Flare ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO plugs for work
Flare Audio certainly have a very successful marketing department with their new ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO plugs popping up regularly in my various feeds, from their initial Kickstarter campaign through to their finished product, but does this marketing prowess translate into an equally good product?
The ISOLATE plugs are aluminium while the ISOLATE PRO are titanium, otherwise they are the same. There is also a mini version for people with smaller lug holes.
I have two use-cases for these, one for recommending to companies as hearing protection, ranging from heavy industries to the entertainments sector. And more personally for me, whether the ISOLATE plugs are any use as under-helmet hearing protection for motorbikes, and if so, can you still hear in-helmet sounds like music, podcasts or sat-nav from in-helmet speakers? I will split this into two with this initial post looking at their use in the workplace and a separate post looking at their use on motorbikes.
If you are looking for the performance data in dB for the ISOLATE plugs then it is given at the bottom of this page.
ISOLATE plug Summary
To save you wading through the full review and all the data, this summarises my thoughts and conclusions on my ISOLATE PRO plugs.
Marketing comments about the only sound you hearing being via bone conduction or anecdotal comments about what a difference the plugs make are completely nonsense, of little relevance and only measured data really matters. When the requested dB data was provided by Flare, the ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO plugs are indeed shown to be providing a good degree of noise reduction but it has to be said are not leagues ahead of their cheaper competition. For example, the ISOLATE PRO, at £50, gives a 1dB better performance than a foam Laser Lite plug, at 20p. The standard ISOLATE (£25) has exactly the same SNR (the single dB rating) as a Laser Lite plug. With the more detailed HML measurements which focus more on frequency ranges than just the single overall reduction number, the ISOLATE actually performs worse than the Laser Lite plug at low frequencies, exactly the same at the mid ranges and only marginally better at the higher ranges. The EAR Push-In plug though, at around 58p, performs significantly better than both the Flare ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO at all frequencies.
The ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO plugs are washable and reusable while the Laser Lite plug is a 'use once and dispose of it' type. At these prices the ISOLATE PRO has to be reused 250 times to be cost effective against the disposable Laser Lite plug though, without being lost or needing new foam ends supplying which are £9.99 a pack. The cost of these replacements significantly extends the number of reuses needed before the ISOLATE plugs are more beneficial financially. I find this level of reuse to be very unrealistic in normal day to day use by employees. The self-employed will probably keep them going longer but still that levels of reuse seems unrealistic for a lot of people. Up-front cost counts against them then, especially as the EAR Push-In is a strong competitor - as well as being more powerful and hugely cheaper, it is also washable and reusable just like the ISOLATE.
FIT AND COMFORT
I have always disliked in-ear plugs and find they tend to make my ears sore after a while but the ISOLATE PRO plugs I have are better than the cheaper disposable ones in terms of pressure on the ear canal. I think this is because it is a lot easier to get a good fit, with the ISOLATE plugs sitting deeper in the car canal than I manage to get the foam ones to go, and that they do stay in place far better than the foam plugs which I always find work their way loose again. They are comfy then and do work very well (although not uniquely so) but do not exactly 'switch off your ears' any more than other available styles of protection.
ISOLATE PRO VS STANDARD ISOLATE
The ISOLATE PRO seems to offer no significant benefit over the standard ISOLATE plugs, with the 1dB difference in SNR being irrelevant in the face of changes in fit day to day which will give a wider fluctuation in protection levels than this 1dB SNR difference. Having bought the ISOLATE PRO ones I do feel a little silly having seen the data as they are so similar to the standard ISOLATE plugs that in reality the additional £25 has added nothing.
USE AT WORK
They are definitely suitable for use at work but an employer or the self-employed will need to justify the costs when looking at the benefits they give and be sure of their re-use period being reasonably good, or that as they are more comfortable in use than normal plugs meaning employee acceptance of them will probably be better with the ISOLATEs worn more and potential liability issues avoided. In my experience though, realistically this would only apply to very few workplaces.
A benefit I can see is that if someone works in a job where foam ear plugs don't stay in but they cannot wear over-ear ear muffs for some reason then the ISOLATE plugs may help as they do stay in much more securely. If someone does want the ISOLATE plugs though then stick to the standard aluminium ones.
Would I buy them again? Probably not, no. If I did somehow find myself buying them again for use on my motorbike rather than at work, I would definitely not buy the ISOLATE PRO as the additional level of protection is so tiny as to be irrelevant. I do find them very good for wearing on my motorbike as they stay in place very well under the helmet.
