I attended my first rock and roll concert in the 1980’s. Somewhat ironic to this article, it was The Who. The Who, of course, were one of the very first rock and roll bands to play LOUD. Intensely loud. So much so that guitarist and vocalist Pete Townsend suffered severe hearing damage before he even became “old.” In fact, Townsend has been relegated to the acoustic guitar for much of the latter part of his career and the band must depend on additional live musicians to play much of the electric parts.
Now in the fourth decade of my concert-going hobby turned career, I’ve seen well over 500 bands perform live. Much of them heavy metal and much of those, death metal, thrash or black metal. The sound, at times, is intense at heavy metal shows and there has always been this machismo whereby “if it’s too loud, you’re too old.” With bands like Motorhead telling us that they’re “everything louder than everything else” and Gene Simmons singing to the masses how he “loves it loud,” it is still seen as somewhat curious when metal fans in the pit are wearing hearing protection. The reality, however, is that more metal fans and artists are experiencing hearing problems and tinnitus and hearing loss is decidedly uncool. Similarly, we’ve all seen more and more fans exit venues at times when the sound just becomes a mess because bands on the same bill are battling each other over loudness or the room wasn’t designed properly for metal music.
I began to take my hearing more seriously when I was in college, though I should have much sooner. My father is partially hard of hearing and his father was completely deaf in one ear. Genetically, I know what my future likely holds and there’s not a reason to speed any of this process up. I love metal music and I can’t imagine a day when I’m not listening to Peter Steele’s voice on the way the work or Grutle Kjellson’s signature growls when I’m on the plane flying over to Europe… likely to catch Enslaved.
The real turning point for me was when I went to see the Ramones. Now, the Ramones were the first hard music band I ever listened to. I grew up in New York, not too far from Queens and one day my next door neighbor told me I needed to listen to what her older brother was listening to. We went into her room and she brought in a number of his Ramones records, that I recall she played on a Peanuts record player. It was 1981. She put on Leave Home. That was it. Done. There was no going back to the kid’s music our first grade music teacher was playing us any more.
I lined up as early as I could outside this dive bar in Newark, Delaware to make sure I was up against the rail for the show. About 15 years had gone by since I first heard those records in my neighbor’s bedroom. I had to stand through some openers and not move an inch so I wouldn’t lose my space. Eventually the Ramones came on after a few hours. Signature Ramones. There was nothing like it. Absolutely nothing like the Ramones live. All those stories and legends you hear about them on stage… they’re all true… all of it. But after the third song, I felt like my ears were bleeding. By the fifth song my head was pounding. By the seventh song I kept checking my ears for abscesses. I moved to the back of the room.
Since that Ramones show I vowed to never be without ear protection again. I didn’t care how “uncool” it looked – even with those day glo bright foam things that you often find in the drugstores. So for the past twenty years or so I’ve used those foam things. Sometimes they’re ok. Mostly they’re not so good. Granted, some bands perform at reasonable volume and don’t require much ear protection. Enslaved has incredibly good live sound and volume. Amon Amarth certainly isn’t bad either. Huntress, Taake and King Diamond as well. Then there are others on the opposite end… Dimmu Borgir, Immortal, Behexen, Revenge, Satyricon… at times too much (depending on the room). The last US Dimmu Borgir tour was particularly vexing as it was nearly impossible to discern one instrument from another on stage. At these louder shows, foam earplugs aren’t going to help you much. Yes, they will protect your ears from the extremity of the noise, but you will hear nothing more than a mush of sounds and an awful lot of bass drum. Not really an enjoyable experience.
As a Marketing and Tourism academic who studies heavy metal and festivals, I was particularly interested in an episode of Shark Tank where I saw a firm pitching this new live music hearing device called Vibes. I watch the show every week and many of the products are interesting, some are not, but Vibes struck me because it really seemed like they offering a solution to a need in the metal community.
I tried Vibes out. First thing I noticed about them is the comfort. They are quite comfortable and the filters come with different sized tips that help you find the perfect fit. The filter itself is quite small and doesn’t take up much space at all in your ear, making the fit in the canal much more comfortable than the foam plugs. Now the foam plugs, if they’re fresh out of the package can be ok, but after an hour or two at a divey music club they’re going to get pretty gross and you’re constantly taking them in and out to talk to people at the bar. After taking them in and out a couple of times you simply don’t want to put them back in your ears. Vibes, I noticed, can stay in your ears the entire show. Because they don’t block all sound, you can still actually carry on conversations with others.
I took Vibes to see U2 at Met Life stadium in New Jersey. I put them in right before entering the arena. They were comfortable and not highly noticeable. I went with a group of six friends of mine so there was a lot of conversation during the night. Additionally, we had floor tickets so we were right in the thick of the action and the sound. I noticed immediately that Vibes didn’t block any of the richness of the sound or muffle certain instruments more than others. What Vibes did do was cut down on some of the more piercing and uncomfortable sounds. For example, I stood as close as I could get to The Edge’s side of the stage and the PA. During the solos for songs on The Joshua Tree, The Edge hits some really high notes and has this rather shrill effect on his guitar. I listened to these parts of the songs with Vibes in and without. Significant difference. Without Vibes in, my ears were hurting. With Vibes in; no problems at all. None.
