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Best earplugs for live music, concerts, and events
At SoundGuys, we’ve long been advocates of protecting your hearing. Noise induced hearing loss is no joke, and you need to take precautions. Once damaged, your hearing doesn’t recover, after all. If you’re going to be exposing yourself to loud music and the level is outside of your control, earplugs are the best approach to hearing protection. However, the cheap foam plugs you get at the drug store will noticeably impact and degrade the sound quality of what you’re trying to hear, as well as reducing the sound pressure level, and aren’t really good for more than one use.
If you’re not quite ready to make the serious investment involved in getting custom fitted “musician” earplugs, but you want something to wear to see your favorite bands, there are plenty of reusable earplug options out there. Many of them aren’t exactly cheap, so we’ve decided it’s time to bring our industry leading measurement rig into action. We tested a selection of the better known passive, reusable earplugs on the market to see how good they actually are, and below you’ll find which ones we consider to be the best.
Editor’s note: this list was published on March 6th, 2023, and is the first version of the article. Updates will follow as the market changes.
For our top five picks, you can find the isolation charts in each image gallery. You can learn more about how to read our charts here. Note that our test setup doesn’t produce reliable data for this type of test below 100Hz, so that data has been omitted in all cases.
Why is the best all round earplug The Loop Experience Plus?
For our best earplug for live music, we picked the Loop Experience Plus. It has the best versatility by far, having a choice of regular silicone ear tips or a tighter fitting tip made of foam. Loop also provides small circular inserts that fit inside the earplug’s loops to add additional sound attenuation for particularly loud situations. Four different tip sizes are provided to find your best fit.
Loop’s iconic design incorporates an acoustic channel within the loop of the earplug that forms a resonator which increases the effectiveness around the frequencies where our hearing is normally most sensitive (2-3kHz). This means these plugs can really take the edge off loud concert sounds by attenuating the area of the frequency spectrum that appears loudest and is most likely to cause discomfort.
Using the supplied foam ear tips instead of the regular silicone ones adds a significant amount, (roughly 10dB) of sound attenuation across the spectrum, meaning you essentially get a quieter version of the standard Loop Experience sound profile, including a good amount of reduction in the key low frequency region.
The “mute” inserts that Loop provides do nothing below 5kHz, but above that they add between 5 and 15dB of extra attenuation of high frequencies, which can do a lot to reduce the “sizzle” of cymbals in a live setting.
The Groundshaker High Fidelity is the best value
Groundshaker’s High Fidelity earplugs are a flexible grey silicone design that features multiple flanges on the ear tip to achieve the best seal possible within your ear canal. The design also incorporates molded flexible “shark fin” loops, which make the plugs relatively easy to put in and remove.
The Groundshaker earplug design does an unusually good job of reducing low frequencies for a passive earplug. It lowers sounds below 600Hz by between 10 and 20dB. The critical midrange region is reduced by 20dB to 35dB, and high frequencies around 10kHz are muted more heavily, by over 45dB. These would definitely come in handy at loud events, and they’re great for people with auditory sensitivities like hyperacusis, a hearing disorder where sounds are perceived as much louder than they are.
The Etymotic Research ER20 High-Fidelity Earplugs help with bad-sounding venues
Etymotic may well be familiar to SoundGuys readers and those in the personal audio space. It produces some well respected in ear monitors (IEMS), some of which we’ve reviewed in the past. Knowing that the company has some acoustics chops is somehow reassuring when it comes to hearing protection, and the ER20 High Fidelity Earplugs justify that feeling.
What we like most about this ETY-plugs model is that the attenuation doesn’t jump around a lot for most of the spectrum. Attenuation starts at around 10dB at 100Hz, and steadily increases from there up to around 10kHz. It mutes frequencies above 10kHz more heavily (by up to 45dB). This characteristic is useful when you’re confronted by small, lively venues that haven’t been acoustically treated, or where the PA system is being pushed too hard, resulting in lots of high frequency energy that you probably want to hear a lot less of.
The Loop Quiet is the best for loud events
If you search Loop’s website for earplugs intended for music and events, you won’t see the Loop Quiet. In fact, it’s recommended for sleeping, but our testing reveals that it responds very similarly to the Loop Experience Plus with the higher performing foam tips fitted (a product that is recommended for music). If you’re not concerned by the minor aesthetic difference of the Loop Quiet, it could be for you, especially given it’s half the price of the Experience Plus.
Much like our top pick the Loop Experience Plus, the Loop Quiet incorporates an acoustic channel within the loop of the earplug. This forms a resonator which increases effectiveness around the frequencies where our hearing is normally most sensitive (2-3kHz), so they attenuate the area of the frequency spectrum that appears loudest and is most likely to cause discomfort. There’s also some attenuation (up to 15dB) below 1kHz, so low frequency sounds will be reduced too.
The Happy Ears are the most compact earplugs for music
Small and minimal, we like the Happy Ears earplugs for a number of reasons. We like the eco-friendly packaging, we like how easy getting a good seal is, and we like how compact they are when stowed in their fitted case. This earplug only comes in one design, but the company sells additional versions made out of recycled ocean or landfill plastic.