They are not a 'revolution in hearing protection' but, granted, are definitely a 'revolution in hearing protection marketing and accompanying pricing' and that does overshadow what is a very good product. The problem Flare have is that the protection offered is, despite the marketing hype, the same as some other foam plugs on the market, even at low frequencies whereas those plugs cost pennies compared to the Flare's ISOLATE's rather excessive and painful pricing.
Unless there is a very specific case where someone cannot wear say the EAR Push-in plug (58p, reusable and beats the ISOLATE on protection levels) and cannot wear over-the-ear ear muffs / defenders, but still needs good hearing protection and finds they are OK with wearing the ISOLATE ones, then they do have some use, (but do not buy the ISOLATE Pro), but otherwise it is impossible to justify either the ISOLATE or ISOLATE PRO as they are just a lot more money for the same or inferior protection levels as that given by products from other manufacturers.
So that was the summary, but if you want more detail then read on:
Initial thoughts on ISOLATE plugs
Before diving into details, I have to admit before purchasing to a degree of skepticism about Flare's claims for the ISOLATE plugs as some of the claims do veer into sounding more than a little influenced by flights of fancy by enthusiastic marketing types rather than solid facts. For example, claims that wearing the ISOLATE plug leaves you listening solely though bone conduction.
This, dear readers, is utter nonsense and nothing more than marketing waffle, and Flare's own data (below) confirms this. No ear plug, or ear muff, will ever give NO sound transmission through it, thereby leaving "no direct sound entering through the ears". This is simply impossible. Companies and research labs spend huge amounts of money trying to create noise-free environments by eliminating all transmission of sound but to date nobody has achieved this. Nobody. If elimination of all sound transmission was possible to do via the few millimetres of metal and memory foam which make up the ISOLATE plugs then this would be truly revolutionary. The claim of 'world's quietest room' bounces fairly regularly between locations. For a while it was a lab in Canada, then it was Orfield Labs in Minnesota and currently it is Microsoft who hold the record for a lab in it's Washington campus which has reached -20dB, which is also the quietest sound ever recorded. But even -20dB is still some noise. Yet Flare claim their ISOLATE plugs mean the user 'should hear no direct sound entering the ears' implying a 100% stop in the sound transmission from a tiny plug. The claim of complete elimination of all sound transmission through the ISOLATE plug itself would be truly magic if it was true. But it isn't, that's entusiastic marketing and best ignored.
It is also worth commenting that Flare make a big deal out of the fact their ISOLATE plugs are made of metal but this is again a bit of misdirection as metal conducts sound. Very well actually. I've done noise assessments on ships where cabins several decks above the engine room, and also well forward in the ship, suffered from a lot of engine noise precisely because the metal floors and bulkheads conduct the noise extremely well. The same is true in factories where non-metal gaskets are often fitted to break runs of pipes and ductwork and minimise noise being transmitted along them. Noise is just vibration and metal vibrates rather well and transmits sound. Flare also claim that metal plugs are a revolutionary approach to low frequency sound and are the best there is for stopping low frequency noise problems. This is not born out by the data where, for example, the Laser Lite plug beats the standard ISOLATE at low frequencies and matches the ISOLATE PRO, or the EAR Push-In ear plug, which is also foam, out-performs both the ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO plugs at low frequencies. The foam EAR Push-In is 3dB better at reducing low frequencies than the top-of-the-range ISOLATE PRO, and as 3dB is a doubling of the sound energy this is significant difference.
So Flare's claims about metal being revolutionarily good is more grounded in the realm of marketing-speak and should be taken lightly, but in use I did find that there was one positive effect as the metal design makes the ISOLATE easier to fit properly than pretty much any plug I've used in the past. Think of Flare as having the marketing prowess of Apple where a mild improvement on something other companies have done for years is described as 'magic'. This doesn't make it bad, just that the marketing can get a little beyond the reality of the product. (Although I always without fail fall for Apple's marketing as well and every year basically hand them my wallet saying 'take what you want give me shiny things', so maybe I just can't resist companies selling shiny over priced things accompanied by somewhat hysterical marketing claims. Silly boy).
Flare ISOLATE PRO Unpacking
Despite my initial thoughts I've been meaning to give these things a try since they popped up on Kickstarter and as they are now available generally I took the plunge and bought some (Amazon). The basic ISOLATE ones are currently £25 and are Aluminium, or it is £50 for the ISOLATE PRO Titanium ones, rather a lot for some ear plugs that just block sound rather than play it. I know it was succumbing to marketing (again, I'm a sucker, I know) but as I had decided to get some then I thought I may as well get the ISOLATE PRO ones to try out.
