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Best earplugs 2020: hearing protection for gigs, festivals and playing live

Best earplugs: hearing protection for gigs, festivals and playing live
(Image credit: Vishnu R Nair / Pexels)

While we love spinning vinyl on a cracking turntable, nothing moves us like live music, but over the years we've been learning a lot about how to use the best earplugs to protect our hearing when at gigs and festivals. Why is hearing protection important? Repeated exposure to loud volumes can damage a person's hearing. That's also why your phone has warnings about volume levels when you're listening to music on headphones. So yeah, it's time we started using protection.

Look, we know nothing beats the thrill of standing in front of a band playing at full stage volume, and you might worry that it just, you know, won't feel the same if you wear protection. You don't need to worry, as the best earplugs for hearing protection are designed to safeguard your lugs while letting in all the good stuff. 

That said, not every earplug is made equal. Some are super-comfy for wearing all day at festivals, some protect your hearing to greater levels than others, and some are so freaking good at pumping incredible sound into your ears you'll hardly notice you're wearing hearing protection. And those are the beauties we're focusing on in our guide to the best earplugs. 

We've stayed away from ear defenders as, while they're effective, they're also huge and would look ridiculous at a gig. Nobody wants that for you.

Best earplugs for hearing protection: The Louder Choice

Best earplugs for hearing protection: Flare Audio Isolate Aluminium Earplugs

(Image credit: Flare Audio)

Protecting your hearing at gigs and festivals, and especially if you’re playing an instrument loud, is something you should take seriously, but it’s important that on your quest to save yourself from tinnitus, you don’t completely shut out the thing you enjoy the most: music.

For that reason, our top pick for best earplugs is the Flare Audio Isolate Aluminium. The inclusion of bone conduction into these earplugs is more than a marketing gimmick – we find it genuinely gives us the ability to pick out details in live music which would otherwise be muffled.

For larger shows and if you’re playing in a band, we’d opt for the Fender Musician Series earplugs on account of their low cost and high protection performance. 

Finding the best earplugs for your needs

If you’re looking at earplugs for hearing protection, it’s likely for one of two reasons. Either your hearing is perfect and you’d like to keep it that way, or your ears have taken a battering over the years and you don’t want to make things worse and land yourself with a bad case of tinnitus. 

Whatever your reason, dedicated hearing protectors are a very wise purchase for anyone who loves live music (or works a noisy job). As with the best headphones, most hearing protection tends to fall in one of two brackets: over-ear and in-ear. We’re not going to dwell too much on the differences as they should be fairly self-explanatory, however in our best earplugs guide we’ve, rather obviously, opted for in-ears instead of bulky ear defenders.

Within those two brackets, however, there is a fair amount of difference, and you get what you pay for too. You could put a small amount of cash into something cheap, yet ultimately disposable, or you could invest in something that will see you through many years of gigs and festivals.

A decent barometer of performance comes in measuring the levels of noise a product offers protection from. For example, any ear protection sold in the United States must be tested according to American National Standards (ANSI), upon which it is given a Noise Reduction Rating (NRR).

However, attending a concert with a decibel level of 100dB and wearing 33dB-rated earplugs doesn’t mean the new level is 67dB. No, that would be far too simple! Instead, there’s a formula: deduct 7 from the NRR rating and divide the resulting number by two. This is the amount of protection on offer. 

So, continuing the same example; a 100dB concert would be reduced to 87dB by wearing ear protection rated at 33dB.

What else to look for when buying hearing protection

Once you have an idea of the level of protection you need, you can decide what form you want your earplugs to take. Cheaper models use inferior materials to keep costs low, and they can also lack any kind of filtering, which is something that enables certain frequencies to pass through the earplugs to enhance your listening experience. 

At the higher end, you’ll find interchangeable filters, higher spec materials and custom-moulded models designed to fit your ear canal specifically. Let’s take a look at some of the best earplugs for hearing protection now to see which is right for you.

The best earplugs for hearing protection to buy now

Best earplugs for hearing protection: Flare Audio Isolate Aluminium Earplugs

(Image credit: Flare Audio)

1. Flare Audio Isolate Aluminium Earplugs

The best earplugs overall for gigs and festivals

Launch price: $56.95/£49.99 | Materials: Aluminium, foam | Noise reduction: Not stated

Lets in good amount of detail
Durable build
No noise reduction rating given

Admittedly, there isn’t a huge amount of scope for innovation and technology in the world of earplugs, which is why it’s good to see something new from the Flare Audio Isolate Aluminium earplugs. The innovation comes in the shape of a small aluminium block which is housed within the foam, allowing you to reduce noise levels but still hear detail within music thanks to bone conduction. 

In practice we found this works well, and the fact they are among the smallest plugs on display here meant they scored highly on every count, with the exception of official noise reduction ratings, where the owners are a little cagier. Still, natural skepticism aside, the Isolate earplugs gave us little to be concerned about in real world usage. 

