What is the best hearing protection for music and musicians?

When it comes to listening to music, the idea of the most powerful hearing protection being the best for you is a little too blunt and the ideal reality is more nuanced than that. When either listening to music or playing music, the most important criteria is how much the hearing protection distorts the music, usually by reducing the sound levels by different amounts at varying frequencies.

How to identify which hearing protection is best for music and musicians

With hearing protection, you get the single number rating (SNR) of how many decibels it reduces the sound levels by, but that tells you nothing about any variations in reduction at different frequencies. Handily for that, we also have HML data.

Dapper old chap in headphones - even smaller.jpg

HML stands for High, Medium and Low which is a way of splitting the frequency range into three bands.

H (high) - 2000 to 8000Hz
M (medium) - 1000 to 2000Hz
L (low) - 63 to 1000Hz 

So Low is towards the bass end of the scale, Medium is the mid-range and High is the upper frequencies. We can hear beyond those too, but this gives us a good idea of how well a hearing protector performs at each of those bands.

For music, what we want is the smallest difference possible between them.

With hearing protection, you get a set of HML figures, so for example, for the EAR Classic, the HML values are H30, M24, L22. That gives us a difference of 8dB between the low and the highest frequencies, meaning less noise is being knocked off the bass end than the higher pitches, therefore the music will become more bass-oriented, less clear and more muddy-sounding.

Remember, 3dB is double the energy of noise, so 8dB is quite a large difference meaning these plugs do distort music.

Which are the best hearing protection for musicians then?

We have a page listing around 200 types of commonly available hearing protection, along with all the performance data for them. We can use that to sort them by the range in the HML data to identify which have the smallest value and therefore which are the best for listening to music or for musicians.

Protector SNR HML Range Use Approx. Price
Keep Safe Moulded Detectable Plugs 30 dB 0 dB Reusable £0.82
Arco Premium Plugs 34 dB 1 dB Disposable £0.12
Leight Max Lite 34 dB 1 dB Disposable £0.16
Leight Multi Max 35 dB 1 dB Disposable £0.19
Keep Safe Moulded Plugs 29 dB 1 dB Reusable £0.55
E-A-R Ultratech 21 dB 2 dB Reusable £17.50
Uvex X-fit 37 dB 2 dB Disposable £0.14
Leight Max 37 dB 2 dB Disposable £0.17
Arco Essentials Detectable 37 dB 2 dB Disposable £0.34

Out of all those, the Keep Safe Detectable plug is the only one with a range between all its HML data of 0dB, meaning it has precisely the same impact on sound levels at all parts of the frequency range. The others of 1 or 2dB are also good and in practice I highly doubt would be noticed by the wearer. Otherwise the Arco Premium, Leight Max Lite or Leight Max are a great choice.

What about if you want to just reduce the music volume a little rather than a lot?

The 30 dB+ levels above are a good level of reduction, but may be a little too much for some musicians, so what about if you want to just ‘take the top off’ the volume with minimal impact on the quality of the sound? The best choice here then is the E-A-R Ultratech which knocks a low-ish 21 dB off the volume and an unnoticeable 2 dB of a difference between it’s impact on the high and low frequencies. They are a little more pricey but are washable and reusable so can be used for much longer so are particularly suitable for musicians.

What about the ear plugs marketed as for musicians?

Both Flare Audio and EarPeace market their Isolate and EarPeace ear plugs as being targeted at musicians, and charge a very hefty price premium for it, but are they anything special and worth that extra cost?

Protector SNR HML range Use Price
EarPeace (Medium) 17 dB 7 dB
Reusable £18.00
EarPeace (High) 20 dB 5 dB Reusable
£18.00
EarPeace (Max)
26 dB
8 dB
Reusable
£18.00
Flare Isolate 35 dB 6 dB Reusable £25.00
Flare Isolate Pro 36 dB
4 dB Reusable £50.00

The short answer is ‘avoid’.

The EarPeace are middling on sound attenuation, which is good for musicians, but in terms of their impact on the frequency ranges, there are much better ones around. Instead of the EarPeace, buy the E-A-R Ultratech which are the same price, come with a plastic carrying / storage case, have an SNR of 21 so are the same range as the EarPeace, and have an HML Range of only 2 dB, so have much less of a distorting impact on the music.

As for Flare’s Isolate, just don’t. There is no good reason to buy these. They are aimed at high noise attenuation but as the first table above showed, there are many alternatives available which have the same or more noise reduction, and have much less of an impact on music via the smaller range in their HML values. The IsolatePro especially is just silly. If you want a high noise attenuation plug as an alternative to the Isolates, buy the Leight Max plugs which have even more noise attenuation than the IsolatePro, but only a 2dB range in their HML values, and cost around 17p per pair. You could go through nearly 300 pairs of these before hitting the same price-point as the IsolatePro, and I guarantee in that time you will have lost the IsolatePro, or at least had to change the foam tips, which are another tenner a go.