When they arrived the presentation effort and attention to detail is again very clear with rather Apple-esque quality packaging, which is good for a product costing this much. (Although the foam inserts, right, do look more like a selection of condoms than hearing protectors). However, the ISOLATE packaging is disappointingly low on all-important actual data with no indication of what levels of noise reduction (in dB) the user can expect while wearing them.
The ISOLATE plugs arrive with a selection of foam sections which push onto the end of the metal section, allowing a range of sizes for different users.
The main pack has a set of instructions on the back regarding how to assemble the plug (it is as simple as just pushing your chosen foam section onto the end of the metal part) and importantly how to then fit it into your ear.
I started with the smallest foam units as recommended by the packaging, assembled the plugs and begun wearing them.
After many years wearing a range of standard foam plugs such as the EAR Classic, EAR Caps, Howard-Leight Laser Lite, etc., the comfort of these ISOLATE PRO plugs seems to be better other foam-only plugs I've used, with the metal section having no noticeable detrimental effect and seemingly making them easier to fit.
They certainly do get right into the ear quite simply and stay in without working loose which is a welcome improvement over most plugs.
They are washable for when they come out again.
Flare ISOLATE PRO plugs as protection for noise at work
Interestingly, Flare currently give no SNR, HML or APV values for the ISOLATE range on their website, nor on the packaging of the product itself, so there is no actual data on how much noise attenuation the plugs give. There is a lot of slick design and marketing phraseology but unlike pretty much every other manufacturer of hearing protection, no actual performance data is made readily available. I emailed them asking for this and did receive it back a couple of days later. This is important as without any data it would immediately rule out any use of the ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO plugs for any workplace, including Flare's semmingly-targetted entertainments sector, or the self-employed.
I have inserted the full dB tables below so hopefully if anyone else is searching for this information online it will hopefully start to appear.
If I had access to performance data before buying then I have to say I would not have spent the extra £25 on the ISOLATE PRO model and would have bought the standard ISOLATE plugs. If buying again I would definitely stick with the ISOLATE model and not get the ISOLATE PRO.
How powerful are the ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO plugs?
For initial comparison I will look at the SNR which is the most basic type of data - the single number of dB which represents roughly how much noise reduction a user can expect. With this the figures are:
ISOLATE (aluminium, £25): 35dB
ISOLATE PRO (titanium, £50): 36dB
The extra £25 between the ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO gets you a 1dB improvement which is not great. For double the price then at least double the reduction (which would be 3dB) would seem more reasonable, 1dB is hardly worth it and I can't foresee ever being in a situation where this 1dB is critical. It is also well inside the standard deviation expected in normal use arising from slight differences in fit on any single day so is to all intents, irrelevant.
But, 35dB or 36dB of reduction by the ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO plugs is not to be sniffed at and is indeed a good rate of reduction - fair play to Flare for this. It is not unique to these plugs though and is definitely not the complete absence of any sound passing through the plug leaving you just hearing via bone conduction which the marketing fluff says, but it is still a respectable reduction.
It is worth noting that when choosing hearing protection at work then stronger is not always better. You want the user to be somewhere in the mid-70dB range under the plug and too much protection isolates the wearer and can lead to decreased compliance and also an inability hear alarms, fork lift trucks, conversation, etc. In a lot of workplaces 35dB or 36dB is actually too much protection making these ISOLATE plugs, and others with similar performance levels, an inappropriate choice.
As a side comment and plea to Flare directly - marketing comments about the only sound you hearing being via bone conduction or anecdotal comments about what a difference the plugs make or how magical metal is are of no use for any employer providing hearing protection at work or for a self-employed person. Only data matters so please provide the APV performance tables on your website, or at least the SNR and HML data, and at least put the SNR value on the packets.
Comparison to other ear plugs
How does £50 for your ISOLATE PRO's 36dB of reduction compare to other commonly available plugs though? Some of the most commonly used plugs at work are the EAR Classic from 3M, the EAR Push-In, again from 3M, and the Laser Lite from HowardLeight - the pear-drop looking things below. The Classic and Lite are both disposable types while the Push-In is reusable. The SNR performance data for these are:
EAR Classic (uncorded): SNR 28dB
EAR Push-In: SNR 38dB
Laser Lite (uncorded): SNR 35dB
The ISOLATE plugs at 35dB and 36dB win by a large margin compared to the EAR Classic but when compared to the Laser Lite the ISOLATE is exactly the same while the ISOLATEpro is again only 1dB better. The EAR Push-In foam plug out-performs all ISOLATE plugs though, the big factor here though is the various costs per plug which I will come to in a bit.