The Happy Ears earplugs do a great job at reducing low frequencies by over 15dB, which increases gently towards the higher frequencies, where it maxes out at over 40dB of attenuation around 8kHz. The attenuation profile also exhibits a “hump” between 2kHz and 3kHz, which corresponds with the ear’s most sensitive region. This is a nice feature to see, as it reduces sounds that can get painful when loud.
What you should know about the best earplug for live music, and what we look for
Earplugs intended for protecting your ears whilst enjoying live music are different from the foam plugs they hand out to help you sleep on the plane, for example. Those basic foam plugs are intended to block your ear canals and let as little sound in as possible. They will make everything sound dull and horrible. However, passive earplugs of all types block (attenuate) higher frequencies far more easily than low frequencies, making everything sound somewhat muffled, like someone talking with their hand over their mouth.
Isolation vs frequency
Reusable earplug makers will often make claims about how their earplugs attenuate all sounds equally (which would be ideal), maintaining a flat frequency response for the wearer—making everything sound perfectly natural, just quieter. Unfortunately, due to the laws of physics, this is actually very hard to do with passive hearing protection. As our measurements show, no one makes this kind of earplug with anything approaching a flat attenuation profile. They’re usually heavily biased towards reducing primarily the higher frequencies.
This is problematic, because generally this will not lead to anything sounding particularly natural, but also because loud low frequencies will do damage to your hearing when they’re allowed to pass through. They’re just nowhere near as noticeable or as painful as loud sounds in the more sensitive region of hearing, which are generally being blocked by typical earplugs.
The best we can hope for is an earplug that attenuates some of the low frequencies, relative to their high frequency reduction. If there is a reasonably even transition across the spectrum, it will still make for a somewhat natural sound when using the earplugs.
The higher the attenuation, the more sounds around you will be reduced in level. This is an important consideration, dictated by the types of events you plan on attending. For example, rock concerts can top out at 120dB (SPL). But, perhaps less intuitively, you should be packing your earplugs to protect your hearing at major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, where stadium noise levels can reach 125dB (SPL) or more.
Keeping in mind that 85dB (SPL) is considered a safe listening level for up to 8 hours in a day, and 95dB is safe for 4 hours, you’d need to attenuate the sound at events like those by 25-40dB, depending on how long the events (or at least the elevated sound levels) last.
Fit and comfort
Fit is of absolute importance. You need your earplugs to form a tight seal inside your ear canals for them to be effective. The charts we publish of our measurements are only close to representative of expected performance if you’re getting a perfect fit with the earplugs.
If you’re going to be wearing earplugs for any length of time—concerts can last hours, after all—you’re not going to want any discomfort. The materials used, the design, and the manufacturing process can all have an influence, even after you’ve found a size that fits your ears.
Ease of insertion and removal
Being able to easily and quickly insert and remove earplugs is an important consideration, too. You don’t want to be messing around trying to get the proper fit when the band goes on and plays the first chord. You also don’t want to have any trouble removing them, as the sensation of having occluded ears can be quite panic-inducing for some people when they don’t want it. Features that reduce the sensation of pressure build up are also beneficial.
Durability, portability, and lose-ability
The whole point of getting reusable earplugs is that they’re, well, reusable. This means looking for durable materials and designs. Small travel cases are a useful inclusion too, as it keeps them in one place and prevents them from getting dirty—introducing dirt or moisture into your ears can cause plenty of problems.
The case should also preferably include a loop or feature to keep it attached to something else. A feature like a neck cord could also help you keep track of the plugs themselves. Dropping an earplug in a mosh pit is always a bad time, but earplugs that are highly visible will make the experience of retrieving them a little easier. Oh yes, and getting something washable is also a good idea!
How we test the best earplugs for live music
Lab testing is the gold standard for determining the efficacy of hearing protection. Our objective test strategy for earplugs is the exact same as the way we quantify acoustic isolation in headphones. We use our B&K5128 test head, which has highly realistic outer ears and canals to best simulate the average user of the earplugs, and we expose it to a calibrated sound field generated by high quality loudspeakers in an acoustically treated environment. Here’s a short YouTube clip that covers the specific details of our process.
Note that our test setup doesn’t produce reliable data for this type of test below 100Hz. For these earplug tests, that data has been omitted in all cases.
Why you should trust SoundGuys on earplugs and hearing protection
The team at SoundGuys is deeply invested in helping you find the best audio products for your needs and budget. We want to share our passion with our readers and minimize the legwork you need to put in. Whether we’re interviewing experts on hearing loss or submerging waterproof speakers, we do what it takes to get to the truth of the matter.
Our team has years of experience reviewing products, conducting lab tests, working in studios, and in the field of journalism. If you’ve wondered if we get paid to favorably review certain products: we don’t. In fact, it’s against the SoundGuys ethics policy to receive any compensation or gift for reviews or spots on our lists.
Frequently asked questions
Earplugs marketed for live music use, also know as high-fidelity earplugs, will generally qualify as musicians earplugs, but many semi pro and professional musicians will go a step beyond off-the-shelf offerings and get themselves a set of custom fitted earplugs that are molded to their own individual ear canals. We’ll be covering this in an article soon!