Etymotic ER-20 (Earplug review)

The short version of this review is that if you like to go to music concerts then spending $30 on a pair of Etymotic ER-20 earplugs is the best investment you can ever make.

It used to be that every time a loud concert or gig finished and I exited the venue and stepped out on the street I immediately became aware of a constant high pitched ringing in my ears. During the gig with the music blaring there was no ringing – but once I was in the quiet environment outside the ringing would begin and would persist until the next morning.

This high pitched sound wasn’t just an annoyance, but a likely sign of damage being done to my ears due to the excessive volumes. But then last year, as I was about to go to a Napalm Death show of all things (Napalm Death are the founders of the grindcore genre and are very harsh sounding and very loud) I took along a pair of those cheap foam earplugs. Wearing them made for a muffled listening experience, so I kept taking the foam earplugs in and out every so often through the show – yet despite only wearing the earplugs half the time, when I walked outside covered in sweat (only some of it my own) I found there was absolutely no ringing in my ears.

I repeated this same method when I saw the classic heavy metal band, Iron Maiden – which was obviously another really loud show. Again I wore the foam earplugs for about the half the show; taking them out to listen to my personal favourite songs, given that these cheap earplugs only offered protection at the sake of audio clarity. But after the last notes of Hallowed Be Thy Name had rung out and I exited the concert hall, my ears remained free of the incessant ringing that used to follow every loud music performance I went to.

But the problem wasn’t completely solved. Although I was protecting my hearing, I was sacrificing audio clarity through that thick foam. Just to quickly explain, humans have a hearing range of 20Hz (the very low end bass) to 20,000Hz (super high pitched). But the thing is a bass guitar isn’t just all low end – it has some mid-range frequencies that give it texture. When you stuff foam earplugs in your ears that mostly lowers the volume of the mid-range frequencies, so now that same bass guitar sounds flat and muddy.

Thankfully, there are earplugs that are designed to reduce volume evenly at all frequencies. The idea is that an earplug should simply have the effect of turning down the volume. You can get custom-made musician ear plugs, but those cost a few hundred dollars. A more practical and affordable solution is the E-20 earplug from Etymotics.

I finally discovered these earplugs and got them just in time to wear them to The Flaming Lips’ Melbourne show at Festival Hall. I purchased them from EarJobs and they came in a soft case and came with a small loop of chain that made it easy to attach to a lanyard and hang it from my neck. The case deserves mention because of how brilliantly practical it is. Being soft it doesn’t matter if you take it into a mosh pit and get shoved around. On top of that the case is opened by pushing at both ends of the case, which means there’s no chance of the case accidentally popping open.

The earplugs themselves work well too. Putting them in, the volume of The Flaming Lips dipped, which only took a moment to get used to. While the volume drop is very noticeable, a loud music concert is still going to be loud. The E-20 earplugs just take the volume from damagingly loud to comfortably loud.

To get an idea of how things sound when wearing these earplugs,, click on the image below for short audio clip. The first three bars of music is what is sounds like without earplugs and the rest is what it sounds like with the E-20 earplugs.

Listen to demo clip

There is a slight perceptible difference in the way a concert sounds while wearing the E-20 earplugs, but unlike the cheap foam earplugs, the difference isn’t a negative. It’s just a slightly different sound and an awesome band will still sound awesome. I’ve also found that the E-20 earplugs work just as well for playing music as they do for listening to music. Really, you can use them in any loud situation.

I cannot express how brilliant the E-20 earplug is. On the one hand cheap foam earplugs sound crappy. On the other hand custom made musician’s ear plugs are too expensive for most people to justify. But then here you have it: a completely affordable earplug that protects your hearing and sounds almost imperceptibly different from your naked ears. You’ll spend more money buying the band t-shirt at the merch booth – anyone who ever goes to concerts has no reason not to buy themselves a pair of good earplugs like these.

You can order a pair of ER-20 earplugs online from Earjobs here.