As a music photographer, I always say that the best piece of advice I can offer to aspiring concert photographers is to wear earplugs. I've worn earplugs to almost every single show I've shot in the past 5 years, and at somewhere around 100 shows a year, I think it's fair to say that I've gone through a fair pile of the common disposable foamies.
Recently, I decided that it was time to treat my ears to something that's been a long time coming: custom earplugs.
After doing some research, I decided on JH Audio for their reputation and the style of the earplugs. Hit the jump for my full review of JH Audio's custom earplugs.
The Decision To Go Custom
As regular readers will know, I've been a fan and proponent of regular foam earplugs for years. The Hearos earplugs that I've used are comfy, block a good amount of noise, and they're readily available. On the downside, they're only good for a few uses, they can be difficult to insert quickly, and I go through what seems like half a dozen boxes every year.
Custom earplugs are something I've always wanted, but which I'd assumed would be an investment of a couple hundred dollars. So, imagine my pleasant surprise when I saw that JH Audio's custom earplugs came in at an even $100.
To be honest, I may well have spent that much already in the years I've photographed live music. Furthermore, at this price, a set of custom earplugs are pretty much cheaper than most of my photo accessories that aren't a lens cap. Sold.
Why Not Musician's Earplugs?
Why not go with an attenuation system like those offered by Etymotic Research that evenly lower noise levels for a more “musical” reduction? I used pairs of Etymotic Research ER-20 for about a year and while they sound great, they simply don't lower noise levels enough for me.
Since I've been averaging about 100 concerts a year, even just shooting stagefront for the standard three songs, my ears took a beating using the ER-20s. I still had ringing in my ears after shows with the ER-20s due to the volume of gigs I was shooting.
Again, the ER-20s sound great, and if I didn't shoot as much as I did, I'd definitely give them another shot. Until. I will take the maximum amount of decibel reduction I can cram into my ears. With that respect, the -26dB attenuation of the JH Audio ‘plugs sounded like music to my ears.
NOTE: In the time since I've ordered my custom earplugs, JH Audio has started offering customs with Etymotic Research inserts with different levels of attenuation. I'd definitely be interested in a pair of the ER-25 musicians earplugs in a JH Audio custom mold.
Since these are custom earplugs, they're made specifically to the shape of your outer ear and ear canal. To accomplish this, impressions must be made with an audiologist. Prices general range from about $40 to $100 for a pair of impressions, depending on the region and audiologist. I paid $40 total, $20 per ear impression.
JH Audio builds their custom earplugs using a “full-shell impression,” which includes the helix, tragus and anti-tragus of the outer ear. Basically, this includes all the weird parts of the outer ear that's going to make for a secure and comfortable fit, as well as the ear canal itself.
In making the impressions, cotton dams are inserted into the ear canal and tamped down. While it's a weird sensation, in no way was this process painful.
The impressions are made from a high viscosity silicone compound, which is mixed after the cotton damns are inserted.
After mixing, the compound is put into a syringe and piped the ear canal and outer parts of the ear to set. It takes just a couple minutes for the silicone to expand and harden.
After setting up, the silicone is removed (which doesn't hurt) and you've got your impressions, which are ready to take with you the same day and send to JH Audio's lab in Apopka, Florida.
After receiving the impressions, it may take 5-10 days for JH Audio to complete the custom earplugs. In the case of my earplugs, mine were shipped out 8 days after the impressions arrived. But whatever the wait, once they arrive, it's worth it.
As previously mentioned, JH Audio builds their custom earplugs from a “full-shell” impression, which includes the ear canal, helix, tragus and anti-tragus of the outer ear. What this means for everyone who isn't an audiologist or with an ear fetish is that they're built to fit like a glove. For your ears.
These little guys kind of look like boxing gloves, with the ear canal plug being the thumb and the helix lock the finger mits.
Aside from the molded elements, the earplugs feature a thin plastic cord that connects them. The cord itself is very slightly grippy, so it doesn't really shift around when the earplugs are dangling and not in use.
At first I was worried about the cord being too long or that it would get in the way, but in practice it's an excellent design that keeps the earplugs readily accesible and free from your pocket lint. What I thought was a liability has turned out to be a feature I love.
The JH Audio custom earplugs are made from a high quality silicone. It feels kind of like a Haribo gummi bear (in contrast to say, a softer Black Forrest gummy bear). The ‘plugs are solid, but gently pliable.
They're more than solid enough not to need to baby them – I think short of melting them with fire, they seem pretty well indestructible.
The one issue I've had with the JH Audio earplugs is that I've snapped and broken the cord on one of my pairs. In this sense, the cord is a mixed blessing – it makes the earplugs easily accessed since they dangle around your neck, but the cord is one more thing to catch. I'm sure JH Audio will make cordless versions on request should this be an issue for you.
Inserting & Using Custom Earplugs
JH Audio custom earplugs are molded to one's ears, but it doesn't mean that they're immediately self-explanatory in their use. However, actually reading the manual really does help in this case. After all, you can't just cram these things in your ears.
The first thing is identifying which earpiece is which – right from left, which JH Audio codes to red and blue, respectively. From there, you just have to know which side is up – in the instances of these full-shell impressions, that's thing finger side of the “boxing glove.”
Rotate the helix locking bit forward 90º, insert the canal plug into your ear, and then rotate the earplugs back 90º and seat the helix lock. Done. A little more wiggling might be necessary to achieve a good seal, but that's pretty much it.