Best earplugs for hearing protection: Fender Musician Series Earplugs

(Image credit: Fender)

2. Fender Musician Series Ear Plugs

The best earplugs to keep you safe from loud volumes

Launch price: $8.77/£7.45 | Materials: Silicone | Noise reduction: 27dB

Ace for standing close to the stage
Budget friendly
Not the softest

Our second entry is from one of music’s more familiar brands. The American-made Fender Musician Series plugs are built to withstand the full force of stage volume, delivering an impressive 27dB NRR. They’re also reusable, inexpensive and don’t make you look like an alien. 

If heavier music is your thing, and the shows you attend are typically loud, then these could be the best ear plugs for you. 

Best earplugs - Vibes High Fidelity

(Image credit: Vibes)

3. Vibes High Fidelity

The best earplugs for not looking like you're wearing any

Launch price: $23.98/£32 | Material: Silicone | Noise reduction: 22db

Slick design
Suitable for all ear sizes
Well suited to loud music
They sell out regularly

The Vibes High Fidelity ear plugs focus on reducing (attenuating) volume, employing special filters to fine-tune certain damaging frequencies. Overall noise is reduced, but without muffling the sound. If you're used to using cheap foam options, you'll know what we mean by 'muffled'. That's not the case with these.

The design and build is super cool too. Once they're in your ears, the low profile and clear plastic housing means you'll barely know they're there, and neither will anyone else.

Best earplugs for hearing protection: Alpine MusicSafe Pro Earplugs

(Image credit: Alpine)

4. Alpine MusicSafe Pro Earplugs

The best earplugs for festival use

Launch price: $27/£21 | Materials: Thermoplastic | Noise reduction: 14.3dB / 15.7dB / 16dB

Interchangeable filters
Differing levels of noise attenuation
Carry case included
Definition gets lost at times

As one of the bigger names in ear and hearing protection, the Alpine MusicSafe Pro ear plugs are always worth checking out. The good news is that they are superb for most applications, with interchangeable filters ensuring differing levels of noise attenuation depending on the situation. 

The kit comes complete with a carrying case, cleaning fluid and a cable to hold them safely together, making this a pretty compelling package. 

Best earplugs for hearing protection: Eargrace High Fidelity Earplugs

(Image credit: Eargrace)

5. Eargrace High Fidelity Earplugs

Enjoy good live sound without damaging your hearing

Launch price: £15.99/$18.99 | Materials: Silicone | Noise reduction: 23dB

Superb value
Blocks out high pitch noises too
Durable carry case included
A tad uncomfy during longer use

Look on any large online retailer and you’ll find countless, almost identical models but the Eargrace High Fidelity stand out for a number of reasons. First among them is the combination of attenuation filters, which ensure you hear the full musical frequency spectrum but at a reduced volume, and a number of handy accessories like a case, cleaning brush and connecting cord. 

We doubt they’d last years of festivals without falling apart, but as an entry point into hearing protection at a sensible cost they’re easy to recommend.

Best earplugs for hearing protection: EarLabs dBud

(Image credit: EarLabs)

6. EarLabs dBud

These mid-range earplugs deliver the perfect blend

Launch price: $45/£40 | Materials: Silicone/Foam | Noise reduction: 11dB / 24dB

Three eartip sizes included
Two settings for noise reduction
Built-in acoustic filter
Not much

Sitting a step above the cheap and cheerful models, yet not quite in the high end, comes the EarLabs dBud earplugs. We liked the combination of both foam and silicone buds, in a range of sizes, meaning you can find the perfect fit for you easily. 

Overall construction and durability is high, meaning the dBuds could feasibly last a few years of shows and festivals before they need replacing. 

Best earplugs for hearing protection: Mpow Foam Ear Plugs

(Image credit: Mpow)

7. Mpow Foam Ear Plugs

The best earplugs for fair-weather gig-goers

Launch price: $13.99/£10.99 | Materials: Foam | Noise reduction: 32dB

60 pairs for a small price
Disposable and hygienic
Good level of protection
Not great for the planet

As a very low-end option, the Mpow Foam Ear Plugs could be handy to keep in the car for use in emergencies. A pack contains 60 pairs, and each offers a highly respectable 32dB of protection from external noise. 

We wouldn’t advocate them as a long-term solution, but as a handy back-up you could do a lot worse than invest in a pack. 

Best earplugs for hearing protection: Etymotic Music Pro Earplugs

(Image credit: Etyomic Music)

8. Etymotic Music Pro Earplugs

Great active hearing protection, but it comes at a premium

Launch price: $350 / £269 | Materials: Not stated | Noise reduction: 9dB / 15dB

Auto-adjust hearing protection
Provides two levels of protection
Case, cleaning kit and neck cord included

At the top end of the line-up we have the Etymotic Music Pro active ear plugs. These employ an electronic circuit which automatically adjusts to changing sound levels. In practice, this means that noise below a certain level passes through freely, but then if the plugs detect a raised volume level they spring into life. 

Yes, they are the priciest models on display here, but with them comes a level of technology and smarts that the other models can’t compete with.