Records are great, but live music has the ability to move us so much more… particularly when it’s being pumped out at full stage volume in front of a rabid crowd. The only problem is that repeated exposure to loud volumes can damage our hearing, which is why we need to talk about hearing protection and the best earplugs for the job.
There’s a huge variety of hearing protection devices on the market, including ear muffs and ear defenders, as well as the best earplugs featured below, and they each protect your hearing at different levels – and do so in different styles and for different budgets. Because while ear defenders are effective, they are also massive and would look ridiculous at a gig. Earplugs, on the other hand, are discreet and comfy.
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Best earplugs for hearing protection: The Louder Choice
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: what do you need?
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 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 researching 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
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
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.
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
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.
3. Vibes High Fidelity
Ideal plugs for not looking like you're wearing plugs
Launch price: $23.98/£32 | Material: Silicone | Noise reduction: 22db
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.
4. Alpine MusicSafe Pro Earplugs
The best earplugs for festival go-ers
Launch price: $27/£21 | Materials: Thermoplastic | Noise reduction: 14.3dB / 15.7dB / 16dB
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.
5. Eargrace High Fidelity Earplugs
Enjoy good sound without damaging your hearing
Launch price: £15.99/$18.99 | Materials: Silicone | Noise reduction: 23dB
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.
6. EarLabs dBud
These mid-range earplugs deliver the perfect blend
Launch price: $45/£40 | Materials: Silicone/Foam | Noise reduction: 11dB / 24dB
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.
7. Mpow Foam Ear Plugs
The best earplugs for fair-weather gig-goers
Launch price: $13.99/£10.99 | Materials: Foam | Noise reduction: 32dB
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.
8. Etymotic Music Pro Earplugs
Ace active hearing protection, but it comes at a premium
Launch price: $350 / £269 | Materials: Not stated | Noise reduction: 9dB / 15dB
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.