Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wearing earplugs in theaters, subways, concerts, everywhere!

The world is a loud and bright place. One would find it hard to see me without sunglasses on outdoors during the day and sometimes at night. That takes care of the light problem. But noise is a bit harder to take care of. Sunglasses are "cool" and accepted attire in the modern world. They are stylish, it's a look, and you just feel cooler with them on. There are only so many ways to plug your ears without something large and weird looking.
Foam Earplugs
As far as I know, there are but two ways to cover one's ears and actually protect them from excessive noise. One is to wear foam earplugs inside the ear canal, and the other is to wear earmuffs over the ear. Maybe I'm a bit self-conscious, but I notice when people wear earplugs because much of the time, they're wearing safety-orange plugs. And being a fellow earplug wearer, I'm more self-conscious. In short, they do not look cool. Earplugs look like hearing-aids -- not "cool". The other option mentioned earlier were earmuffs. I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think they look cool anywhere outside of a construction side.

Let's start over and go over why you may even want to look "uncool" first.

Noisy Locales
The modern world is noisy due to both man-made and natural reasons. On the artificial side, there's heavy machinery, modern conveniences, other people, etc. Take a walk on the street and you'll probably feel irritated by the 18-wheeler zipping by, the motorcycle with the loud pipes, and maybe the street festival with the amplified music. Go watch a movie or concert and the sound might be set loud to enhance the atmosphere, and a restaurant may have 100 separate conversations with everyone trying to be heard. On the natural side, say "hello" to thunder and windy days. Go to a park and there may be a dog barking incessantly, go on a hike and that raging river might muddle your hearing.

Many noises can be avoided and many just can't. If you can't block the source, maybe it's time to start looking after yourself. I won't go into the dangers of loud noises to your hearing since I'm not a doctor or professional, but there are indeed risks.

Why and where do I wear earplugs?
Because of all of the above and the desire to finally take control of my own hearing, I said "screw it" and began carrying earplugs daily. I don't leave the house without them anymore and feel naked when I forget -- there are various pairs lying around my house too.

So, what's bugging me so much?

Starting with my daily routine, there's the subway with its squealing wheels and echoing tunnels. In the traffic filled suburbs, there are the dozens of 18-wheel trucks that zip by only meters away and regular cars travelling at high speeds. On the road, an open window at highway speeds creates a nice deafening thudding. When going to theaters and concerts, the loudness usually feels adjusted so that you "feel" the sound. And they have to make sure the people in the very back can hear -- too bad for people not at the back.

Sound Info on Box of Earplugs
How to look "cool" wearing earplugs or earmuffs
One of the biggest hurdles when I first started wearing earplugs was the fear of looking weird. It's "weird". No one wears earplugs everywhere, right? From the fact that I have never seen anyone but construction workers and subway employees wearing them, that may not be stretching the truth too far. Ya, I'm just paranoid -- whatever. To be honest, I'm still a bit self-conscious about wearing them, especially when first putting them on. During the early days in the theater and concerts, I only put them on when the lights went out.

Earplugs: lighter or darker colours
To make myself feel better, I bought earplugs in duller colours. The ones I get from two common drugstore chains in my city are usually purple and beige. Both are rated at around a 33 dB attenuation level (NRR), which is the highest I've found. If anyone cares or pays attention, they will probably see them. However, think about how big your ear canal is. When I wear them properly and fully inserted, only a small bit sticks out and the diameter isn't that large. I've also had safety-orange earplugs that are larger in size than my purple and beige ones. The orange plugs also had a flared out end, which made them stand out much more even if you ignore the colour.

Earmuffs: headphones
In the modern age, it is now "hipper" to wear headphones with your music device. There are headphones that supposedly block out a significant amount of noise. The model linked should attenuate up to 32 dB (not a NRR, so not comparable). This isn't bad considering that the highest attenuation that I've found for earplugs is 33 dB (NRR rating) and for earplugs is about 30 dB (NRR). I believe closed headphones are usually aimed at offering noise isolation, but certain models block more than others. There are some pretty nice designs out there that should produce good sound and block out noise. Who's to say you're not just listening to your own stuff?

The Consequences: Muffled Noise
The downside to blocking out noise is pretty obvious: everything is quieter. According to PhysicsClassroom, normal conversations are 60 dB and a whisper is 20 dB (unsure of weighting). A 33 dB attenuation of noise at 60 dB would take you down quite a bit -- A or C weighting dependent? Hopefully, you don't get into any conversations with strangers with earplugs on -- it's happened to me many times and I wing it with "excuse me" repeated many times.

And the frequency response for earplugs is usually not flat, which means that different frequencies of sound (e.g. highs and lows) will be reduced at varying levels. That may lead to distorted sound. Going to a theater or concert to enjoy the sound? That probably won't work out that well. In my experience, not having muffled hearing for two months after a concert -- I've done that twice -- is worth the negatives of wearing protection.

Not so Muffled Noise?
Luckily, some people actually need hearing protection and normal hearing at the same time. These people are usually musicians. The result is a market for musician's earplugs.

I bought a pair of these off the shelf Etymotic Research ER20 earplugs and took them to a concert rather successfully. However, they weren't very comfortable for me because they were very large for my ear canals, so I had to push really hard to get them in. And the NRR is lower than a good pair of foam earplugs (i.e. NRR 33 dB) meaning not as much protection may be provided. I used them once at a concert during the opener, which was more folk/acoustic, and then I replaced them with regular, safety-orange 33 dB attenuation earplugs for the main rock group. My hearing was great after I left. Considering the cost, they should be worth a shot just to see how well they work for you. Personally, I will stick with drugstore earplugs until I splurge on custom musician's earplugs.

Yes, it is possible to get custom-fitted earplugs made. They should supposedly be more comfortable while providing fairly good noise reduction. However, my brief googling suggests that the noise reduction still isn't as good as a cheap disposable foam set. Sacrifice for more accurate sound?

Hearing Protection: Sperian L1 Slimline Earmuff Review
Sunscreen: Beating the sun, burning eyes, I hate you.
Usefulness of a Sound Level Meter
UV Beads: How to See Ultraviolet Light Indoors
Going to Theaters / Movies Alone