Hearing Protection

This information is widely available on the Internet but it’s spread out across multiple websites. I’m putting this here to summarize a bunch of different information I’ve come across.

When should you protect your ears? (Based on OSHA guidelines)

Here are the limits where hearing loss begins to occur. With each increase of 3 dB the time before hearing loss occurs is cut in half.

8 hours at 85 dB
4 hours at 88 dB
2 hours at 91 dB
1 hour at 94 dB
1/2 hour at 97 dB
15 minutes at 100 dB

A rock concert is typically rated at 110+ dB. At that sound level hearing damage can begin in less than 1 minute and 45 seconds.

With the prevalence of smart phones you don’t need a specialized dB meter any more. Although, you can get one for about $30. Any smart phone can run a dB meter and most of them are accurate to within +/- 2 dB which is plenty accurate to make a decision on whether you need to use hearing protection.

I recommend the NIOSH Sound Level Meter App.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a division of the CDC and they had this app developed to their specifications. I have read far more about the multi year studies that lead to this app than any reasonable person should. It’s fully featured and completely free, no ads, or in app purchases or anything else. After all that, they only released it for iPhone.

So, I actually use this… SPL Meter
It’s fine. Just typical of what you would expect of a free app filled with ads.

This next bit is about NRR (Noise Reduction Rating) which is specific to the US. The EU uses a different rating system called SNR (Single Number Rating). Which I’m not going to get into at this time.

Hearing protection is rated with an NRR (Noise Reduction Rating) number.
This number is measured in dB (decibels).
Unfortunately, the NRR that gets listed is something only achievable in a lab.
To find the expected real world level of protection, the hearing protection industry uses this formula: (NRR -7) / 2

An NRR of 27 calculates at (27 - 7) /2 = 10 dB reduction in noise

If you combine both IN ear and OVER ear protection it is not cumulative. When combining both you only add 5 to the highest NRR.

Because of this, using OVER ear protection of NRR 25 combined with IN ear protection of NRR 30 gives a total of NRR 35 and not 55.

An NRR of 35 calculates at (35 - 7) /2 = 14 dB reduction in noise

The highest rated non-electronic OVER ear protection has an NRR of 31 dB.
3M PELTOR X5A Over-the-Head Ear Muffs, Noise Protection, NRR 31 dB

The highest rated non-electronic IN ear protection has an NRR of 33 dB.
3M E-A-Rsoft Yellow Neons, NRR 33 dB

If you come across a product claiming a higher NRR than these, they are either using the EU SNR numbering system or you will need to read very carefully to figure out what the real story is. According to everything I’ve read the only way to get better protection than what I’ve listed above is to move to using electronic noise canceling devices.

Alright, that’s all I’ve got. Please chime in with what you’ve tried, what you liked, what you hated, or whatever your experiences have been.


@eric.kiser: first, awesome to collect all this information - great to have it in one place!
Second: pretty nerdy, too! :grin:
Third: are you ever sleeping???

OK, having heard @JoshFossgreen and others mention hearing protection, and having thought about this some more, OF COURSE, I went down that particular rabbit hole as well. Only, I haven’t seen any rabbits yet, and only a bit of rabbit droppings, as it were… so, still some work to do!

What I did find is that there is a difference between hearing protection for “industrial” use and those designed for musicians, sound people, DJs etc. While the former really wouldn’t want to hear anything from that jackhammer or Boeing engine, the latter still want to and need to hear as much as possible, albeit at a much reduced volume.

Hence, volume reduction is but one parameter; sound quality and bearing comfort are almost as important. Here, the high end solution is apparently to go to your hearing aid specialist and have them custom form (or 3D print) fittings for your ears, which then can accommodate different filters that take the sound/noise down 5, 15, 25, etc dB.

Before doing that, I think there might be a few cheaper solutions out there worth trying, such as these, I guess:

Will keep exploring…


I’ve known people that swore by Etymotics. Never used them before myself.


@eric.kiser - just showed this list to my wife (who always says that I don’t hear her), and who says that I should have started wearing hearing protection years ago. I told her, “I did, you just wouldn’t let me wear the damn things when you were around me these last 43 years together!!”… :joy::rofl:


I’m glad to do it! I’ve been trying to figure out where to start a thread on this for awhile.

Yes. The nerd is strong in this one.

My sleep schedule is erratic, at best. I am surprised that it’s pronounced enough that you noticed through my forum posts.

As for, industrial versus music related protection, Yes! Right on! I just started with the industrial protection to give people an idea of what the upper limits were and to be careful of overblown claims.


I have friends and colleagues in the US - so, I am always at least aware of the time zone difference… and so, I couldn’t help but notice that you replied when most law-abiding citizens should be sleeping (like, say, 4 am on the east coast) :grin:

Of course, I don’t want to make fun of people who can’t sleep - I know the feeling and it is a curse indeed!