I've found it helpful to raise my eyebrows and ears when inserting the earplugs, as this helps open up the ear canal and provides both easier insertion and a better overal seal.
Once the earplugs are sealed into your ears properly, there's nothing much to adjust. This is a good thing. If anything, a little periodic push to reinforce the seal is all I do for extended shooting, but this is not even necessary most of the time.
Inserting the earplugs can feel a bit weird when first getting used to the earplugs, but it's momentary and does not effect longterm comfort once the earplugs are seated.
I've found that condensing a little hot breath on them (think exhaling to fog up a cold window) provides just enough lubrication to help slide them in extremely easily.
Since these are custom earplugs, molded to all the weird and specifically individual parts of your ears, one would imagine that the comfort level of these thing should be high. And if so, you'd be right.
With foam earplugs, there's always a very slight pressure when wearing the plugs as they fill your ear canal. After all, if there weren't, they wouldn't stay in your ear canal nor would they be very effective. Earplugs like the Etymotic Research ER-20, which feature a series of flanges, also rely on pressure against your ear canal to stay put and block sound. This pressure needed by non-custom earplugs is the prime result of discomfort and fatigue.
Custom molded earplugs, on the other hand, are a little different. They rely on a seal against your ear canal, but they're already the right shape, so there's really no outward pressure at all. They just fit.
As a result, JH Audio's custom earplugs are extremely comfortable even for extended use. Hours of wear are not an issue with these custom molded earplugs. They're as good for music festivals as they are for individual concerts.
By JH Audio's specifications, their custom earplugs produce an average of -26dB of noise attenuation. This is a couple points lower than the -33dB reducing Hearos Extreme that were my go-to foam earplugs. In practice, doing side-by-side comparisons, I found the difference in sound attenuation to be about the same between the JH Audio and Hearos earplugs.
If anything, the JH Audio ‘plugs do attenuate a little less, as expected by their rating, but for long term use there's no practical difference – no ringing in the ears after extended use, no flare ups of tinnitus, etc.
For me, this is a good thing, as the Hearos have offered me very good protection for years. I would have been extremely dissatisfied with anything less than the same level of protection.
If anything, I feel as though the JH Audio earplugs somehow sound “better,” with less of a muffled sound and more of an even attenuation that the Hearos. Overall volume levels wearing both earplugs are extremely close.
One of big issues with the otherwise great Etymotic Research ER-20 earplugs is that, while they keep music sounding great with even attenuation across the frequencies, they never blocked enough noise for me. The JH Audio custom earplugs have a sonic neutrality to my ear that's similar to that of the ER-20, while lowering noise levels much, much more. Win win.
I'm of the mindset that I will take as much noise reduction as possible, and for that I love the results of the Hearos Extreme Protection and now the JH Audio custom earplugs.
I've used the JH Audio custom earplugs for every type of music from metal to country and everything in between, including festivals and full-set shooting access. They've done a great job with everything I've thrown at them.
Long Term Use
After using the JH Audio Custom Earplugs for over a year, I am still flat out thrilled with them. Simply, I don't think I will – or can – go back to regular earplugs ever again. They are just that awesome.
While inserting them did take getting used to at first, using custom earplugs easily becomes second nature. Between faster insert, perfect fit and sound attenuation as good or better than traditional foam earplugs, I can wholeheartedly recommend JH Audio's custom plugs for anyone in the music industry.
Comparison – Pros & Cons of Earplug Options
Custom Earplugs (JH Audio)
- Excellent noise reduction
- Comfortable for extended use
- Durable & reusable
- Faster to insert than foamies
- Neutral sound
- Bad assCons:
- Fit can be affected by facial expressions
Foam Earplugs (Hearos Extreme Protection)
- Excellent noise reduction
- Muffled sound
- Comfortable only for short periods of time
- Prone to user error in insertion/fit
- Not very durable
Musicians Earplugs (Etymotic Research ER-20)
- Neutral sound (not muffled)
- Less prone to user error than foam
- Moderately weak sound attenuation
- Uncomfortable for extended use
While the thought of custom earplugs seem like a luxury, they're actually much more practical once you get down to it. In my case, shooting around 100 individual concerts and festivals a year, I go through a lot of disposable earplugs. A lot.
Considering that custom earplugs will last for years and one pair will replace a small mountain of disposable earplugs, and a pair of custom earplugs starts to sound more reasonable.
Moreover, the fact that custom earplugs offer an extremely high degree of sound attenuation, as good or better than that of universal earplugs, and suddenly $140 odd dollars sounds like a small price to pay to save your hearing. As a bonus, they sound better than traditional foam earplugs, with clearer sound at greatly reduced volumes.
Add in faster insertion, extended comfort, general ease of use and custom earplugs should sound pretty good by now. In this context, custom earplugs are an incredibly affordable investment for any concert photographer, especially when you consider than $100 + impressions is much less than almost any piece of gear in your camera bag.
For me, as someone who uses earplugs in a professional manner as a music photographer, they're really a no-brainer. I only wish I'd gotten mine sooner.
My advice? If you shoot as much live music photography as I do, go make an appointment with an audiologist now and get your customs in time for festival season!
You can order a pair of your very own custom earplugs from www.jhaudio.com. Tell them Todd at ishootshows.com sent you.