmates are discussing arrangements (or whatever) off the mic.
Etymotic's electronic solution
Before I get into the details of my recent "test drive" with the Music PROs, here's a quick look at exactly what they do.
These earplugs use an in-ear design to naturally attenuate the sound in your environment. They also contain tiny, high-fidelity microphones that pick up that sound. Built-in drivers feed that sound into your ears, but there's an intermediate processing step, wherein lies the Music PRO's secret sauce.
Built-in processing lets the detail come through, safely
The built-in processing is like a sentry keeping watch over the sound that's picked up by the microphones in the earplugs. When the sounds are quiet, it lets them pass right through. But when the volume starts to rise to a level that could be harmful, the system gradually applies reduction to keep your ears safe.
Selectable boost for quiet sounds
The Music PROs actually have two settings. The default setting applies 15dB of sound reduction gradually as needed. The other mode actually raises the level of quieter sounds, while also providing 9dB of reduction for loud, potentially damaging sounds.
A range of selectable ear tips helps you find a secure, tight, comfortable fit.
Hands-on in the practice room
I decided to test out the Music PROs at lower volumes first, using an unplugged acoustic guitar. I tried both the default 15dB protection mode as well as the 9dB protection/boost mode. In both cases, my Taylor guitar sounded like my guitar, with its familiar balance of bass richness and top-end "snap." The boost setting definitely made upper mids and highs more distinct, a difference I also noticed rather strikingly when I heard people talking.
Cranking up to full volume
It was time to get behind the drum kit to see what these earplugs could really do. I played with them for a total of about five hours, over two consecutive nights of rehearsals with loud rock'n'roll bands. That was enough to tell me that I need to invest in a pair.
Within the first four measures of the first tune, I was struck by all the "colors" in the different cymbals on the kit. And the range of dynamic possibilities on the snare drum, from a whisper to a "crack." I mean, I hadn't forgotten that those things were there, but I just hadn't experienced them in my own playing for so long. I had gotten so used to wearing passive earplugs, that it was like finally seeing color TV again after years of watching black & white.
No pain, and not too much gain
When my buddy cranked up his notoriously loud Fender guitar amp, the bass player arched his eyebrows and shot me a worried look. But there was no discomfort for me, and I could still hear the details in his playing and the nuances of his tone.
I found the earplugs' boost mode to be of the most use when people were talking off the mic between songs. For situations like that you can just reach up and flip the two-position switch, then flip them back when it's time to start the next tune.
Yours truly, drumming at Crutchfield's Employee Appreciation Day, wishing I'd had earplugs....
A note on the batteries
The earplugs use Size 10 zinc-air hearing aid batteries, which have a limited lifespan. There's an 8-pack of these batteries inside Etymotic's packaging, and more replacements are readily available for relatively cheap. These things are really tiny. Users with larger fingers may find them a bit of a challenge to work with.
The Music PROs don't have an on/off switch. So in order to get the most life out of the batteries, you need to remove them from the battery compartment, or leave the battery compartments fully open. The included protective carry case allowed me to pull the batteries out and store them along with the earplugs between practices. The user manual indicates an average lifespan of about two weeks with a set of batteries, if they are removed between uses.
The literature also says that the earplugs will emit a warning tick when the batteries are low, which gets faster as the power drains. Bringing along extra batteries for performances and rehearsals is recommended.
The bottom line
Compared to passive earplugs, the Etymotic Music PROs are an absolute treat to play with. I imagine they would also be fantastic to use as a spectator at loud concerts. The included ear tip assortment includes a variety of foam and silicone options to help you find a comfortable, secure fit. That fit is really important if you want to get the full protection that this system offers for your ears.
Yes, compared to passive ear protection, these electronic earplugs are definitely an investment. But aren't your ears worth it?