Great stuff @eric.kiser! And yes @joergkutter, sound quality definitely matters, that’s why they make custom gear for musicians. This is what I use:

(I didn’t buy them through the website, I got fitted by an audiologist who ordered them for me, so not sure how that works)

The ER20-style plugs are okay too, but there’s a huge difference in audio quality, especially clarity for bass stuff.


@JoshFossgreen Do you happen to know what filter strength your using?
The website listed 9, 15, and 25.

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I would assume he has all of them (for different occasions), as they are swappable in the earpieces.

By the way, I ordered these babies for now (got a good deal on them, and for sure can’t afford the custom made ones just yet):

Will report back once I get them and have tested them!

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A couple months back I moved to using open-backed headphones to help relieve sonic pressure while still having good bass tone.

I love my Sony MDR-V6 pair to death but it has a couple issues that made me want to start thinking about alternatives. First, it’s an excellent pair of studio monitors and as such you actually hear too much - every string slide, every movement of the fingers, you can hear them in those 'phones, even after EQ. It’s what they are for but it makes them a bit less suited to sounding like an amp. Great for nitpicking though.

Second, though, it’s closed back, and with the bass at a decent volume, I was getting a bit of ear fatigue and even a little ringing after long sessions. That’s no good. So, time to look for an alternative.

I settled on these:

and am very happy. They sound great, have excellent frequency response, and are very comfortable. The open back gives me noticeably less ear fatigue and a very open soundscape - it sounds more like an instrument in an amp. It’s less boomy at the same volume but that’s ok.

The only bummer is that since they are 250ohm, to drive them, you really need a headphone amp. My DAI did just OK with them but they sounded a lot better with a cheap Audio-Technica dedicated amp.

Both AKG and Audio-Technica make excellent looking and inexpensive open-back headphones in the same price range. I chose this one for the flat bass response curve, which is as flat in that range as the MDR-V6.

I’ve noticed a lot less ear fatigue and no ringing after moving to open-back. Plus I can hear stuff around me, as there is no isolation. I’m liking them a lot.


@joergkutter Those are pretty cool. I’ve never seen them before. Looking forward to your review.

@howard I’ve been struggling with the question of buying open back versus closed back headphones. Closed back seems to give more isolation so I don’t have turn what I’m listening to up as loud. After reading your review about ear fatigue, I’m seriously second guessing that now.


I’d recommend trying both.

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I have tried lots of different headphone sets but without taking them home and spending time with them it’s hard for me to tell. I guess it really comes down to dropping the cash and making sure there is a good return policy in place.

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The nice thing is, you can get basically top tier studio headphones in the $75-150 price range and spending more than that yields rapidly diminishing returns. Yes, Sennheiser HD600s are super nice, but they are not three times as good as DT-990s :slight_smile:


I swap in 9’s and 15’s, 15 for louder stages and 9’s for quieter gigs. Have never needed 25’s (to my subjective perception), even with a drummer with no dynamic range (read: LOUD).

Those dBuds look interesting @joergkutter, please report back!


OK, I promised to report back on those dBuds.

The good parts: I got them for about USD 35 and they work pretty much as advertised. They take the level down without making everything sound as though listening through a sock. Also, there are two material options and three sizes for the earpieces to adjust to (hopefully) most ears and preferences. They were comfortable to wear and there is a string that keeps them together, so when you take them out, they don’t “disappear”. A nice little touch is that they are slightly magnetic, so you can put the dangling earpieces together and it looks like you are wearing a necklace - but, more importantly, the whole arrangement is unlikely to fall accidentally off your neck/shoulders and get lost.

The not so good parts: they do take out some of the hi mids and trebles. This is good for the ears, I guess, but takes a little getting used to (and might tempt you to overcompensate via the settings on your bass/amp/effects).

All in all, I found they do a great job considering the price tag, and I felt the “sound” in our rehearsal room was more transparent (especially the bass :grin:) and less ringing, and overall much easier on my ears.


@joergkutter Thanks for reporting back.

Has anyone tried these tree shaped ones? Not these specifically but this type. I’ve heard they can be very uncomfortable since they can create a suction in the ear that sucks them deeper in and makes them even more uncomfortable to take out.

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No, haven’t tried these… and, from your description, I don’t think I will want to risk a trip to the ER to get some silicone removed from my ear canals :grin:

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That’s why it’s still worth it to get custom molded one for $250ish, you’ll never get as good sound quality with cheaper ones. But those seem cool, for what they are.

I haven’t tried those Westones @eric.kiser, but I have experience using these for about a year of touring -

They work great for what they are, which is somewhere between foam earplugs, and nice custom ones. I still keep them in my amp bag as spares just in case.


Did you have any problem with them creating a suction in your ears?