When looking at the more-detailed HML data, the differences between the cheaper foam plugs and the ISOLATE plugs is much smaller.
ISOLATE: H35dB, M32dB, L29db
ISOLATE PRO: H35dB, M33dB, L31dB
Laser Lite: H34dB, M32dB, L31dB
EAR Push-In: H37dB, M36dB, L34dB
From this, the 20p Laser Lite actually performs better than the £25 ISOLATE at low frequencies and is exactly the same at the mid-range. The ISOLATE PRO's data is a little better at the low frequencies but only matches the Laser Lite and doesn't beat it.
When looking at the EAR Push-In though the balance swings back in favour of the foam plugs with the Push-In beating even the ISOLATE PRO across the complete frequency range.
The Push-In also has a more even impact on noise with only a 3dB difference between the low and high frequencies whereas the ISOLATE has a 6dB difference. This means the Push-In will give a more natural feeling sound, just at a lower volume, than the ISOLATE - basically the Push-In treats the frequency range more evenly than the ISOLATE. If someone is a musician or working in a music environment then serious consideration should be given to the foam EAR Push-In over the ISOLATE. The EAR Push-In is better for musicians as it has a more even impact on the frequency range than the ISOLATE plugs so will alter the way the music sounds to a lesser extent.
Should you want to look at this in more detail then there is a database of around 200 types of hearing protection on this site which can be sorted by dB or frequency.
There is one huge 'but' here, price. The EAR Classic are around 16p each in packs of 100, while the Laser Lite are about 18 to 20p each if bought in quantities of 100 or more at a time. Both these plugs are disposable so buying in packs is normal for each.
The EAR Push-In, which remember beats the ISOLATE PRO on sound reduction or is better for musicians, costs around 48p, when bought in packs and the EAR Push-Ins are also washable and reusable like the ISOLATE. This is a massive difference to the £25 and £50 costs of the ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO.
The ISOLATE's price seems worth looking at twice then as there is no additional protection to some other styles on the market. With the ISOLATE PRO you are paying around £49.80 for only an extra 1dB of protection compared to the Laser Lite. That has to be a VERY critical 1dB to justify that on performance alone. The ISOLATE PRO has to be reused approximately 250 times to match the per-day use price of the disposable Laser Lite plugs on price alone. The EAR Push-In meanwhile is washable and reusable like the ISOLATE and more powerful, and all at 48p each in packs of 100, or 58p if in a pack of five for £2.89.
For pricing, the EAR Push-In has to win for being far far cheaper, reusable and offering more powerful protection.
ISOLATE / ISOLATE PRO fit
A consistent problem I have with foam plugs is that I find they always cause me pain and always fall out over time. I've worked in noise safety for nudging two and a half decades now (and that is a depressing thought!) so know how to fit these things, but I have never ever got on with plugs. From personal experience wearing the ISOLATE PRO plugs though I can say it is much easier to get a good fit with the ISOLATEs than with cheaper disposable foam ear plugs, and they so stay in place. The closest style of plug I've found to this in the past is the EAR Push-In with their little plastic insertion handle.
These are the first plugs I could actually wear at work for long periods and which are easy to fit properly. I am genuinely impressed by the comfort of these and they are not just comfortable when loose and therefore providing little protection, but unlike most other plugs, for me anyway, are comfortable when being worn properly.
A follow up review of these as hearing protection for motorbike riders is also available and I will spend more time talking about comfort in prolonged used in that as it is even more critical when out of reach under a helmet.
ISOLATE and ISOLATE PRO data
These are the dB performance data tables for the two ISOLATE plugs.
This is the data for the aluminium Flare ISOLATE plug
This is the data for the titanium ISOLATE pro plug
If you are looking for one single dB number as an indicator of performance then the SNR figure is the one you need.
As a note, the product packaging carries a 'CE' mark but this mark has absolutely nothing to do with guaranteeing a large level of noise attenuation, or indeed pretty much any level of attenuation at all. The plugs could knock off 0.5dB and still have a CE mark so please do not take any CE mark as a guarantee of performance.
For reference, this is the source SNR and HML data for the Laser Lite product from Howard Leight's website (if visiting the Laser Lite site you need to do some browser tricks to make sure you get the UK/European data rather than the Yankeeland data - you can tell the difference as if it says SNR then it is for us, while if it says NRR then it is for our gun-totin' baccy-chewin' cousins).
The data below is for the EAR Push-In.