What I like about Vibes is that they’re compact, come in a handy case and will easily survive multiple uses. On Shark Tank the sharks were complaining about price point. I don’t see the issue with price point at all. First, one pair of Vibes might last you as much as multiple boxes of the foam plugs. Second, with concert tickets easily over the $150 mark, why wouldn’t you pay a few extra dollars for a resoundingly better listening experience?
I then took my Vibes to see Bloodclot, a NYHC crossover band at the Underground Arts in Philadelphia. Underground Arts is a nice venue, but it is technically a basement so the sound can sometimes be a bit odd. The space clearly wasn’t designed for music, however, the venue has done a great job with what they have. I tried my Vibes in different parts of the room. Back of the room – perfectly fine. I could even talk to the bartender while I had them in – something I can’t really do with foam plugs. Center of the room – perfect sound. Front row against the stage – loud but not too loud. I spent about half of the show listening to Bloodclot from the side of the stage itself. Again, loud but not too loud. I could make out all of the instruments and the vocals with no issues at all. There is no “muffle” that you get from traditional foam plugs and you don’t have to worry about only hearing bass or bass drum. I moved from the guitar side of the stage to the bass side of the stage just to hear if there’s a difference. Not really. At the Bloodclot show, Vibes absolutely worked as advertised and were far superior to foam.
I also tried the Etymotic Research ETY Hi-Fi ER 20 plugs at this show. I found that these too were quite good and outperformed foam. I used the flange type of tips and found them to be ok but not quite as comfortable as the tips that came with the Vibes. I also would mention that the noise reduction is not quite at the level of the Vibes, though still acceptable. Similar to Vibes, I was able to hear the full range of sound, but with the bass dominating a tad more. I would say the ENT plugs didn’t filter out volume quite as much as the Vibes in this venue but still filtered out a great deal of excessive sound.
Next up was Behemoth in an outdoor show at the Electric Factory. The show was actually in the parking lot and Behemoth plays very loud. Some might argue too loud at times. I was in the photo pit, up against the stage for the first three songs. I had my Vibes in. Obviously, no matter what I was wearing, it was going to be loud in the front near the speakers. Certainly I was able to listen comfortably for a short while but honestly this show required more substantial hearing protection for the front for the duration of the set. I moved further away after song #3 and into the middle of the pit area. Sound was much more comfortable though the bass drum was still excessive. Honestly, I’m chalking the high bass drum level up to the venue and the performance. For some reason some metal bands still love excessive bass in their mix. It’s like the exact opposite of Metallica’s And Justice For All. I moved to the back of the lot for a couple of songs. Again, sound was generally clear with the exception of the bass drum. I then tried the ETY ER 20 plugs, first in the back and then towards the middle, eventually moving back up to the front near the stage. I believe the ETY ER 20 muffled the bass a bit better than the Vibes in this particular instance. In this regard I experienced the opposite effect of what I experienced in the indoor Underground Arts venue. And I will say that both shows were at substantially greater volume than U2 was.
I tried both sets of plugs during Slayer, who was headlining the Behemoth show. Slayer doesn’t play as loud as Behemoth, at least in this instance, and I was again in all parts of the venue. Close up to the speakers both sets of plugs significantly decreased the overall volume but not really enough to allow me to stand comfortably near the stage. Again, I want to emphasize that there are probably very few noise reduction solutions that allow one to comfortably enjoy heavy metal music in the first few rows for more than a few songs. But I also wish to say that having no hearing protection in the first three years, as a majority of people do, is rather foolish. Personally, I would like to see some bands lower the volume a bit, not just for safety reasons but for crown enjoyment and appreciation of the full range of sound. I’m at the point where I just won’t pay to go see certain bands, even though I love their music, because I don’t enjoy the experience of having my eardrums blasted for 90 minutes. In terms of my occupation as a music writer and scholar, I have decided to go with hearing protection designed for shooting sports while I take photos of performances up close. Indeed I don’t hear much of the music with these devices on and I look even more out of place than I ordinarily do, but I also want to protect my hearing so I can attend metal shows for the next many decades.
Further away from the stage both sets of devices allowed me to enjoy Slayer quite well without any real problems at all. I was able to experience the full range of sound and the vocals and I was even able to make out Tom Araya’s statements to the crowd over loud cheers. This is impressive.
My overall assessment is that both the Vibes and the ETY ER 20 are both superior solutions to foam earplugs for concerts in terms of overall enjoyment and ability to hear full range of sound at a reduced volume. I would still recommend foam or more powerful ear protection if you are in the first few rows at a metal show. Of course, bands could do everyone a favor and reduce the over-the-top volume levels altogether. Which one is better? I believe that’s a matter of personal taste. The ETY’s give a very snug fit and are very discreet. They are very easy in terms of changing tips. The Vibes have a unique tip design that is super-comfortable and are also very discreet. Both products come in at very similar price points. To be honest, given that both come with very handy carrying cases, I will likely bring both sets of me to concerts from now on. Either way, it generally beats bringing bulky bags of foam earplugs that muffle sound too much and sometimes itch after a short while.
As a Marketing Academic, I do have to close with this… I love watching Shark Tank and my wife and I have seen every episode together, but Mr. Wonderful and the Sharks – you’re completely wrong on this type of product. Foam earplugs as an alternative to these discreet filter products? Nope. Not even close. As someone who has seen 500+ bands perform live (and loud) – newer filter products by Vibes and Etymotics are extremely superior to other outdated solutions.