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Selective Hearing

If you want to enjoy concerts, don’t use freebie earplugs.

Concert at First Avenue
Photo by Annette Shaff

You may have heard: The city of Minneapolis recently passed an ordinance that requires clubs where loud music is played to provide free earplugs to people who suddenly have an urge to protect themselves from themselves.

There is nothing wrong in principle with providing free earplugs at music venues. The only downside, really, is that it robs clubs that already sell earplugs—such as First Avenue and the Triple Rock—of some revenue (for which, in all fairness, they should be compensated).

The apparent logic behind the ordinance is a little strange, though. It presumes that there are people out there who pay to go to clubs and concerts without realizing how loud they are—and, finding themselves trapped in a chamber of sonic horrors, don’t have an extra dollar to spring for earplugs, which most venues will provide, if you ask nicely. It also assumes that a couple of wads of free foam will solve the problem.

My guess is that this brainstorm came about as a result of more parents accompanying their children and teenagers to concerts and suddenly panicking over what the volume is doing to their children’s eardrums. Allowing their kids to listen all day long to excruciatingly loud music through earbuds is potentially far more damaging, but never mind. This ordinance is basically a message from the nanny state encouraging people to “listen responsibly,” which is sensible advice that, like all sensible advice, most people will ignore.

But the concern is understandable. Concerts can be ridiculously loud. And yes, people should take steps to protect their hearing. But—and I speak from years of experience and only a wee bit of tinnitus—shoving cheap wads of foam in your ear canal is not the answer.

Just to be clear, I am pro-earplug. I go to dozens of concerts every year, and I almost always wear earplugs, especially at large venues or in clubs where the sound doesn’t so much bounce around as crash off the walls and rearrange your internal organs. But no matter how loud the music is, I refuse to stuff my ears with cheap foam plugs, because they make everything sound as if I’ve got a really bad sinus infection and just went swimming. Horrible, that is—so bad it’s not worth it.

Because I love music, want to keep my hearing, and still enjoy going to concerts, I solved this problem years ago by plunking down $12.95 for a pair of ETY high-fidelity earplugs (made by Etymotic), which lower the apparent volume but do not affect the dynamic range of the music nearly as much as foam plugs. In other words, the sonic fidelity of the music still comes through, and you can adjust them to filter out as much or as little of the music as you want. I’ve even found that in some cases, these plugs can make shows sound better, because they shave off just the right amount of distortion at the top end, making it possible to hear individual instruments in the mix better. This is ideal, because most people at concerts still want the music to be loud, just not so loud that it’s all white noise and crackle.

Though the city’s ordinance only requires free earplugs to reduce the noise by 12 decibels, most cheap foam plugs are rated between 25 and 30 decibels—and all do one thing really well: make concerts sound bad. My ETY plugs (Hearos also makes a version you can get at Walgreens for about the same price) reduce noise by about 20 decibels, but their true value is that they still allow you to enjoy the show.

So next time you’ve got tickets to a concert, do yourself a favor and buy a decent pair of earplugs beforehand. Or head over to St. Paul, where clubs encourage you to lose your hearing any way you see fit.

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