DJs live or die by their hearing. I watch DJ sets online and wince at the thought of my fellow selectors stood with their heads almost in these huge speaker cabinets. Having recently started a club night*cough* shamelesspromotion *cough*, with a custom built (and very loud) PA, I’ve been giving a lot more thought to protecting my ears. Writing this story got me to book a hearing test to see where I’m at with my ears (incidentally, I have OK hearing, with some loss at 500Hz in my right ear).
It’s quite handy then, that Boutique speaker/headphone company Flare Audio recently ran a Kickstarter campaign to launch their ISOLATE range of ear plugs. Having been impressed with the R2Pro IEMs early last year, Mark was sent a pair of the ear plugs to try out. Taking minimalist styling to heart, they’re designed around a solid metal body, either aluminium or titanium, with squishy foam tips that expand into your ear hole.
The ISOLATE set comes with a nice velvet bag and a several pairs for squishy tips of various sizes. They’re nicely engineered, with a little groove around the end to grip. There’s no string attachment included, but I’m sure you could tie your own thread into the groove if you needed to…
The Kickstarter page claims:
ISOLATE® technology works by a revolutionary approach in the materials used. Noise is blocked by a dense material suspended in soft memory foam to isolate it from the effects of conduction. The result is total direct noise isolation for your ears for the first time ever without any electronics!
Instead of just doing a review of the Flare Audio plugs, I thought I’d stack them up against a bunch of other ear plugs we scavenged from the DJWORX studio and my office drawers. As a bassline [ayyyy] measurement, some plain orange squishy-foam plugs, my own set of ACS ER20s, and a set of V-MODA Faders VIP (pink).
Foam earplugs – £3 for 20 pairs
Brightly coloured so you don’t lose them (a bit like those blue plasters they use in the food industry), the trusty ol’ foam earplug is a step up from sticking your fingers or tissues in your ears. They’re great if you’re willing to completely compromise on audio quality, a bit like Apple ear buds, I suppose. The foam plugs are easy to fit in the ear, even if they’re rather noisy when you move your head, or they scrape against another surface. Each set comes in its own non-resealable plastic bag, for easy transport and storage.
At least they isolate fairly well?
ACS ER20 – £15 approx
Unlike foam or the Flare Audio ear plugs, which just block sound out, the ER-20s have a system to allow in sound, but use a filter to lower volume across the board by around -19dB. They are a compromise between custom moulded pro-plugs and regular options. As DJs we need to rely on the filtering to be as flat as possible, so that what goes into the plug comes out, just not as loud.
My personal set of plugs, I’ve had these for a while now. They’re not the most comfortable in my ears, but they are very snug and secure. This means they’re fixed in while DJing and one less thing to worry about. The ER-20s are also a one-size-fits-all ear plug. They have a sort of ‘barbed spear’ tip that pushes in until it’s snug, meaning no changing out tips like the Flares and V-MODAs. This is great for convenience, but means they’re less than comfortable for long use.
The stripped down design of the ER20s keeps things super simple, with just a short plastic tube poking out of the ear, meaning there’s little of the plug to catch on your headphones, and that sound from scrapes and knocks don’t really channel into your ear.
My only issue with them is that they claim to be fairly transparent with their audio filtering, but I’m not super convinced. Audio certainly sounds different, but by how much is hard to tell from simply lowering the volume. Overall, I’ve been happy enough with the compromise between comfort and audio quality to stick with them over other options.
V-MODA Faders VIP – £15 approx
Similar to the ER-20s, the Faders don’t just block out sound, the filter it, though only by -12dB. They come with several colour coded tips and a string you can screw into each plug to hang them round your neck. The V-MODA website is a bit vague about how effective these ear plugs are at filtering. You’d at least expect a chart to demonstrate what they can do, but we’ll have to take their word for it.
It might be my weird mutant tiny ear canals, but I struggle to find a comfortable position for the Faders. They’re either in too far and sound is muffled, or they’re sat too far out and so loose they fall out with use. It doesn’t matter which of the three tip sizes are fitted (incidentally, the red tips feel like they’re the most effective).
Sound seems much clearer through these when they’re adjusted correctly in my ear holes. They also don’t seem to suffer too badly from channeling any knocks or scrapes to the plugs, but it still happens. I would guess this is due to the case over the filter section.
The ‘raison d’être’ for this story, the ISOLATE ear plugs are elegant, super portable and do a good job of plugging your ears by taking the best aspects of the foam ear plug and spinning them into the 21st century.
Having tried these out in various loud environments (DJing in a club, a live gig, at home), I’ve been pretty happy with their ability to block out sound across the board. With these in, you mostly feel the rumble in the chest from basslines, rather than hear them, which is their stated aim. However, I’m not convinced how practical the ISOLATE earplugs would be for professional musicians (DJs included). They are still, after all, physically blocking sound, rather than controlling its entry into the ear.
The ISOLATE ear plugs are definitely comfortable to wear for long periods. They’re also easy to take out and put in, meaning if you’re moving from loud to quiet places, they’re more practical than the ER20s, on par with the Faders, and less clumsy than the foam plugs (the light weight makes them fiddly).
The reality for us DJs is that we need to look after our ears. Much like our teeth, a lot of loss or degradation will be permanent, and we owe it to ourselves – more than most – to take care of them. We hear horror stories of people with terrible tinnitus (to the point they can’t sleep), and it’s an area that medical science doesn’t really have much grasp on.
For general ear protection use, the ISOLATE plugs are actually great value for money. Cheaper than custom ear plugs, they’re a good step up from foam, with some of the benefits that filters have. If you’re a regular club-goer or like standing near large speakers at gigs, you could do a lot worse to protect your ears.
As for Flare Audio’s claims that using metal and foam makes for better sound blocking? It looks like you’re going to get much better control of the volume using filtered plugs, but for pure ear safety, and practicality, the ISOLATE ear plugs are a really nice choice. I’d happily take them along to a concert.
While not the most effective ear plugs we tried, the ISOLATEs are a decent investment that look and feel great.