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Do You Hear What I Hear?: Music editor Ethan Maffey attempts to preserve his ears with technology 

A pair of molded musicians' earplugs have the power to save your hearing when in a loud and ear-ringing situation.

click to enlarge sound-ear-plugs-pic.jpg
Back in May of this year, California band Social Distortion came to Bend’s Domino Room. The lovely  alt-country rocker Lindi Ortega opened the show for the legendary punk band. Toward the end of her set, the diminutive Ortega belted out a surprising note and disintegrated the eardrums of most everyone near the speakers, including myself.

Even after that atom-splitting note from Ortega, I remained in the front row and let Social D further pound my tympanic membranes into a ringing mush. My eardrums took such a beating at that show, they required two days to recover.

I had been thinking about taking action to protect my ears for a while, but stubbornly didn’t want to diminish my experiences with sound-muffling foam earplugs. Yet, as someone who sees over 150 band performances a year, I also couldn’t afford the status quo. The aftermath of that concert was the kick in the ass I needed to finally get serious. According to Bend audiologist Cory Richards, my timing was perfect.

“The brain adapts to small amounts of hearing loss,” says Richards. “So you end up waiting until there is significant damage before you decide to do something about it.”

Richards, who has been a practicing audiologist for eight years and currently works at Central Oregon Audiology, claims that hearing loss is not just for adults any more either.

“According to a study by Hearing Review, the mp3 player boom is causing hearing loss in younger people,” says Richards. “Earbud-style headphones typically cause people to turn the volume up louder than they should.”

Richards also acknowledges that it’s not just about volume, but also the duration of the sound.

“Some sounds can cause permanent damage instantly,” says Richards. “But there are exposure time thresholds for other sounds that can range from a few hours to just a few minutes or seconds.”

For my particular problem, Richards recommended I use a pair of custom molded musicians’ earplugs from Westone.

“Because of the decibel level at a typical concert, you shouldn’t listen unprotected for more than 15 minutes,” claims Richards. “Musician earplugs have special filters that allow non-damaging sounds to get through instead of knocking everything down like foam earplugs do. They have a smoother response.”

I took Richards' advice and had him fit me with a pair of the earplugs in my color choice of blue. Just over a week later they arrived and I set out to test them at a Leftover Salmon concert.

The first thing I noticed about these earplugs is that the custom fit means they are snug and perfectly comfortable. There is no fussing as with foam earplugs. The second thing I noticed was the voices of people talking to me sounded as if I didn’t have earplugs in at all.

When the band started, I was struck by how rich and deep the music was. It was much like using high-end audiophile headphones. The earplugs took the sharp edge off the music and, just like Richards said they would, were responding smoothly to the levels.

Since then I’ve used them at rock concerts, for electronic music, indoors and outdoors, and in all situations they perform quite admirably. Though they aren’t cheap—the pair I have cost roughly $160, those looking to protect their ears at concerts may find the Westone musician earplugs worth every penny. After all, they do the one thing you probably wouldn’t expect earplugs to do at concerts—they make the music sound even better.

Westone Musician Earplugs

Central Oregon Audiology

2698 NE Courtney Dr., Ste. 100, Bend

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