Hearing loss, damage and permanent ear problems such as tinnitus are serious issues that don't rear their heads until they're beyond the point of repair. You can protect your ears without sacrificing sound if you pick up a pair of filtered earplugs.
Unfortunately, humans tend to make a habit of spending time in very loud environments, such as concerts and nightclubs, which are particularly popular among young people. Prolonged exposure to anything above 85 decibels (dB) can lead to permanent hearing loss, which sounds high, but that's the volume you can expect among heavy city traffic. Clubs and concerts typically operate at around 100 dB, which can start to cause damage after just 15 minutes.
Disposable foam earplugs have been an answer to extreme volumes for decades, but they're designed to cut as much sound as possible, leaving you with little more than muffled bass when out and about. Filtered earplugs, however, don't just cut the noise – they also claim to retain audio quality and clarity, making them ideal for social situations. They're quite popular among concertgoers, as they're designed to let the songs pass through without the volume.
- Nightclubs and music festivals
- Band rehearsals and performances
- Sports events at large stadiums
- Similar large-scale events in halls with significant reverb (echo)
However, filtered earplugs are no substitute for standard earplugs when you're around construction sites, heavy machinery, explosions (e.g. fireworks and shooting ranges) and so on.
It doesn't take much to damage your ears. In fact, you'd be surprised at how loud some day-to-day activities are, and the impact that these can have on your hearing. Volumes below 75dB are considered safe – these include hanging around the house, outdoor picnics and dinner parties with a handful of people. Damage can start to occur around 85dB, aka the volume of most vacuum cleaners and heavy traffic. As volume increases, safe exposure time shrinks while the risk of hearing loss increases.
Other environments and machinery that can damage your hearing without protection include:
|Source||Decibel (dB) level||Safe exposure time|
|Using an electric drill||94||60 minutes|
|Riding a motorbike||97||30 minutes|
|Pop/rock concert||103||7.5 minutes|
|Ambulance siren||109||Less than 2 minutes|
|Jet take-off||130||0 minutes|
Standard and filtered earplugs reduce the level of decibels going in, extending the safe exposure period. Although these earplugs can prevent hearing loss, they won't provide total protection, particularly during prolonged exposure. If you were to wear a pair that reduces volume by 15dB in a 100dB environment such as a concert, you're still within the range where permanent hearing loss can occur during extensive or repeated exposure. Earplugs are not the solution to the problem of excessive noise, but a good quality pair can be a cost-effective part of the solution.
The NOISE (Non-Occupational Incidents, Situations and Events) database is a great government resource that lists the decibels and safe exposure period for a number of activities and environments.
Filtered earplugs fit into your ear like a pair of in-ear headphones. The material forms a seal around the canal, while filters reduce the volume. There are two variations available: active and passive.
- Active: Use a tiny inbuilt microphone to retain sound quality by analysing the environment to reduce specific frequencies, similar to noise-cancelling headphones.
- Passive: Rely on special designs to absorb and filter volume by applying reduction at specific frequencies, in any environment.
Active earplugs can theoretically deliver superior sound quality, but at a high cost. Passive models may not sound quite as good, but they should suit most average ears at around half the price or less, and you don't have to buy batteries.
Filtered earplugs reduce volume by the number presented on the package, they do not drop decibels to that amount. For example, earplugs rated at 12dB will drop the volume in a 100dB environment (such as a concert or club) to 88dB. This number is called an attenuation value.
Unfortunately, working out the exact attenuation is tricky, as different countries have different standards and ratings. Most packages display at least one of these systems, as they're typically manufactured outside Australia:
Noise reduction rating (NRR) example.
Noise reduction rating (NRR): A unit of measurement approved by the American National Standards Institution (ANSI) in accordance with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Must be printed on earplugs manufactured in America.
Single number rating (SNR): An average based on decibel reduction figures measured at high, medium and low frequencies. Brands that use an SNR usually include decibel measurements from each frequency level as well. Required for earplugs manufactured in the European Union and surrounding countries.
Single number rating (SNR) example. In this instance, SNR attenuation differs depending on the earplug size (small or medium
Is there an Australian standard?
While we do have a standard that applies to all earplugs (AS/NZS 1270), which is displayed as an SLC80 rating (see below), manufacturers aren't required to put this attenuation value on the packet (unless they wish to demonstrate compliance with the standard).
Sound Level Conversion (SLC80): The testing regime set out by the Australian standard requires that test subjects fit earplugs based on package instructions (without professional assistance) to determine their effectiveness in the hands of the average person. This means there's lots of variation in the results, and testers apply a correction to ensure that the stated degree of noise reduction is obtained on 80% of occasions. In other words, 80% of users should experience the stated SLC80 decibel reduction.
As you can probably tell, attenuation values can be a confusing mess. As most models are manufactured overseas, you're unlikely to find any SLC80 information on the box. Most will display:
- An NRR or SNR
- An NRR and SNR
- A third rating that doesn't appears to be arbitrary, in addition to an NRR or SNR.
The Crescendo DJ earplugs for example, have an NRR rating of 10dB, an SNR of 17dB, and an unspecified rating of 20dB.
Because of this, we worked with the National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL) and the HEARing Cooperative Research Centre (co-founders of HEARsmart), to conduct an SLC80 test on our behalf while calculating their own SNR. These ratings are listed in our test.
According to NAL, you can use the results based on SLC80 or their SNR as your guide. We suggest comparing the NAL SNR attenuation with those on the packages. If the manufacturer only displays an NRR rating, look at our SNR test results instead.
We also found that stated SNRs on the packaging were within a few decibels of the SNR results from NAL. If you're considering a brand we haven't tested, subtract a couple of decibels from the stated SNR and you'll be in the Australian standard ballpark.
Though all of the models in our test have been manufactured overseas, some have local distribution and can be purchased from Australian websites or bricks and mortar stores. All other brands ship their products worldwide. Products purchased locally are generally easier to return in the event of a problem, and shipping is typically cheaper.
- SLC80 rating if available.
- An SNR or NRR at the very least (both is preferable).
- Attenuation of at least 10dB. Anything less will have limited impact.
- Attenuation that suits the environments you frequent. If you regularly go to concerts for example, brands with an attenuation below 15dB won't drop your ears into the much safer 85dB zone.
- An included carry case.
- A pair that fits properly. These earplugs will not perform well if incorrectly fitted. Use in-ear headphones or standard earplugs as a guide, especially if you have a large ear canal.
- Models that don't shift during movement such as dancing or jumping. See the movement score in our test for these results.
- Models that retain sound quality and conversation clarity when in use. See our test results for this information.