Tell us if this sounds familiar: we grew up listening to music on cheap headphones that came bundled with our music players (then, Sony and Aiwa cassette and CD players; now, Apple iPods and iPhones). We liked the music loud but, since those cheap headphones provided no isolation, we needed to play them even louder to get the desired effect. We went to rock concerts, blasted our car stereos, and ignored our parents’ warnings about losing our hearing. Now we’re adults, we still love music, and we’re suddenly terrified of hearing loss. Should we be one of “those people” wearing earplugs at concerts? This week, we come to terms with the fact that we’re not invincible, and try the Etymotic ER20XS High-Fidelity Earplugs. We should have done this years ago.
For those unfamiliar with Etymotic Research, we re-introduced the company in our recent review of their Mk5 Isolator IEMs. Etymotic has long been known for its high-quality in-ear headphones and line of hearing protection products. As Etymotic’s site explains, hearing loss happens not only as a function of the loudness of sound you’re exposed to, but also how long you’re exposed to it. Your ears might be able to handle quick bursts of sound from fireworks or an ambulence siren, but prolonged exposure may cause real, permanent damage. This became all too real for us at a recent metal concert where the music was so loud that it was barely possible to discern each song’s melody; sure, it was an intense experience, but surely it isn’t worth permanent reduction of our ability to hear.
The ER20XS is delightfully simple. There are no electronics, no ANC, and no batteries — each earplug is just a small plastic chamber and a triple-flange silicone tip. If you look closely, you can see tiny sub-chambers inside the earplug; as air makes twists and turns inside the earplug, energy is lost, and volume is reduced up to 20dB. Of course, this effect requires a good seal, which is where Etymotic’s triple-flange ear tips come in. As we discussed in our review of the Mk5 Isolator, these can take some getting used to, but they isolate like no other ear tips you’ve ever used. In our testing, we found that they can be quite comfortable if you use the right size (“Standard” or “Large”), moisten them a bit before insertion, and try not to be too aggressive about forcing them into your ear canal. If you’re not sure which size to use, Etymotic offers a “universal” option that contains both sizes of triple-flange tips and a set of alternative foam tips for $5 more.
Etymotic says that the ER20XS should have an “almost equal” reduction in sound of about 20dB across the entire range of human hearing. Using the ER20XS, we had a slightly different experience — though there’s no sacrifice in clarity, there seems to be a reduction in upper midrange or lower treble that has an effect of making music sound a bit warmer than normal. This effect was more noticeable when we used them at concerts as opposed to our home speaker setup, which leads us to believe that the concert venues may have been partially at fault. Even so, we enjoyed concerts much more with the ER20XS than without; not only because volume was reduced to a level that didn’t cause pain, but also because we didn’t have to worry about waking up the next day with our ears ringing or, worse, permanent hearing loss.
There’s no “wrong” time to start thinking about protecting your hearing, but there is “too late.” The Etymotic ER20XS does exactly what Etymotic promises, they’re small enough to be almost unnoticeable, and they’re cheap enough to almost be disposable. Whether you work in a loud environment or just like to attend loud concerts, we think the ER20XS are a great, if not essential accessory for anyone who appreciates music. This one’s a no-brainer.
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