We try to review a wide range of DJ gear, focusing on some of the more interesting products, rather than Brand New Four Channel Controller Which Now Has RGB Pads 2018. but one area we realised was neglected until recently, is hearing protection. So, we’re always eager to try out new hearing protection products to see how they stack up in the cost/effectiveness chart.
That’s where the dBud Volume Adjustable Earplugs, from EarLabs, come in. Since 2011, the company has been releasing ear protection aimed at water-based sporting activities like swimming and surfing, but with the dBuds, turned their attention to loud music environments. On paper, the dBuds seem like an interesting design gimmick, with the ability to switch between two noise reduction settings. But what about in the real world?
In a nutshell
Affordable earplugs with a novel adjustable volume cut-off slider, extremely portable design, designed for a wide range of environments. Each pair costs $59 (approx £45/€50).
Even before you get to the ear plugs themselves, you’re presented with nicely designed, and easy to get into, packaging, a part of the user experience that is quite often forgotten about. A magnetically locked front flap lifts to reveal all the included parts held in shaped foam under a clear plastic cover. There’s none of that nightmare blister packaging.
In the box, you get the ear plugs, removable elasticated leash, three different sizes of memory foam and silicone tips, and a tiny silicone carry case to keep the earplugs in. The welcome addition of a foam tip option was thanks to a successful stretch goal of $100,000 in their crowdfunding campaign.
Once I’d chosen and fitted the correct tips for my ears (medium foam, in case you’re interested), they popped in like any other ear buds, sitting fairly snuggly in my ear canal. Once in, the slider was easy to change and seemed to have a noticeable effect.
I guess you could say I was firstly impressed.
Features and build quality
Everything about the dBud earplugs gives the idea of elegant design. The entire product, including the plugs, is very small (they aren’t really much bigger than the Flare Audio plugs, or even the standard cheapo foam things), with so plenty of thought gone into making them practical and portable.
For example, the sliders are designed to magnetically stick together so it’s harder to lose one by accident, and when used with the lanyard, they can hang from your neck like a necklace. I’ve even found that when you throw them in the carry case, they’ll snap together making it easier to fish them out later.
No one is going to pretend that earplugs are complex and feature rich. After all, you’re meant to stuff them into your ear hole satisfied that your hearing is safe in noisy environments. But the dBud noise level switching system adds some extra flexibility (and added value) to the ear buds.
People reporting issues with sharp edges causing discomfort in the ear, that will be resolved in the future. I personally haven’t had too much trouble, even with my small ears (as my wife and sister both like to remind me), but I can see how it could get abrasive with other ear shapes. Other than that, the buds themselves feel lightweight, but sturdy enough (they’ll certainly take a few tumbles and knocks). There’s no give anywhere in the casing.
The foam tips are a bit difficult to remove without damaging, partly because they’re tight on the nib, and partly because they just don’t seem to be made of stronger foam. Comparing them to bulk-buy comply ear plugs, it’s easy to feel a difference (though it helps that foam plugs are solid, I’m sure). But having used proper Comply foam tips on other products, there’s definitely a marked difference.
I got a chance to try the dBud earplugs out in a few environments, from blasting music at home, through to resting my eyes on the sofa with the kids milling about, and during a loud set at a club night. Throughout, I was impressed with the practicality of the earplugs themselves, with the fairly low profile staying out of the way of headphones while DJing. This will also really help with using them for sleeping, as they won’t catch on a pillow.
I’m less impressed with the elastic lanyard that comes with the dBud earplugs. It not only feel like it could be sturdier, but the rubbery texture means it is difficult to keep rolled up, and it tends to stick to skin, other objects, and itself, in use or storage. Looking at the early prototypes on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, It looks like the lanyard used to have a nylon band with silicone loops on the end for the earplugs, which was probably more expensive to produce, but I’d imagine better to use.
With a choice of either silicone or memory foam tips in small, medium, or large, you’ll find a suitable comfort for your ear. The memory foam tips will always be better for isolation, but the silicone ones are much less fiddly and last a lot longer. Part of the stretch goal along with the addition of the foam tips was to redesign the spout section that fits the tip, so that it fits standard tips. You shouldn’t have trouble finding replacement foam (or silicone) tips should these break.
I have to give props to EarLabs for including a very portable and simple soft carry case to store your earplugs. Like every other part of the product, the case is in keeping with the brand and feel of the earplugs. You access the contents by squeezing the sides together (as a side note, you can make them talk like Seymore from Little Shop of Horrors by repeatedly squeezing them in time with your voice). The only issue is that due to the way they work, coupled with the silicone materials, the case doesn’t seal up, meaning everything is at the mercy of the loose contents of your pocket.
The plugs are designed with as close to a flat response as possible at -30dB, and an attenuated reduction for speech at -15dB. This means that the frequencies of the human voice are clearer, with the open setting aimed at environments where you’ll be interacting with others, such as bars, or a noisy workplace.
When compared to other earplugs, the dBuds sit where you’d imagine in the group. I A/B tested these alongside my ACS PRO17s, with both the open and closed setting, and was happy with how they filtered sound. With only -2dB difference between the ACS and dBuds in open setting, you can definitely hear the tuned attenuation at -15dB, as well as a significant drop in volume with the closed setting.
It’s important to note that the dBuds have gone through relevant certification in both the EU and the US, and the numbers are pretty close to the advertised decibel reduction, meaning you’ll get the protection you’re expecting.
You’re never going to get a better fit in your ear than moulded ear plugs, so these are best compared to the Flare Audio Isolate, I feel. In fact, EarLabs has very much the same brand/design ethos as Flare, with high quality and spot on product design. Stacked up against the Pro Titanium model, the dBud earplugs are much more versatile, and more ‘bang-for-buck’ at the same price, thanks to the actual noise filtering system and two volume settings.
The bottom line
The discussion about whether to protect your ears is long passed, but the question remains about what’s the best option to do so, and EarLabs have made it a little bit easier. It’s always best to spend the most you can on ear protection, but for many, moulded plugs are just not in their price range. For them, dBuds are a great choice for under fifty quid.
The only real negative points about the dBuds is the somewhat flimsy foam tips, which are too delicate to remove without some wear, the silicone carry case and lanyard, which cause issues in use, and the potentially sharp edges which can irritate certain ear shapes. None of these are huge issues, and most can be either ignored or rectified with third party products if you feel it’s needed.
The price, coupled with being able to switch between -15dB attenuated for conversation, and 30dB flat response, mean you’ve got a decent all-round earplug that won’t break the bank. And the size means they’re so portable you’ll just keep them in your pocket as part of your everyday carry.