Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Practicing Safe Salsa - Ear Protection

Darn, my Mother was right again: too much loud music damages your ears.

Sure, I'm not the youngest guy in the clubs, but as a musician I know what loud is about... And frankly, most clubs are just TOO loud! I enjoy cranking the volume at points, and as a drummer, there are times when I push the band to maximum volume for emotional effect. But I love contrast, and great music spans from a whisper to a roar and back.

Unfortunately, the chest thumping, "sign language only" levels in most clubs are beyond reasonable. If you hear any ringing when your head hits the pillow or the next morning, you've already crossed the threshold toward damage. Too many nights in that environment and you'll experience a slow, steady march toward lip reading and hearing aids. Since the losses aren’t immediately obvious, most people don't pay much attention, assuming "if everybody else is dealing with it, it must be fine..." Hearing loss isn't obvious since it's gradual.

Most DJ's are already partially deaf, so they just didn't get it and thought I was "too old" when I used to complain. The guys running the sound board also tend to buy into the "louder is better" trap, so they crank the volume as well.

In my early salsero days, when I knew the music was too loud, I would go into the restroom and create custom earplugs from toilet paper. (It can be an exceptionally sexy look...) It worked great, but it was hard to have conversations, and one night I had to wake my wife up at 3am to remove the tissue that was too far in my ears. She had to use tweezers; fingers just wouldn't work! I really don't recommend getting paper stuck down in your ears, but it is better than nothing, and better than losing your hearing to look cool.

Over time, I found some EXCELLENT ear plugs and today I don't care if they crank the music. I do occasionally feel sorry for my dance partners and others who aren't doing something to protect their hearing. They just don't realize the long term damage from high volume music. Here's an interesting article all dancers should read on the Importance of Hearing Protection.

I started with the drug store foam cheapies, then went to my local music store and upgraded to high fidelity plugs (under $20).

When I realized how much they helped, I finally graduated to musician's custom fitted filters (~$150 to $200, shown below). You go to a specialist who makes a mold of your ear and the plugs are custom-made to fit you exclusively. They are comfortable since they are made just for you, and I often wear them for hours on end without thinking about them.

After about two years of use, I can say they are one of the best investments in dancing I ever made. Now my ears don't ring the next day, I can have conversations in the club (without removing the plugs) and they are pretty unobtrusive; few people realize I ALWAYS wear them. The high-end plugs simply lower the volume and don't change the overall sound. Cheap drug store plugs make conversations difficult and the music doesn't sound the same. That said, if you can't yet afford the high-end versions, I'd still use the high fidelity plugs referenced above. Otherwise, long before those AARP subscriptions start arriving, you’ll start paying attention to the hearing aid ads and learning to lip read.

Darned Adults: Music Too Loud (Update to this article)
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-Jerry Seinfeld
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  1. thanks for the info and link. i went out and bought a pair cause there ARE parties where the dj or band is just wayyyyy to loud and i think i'm the only one who thinks that. and i don't exactly like the cheap drug store kind because it makes the music all fuzzy and you can't hear any shouted conversations

  2. I suspect you'll be impressed with the high fedelity plugs. At around $15 it's a great investment. With those plugs I'm able to hear conversations. Let us know how they work for you!

  3. i finally tested the high fidelity plugs at the dc salsa congress and they were fantastic. the speaker volume was on overload that weekend. the first night, i forgot the plugs and my ears were ringing pretty bad after a hour.

    the second night, i wore the plugs and i was very impressed with the results. the music was clear and not muffled. when i took the plugs out, no ringing or headache after 4 hours at the event.....yay.

  4. Thanks for letting me know your results!

    I have similar results. I'm in the club for hours and don't care that they crank the music. I see more and more people wearing some plugs, and the high fidelity versions are among the best!

    Let us know after you road test them in your local clubs too. Hopefully others will join us and save their hearing as well.

  5. Hi Don,

    I have gotten those high-fidelity ear plugs long time ago as well... I used to wear them. But then because the way they look and the way they stick out from your ears, I think I just stopped using them. I can definitely say that my hearing is already much worse than it used to be. Your two articles have inspired me to start wearing them again. But do you know if there is high-fidelity ear plugs around that are reasonably priced yet do not stick out from your ears?

  6. Salsa Timing:

    No, all the high-fidelity plugs I've seen stick out of your ears. I'm guessing they need to either fit in your ear (like the custom ones) or be long enough outside your ear to keep the sound quality happening.

    All the cheaper ones that cover your ears (foam or swimmers) are less visible, but the sound quality isn't ideal.

    I'd use the swimmers plugs (found in drug stores), which are sort of a wax that is softish and molds to fit your ear. You can reuse them a while, although I don't remember how many times. Sound quality is NOT even close, but I'll take lower sound quality to reduced hearing over time.

    If you use nothing, your sound quality will go down over time anyway... (ear damage).

    Save up a couple bucks each time you dance, and after six months you can get the custom ones. They are worth the investment, but I realize they are not the cheap solution.


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero