There are a couple of things worth noting before reading this review.
I wasn’t given a free pair of ear plugs in exchange for this review, I did support the Kickstarter campaign. Since I have a lot of gigs coming up before September I requested a set be sent early, and offered an unbiased review in return for them doing so if I enjoyed the product. All opinions in here are my own.
Isolate have yet to receive official Sound Attenuation Test results. Because of this everything I say in this review should be taken as anecdotal, and not scientific, evidence of their efficacy.
Recently I’ve been worried about my ears. For those of you that don’t know, I’m a full time working musician that plays in a few bands and teaches guitar and bass the rest of the time. The last couple of years in particular have been very busy for me, and I’ve been having problems with my earplugs.
It’s probably a fairly recognisable series of problems to many musicians. The rubber earplugs I’ve been using reduce plenty of volume when inserted fully, but mostly seem to get rid of the higher frequencies; leaving me swimming in a sea of kick drums and bass riffs and very little else. The bassists I play with are very good, and the drummers all have impeccable kick drum placement. But nonetheless I would at least like to hear what I’m doing as well!
Over the years I’ve had a system where I stand at the left of the stage and slightly leave my left earplug out, effectively trying to block out the band to my right, whilst using my left ear to hear my guitar. But I’ve noticed that I spend half of my gigs trying to adjust my amp volume so I can hear it, and the other half turning it back down so it doesn’t turn the audience’s eardrums in to soft cheese. There’s very rarely a happy middle ground, and I often wake up the next morning with that ‘gig hangover’ feeling, where I can still hear, but things are muffled and I know some damage has probably been done.
So I was cautiously optimistic about the promises of Flare Audio regarding their new Isolate earplugs. I won’t include the full details here since you can read about those on their own website. Essentially the idea is that they almost completely reduce the sound coming in directly through your ears, including bass frequencies, and everything you do hear is through bone conduction. They come in either aluminium for £23 or titanium for £46. I opted for the cheaper £23 version, as some comments on the Kickstarter page seemed to suggest there was very little difference between the two, and the earplugs I have previously used have come in at around £15, so I wanted to try out something in a similar price range.
The Isolates come in a little badged pouch that you can carry them around in, along with three different sized sets of the memory foam tips that need to be attached in order to insert them in to your ears. I spent a little time changing them around and testing out which ones felt most comfortable. It actually didn’t seem to make much difference. Since you insert them by squishing the foam and then inserting it to your ear, where it then expands to the shape of your ear, all three of them seemed equally comfortable. I decided to stick with the medium ones.
There was one small negative at this point. Which is that swapping the tips over requires a little bit of force to be applied, even when following the instructions properly. In swapping them around to find the most comfortable size I did slightly tear one of the foams. As far as I can tell it didn’t directly affect the sound attenuation, but it will presumably reduce the lifespan of the tips, meaning I’ll have to buy new ones sooner. Since the exercise of swapping around the three different sizes is probably one that every new customer will go through, it would be good if Flare could introduce some kind of lower price deal on your first replacement set of tips, as the first set probably won’t last as long as they should.
An unscientific scientific test
My first opportunity to try these was at home, and I thought I’d try a fairly unscientific experiment to see if I could gauge how good these things were going to be. I played a track through my sound system at the highest volume it could go, and listened for a while with my Isolates in. Then took them out and tried to adjust the volume level to match the level I had been hearing whilst wearing them.
Like I said, not very scientific, but worth a try at least.
The max level on my hi-fi is 30. Through a little tweaking I estimated that the approximate equivalent level (or AEL as I’ll call it to make it sound like I know what I’m doing) that I was hearing was around 21. That’s nearly a third of the volume knocked off. Pretty good even for an estimate. Since sound system volume level numbers are largely arbitrary I’ve attempted to recreate that effect here for your benefit, by recording with a mic positioned exactly where I was standing at level 30, and then turning it down to 21.
The one thing that I definitely noticed was that I could still feel that it wasn’t the same volume. With the Isolates in and the music on full I could feel the air pressure of the bass, but it wasn’t as overpowering as I would have expected. It was allowing higher frequency instruments to come through quite nicely. I had high hopes for the weekend’s upcoming gigs.
Gig 1) The Quartertones. This band is an acoustic duo, so for these gigs I only tend to use my earplugs as a way of hearing the sound of my own singing a little more clearly through the reverberations inside my head. For this purpose Isolate were actually a little too good! My old ER-20 style earplugs would provide a good balance for this act when inserted fully. With the Isolates the attenuation bordered on overkill. As soon as I started singing, the sound of my voice drowned out the guitar and my other singer. Half way through the first set I had to remove my left earplug so that my right was still protected from the direct impact of her vocals, but I could still hear her and the guitar to balance it out. I should mention that this was an outdoors gig, and so there were no walls for the sound to bounce off of. I will give these another go at an indoor acoustic gig and see if the results are any different. If not I might have to hold on to my rubbers for quieter gigs like this.
Gig 2) The Jack Rabbits. This is the band I play with most frequently, and the real reason I bought these earplugs. The band is a three piece function band. Among other things we play quite a lot of rock music for long periods of time, and I often leave these gigs with my ears ringing. The conditions at this particular function were the sort that usually cause me the most grief at gigs. A relatively small room which acts as a bit of a bass-trap, and a small stage area. The small stage is often a pain as I’m stood almost directly over my guitar amp, and therefore more able to hear the omnidirectional bass frequencies emanating from it than the more directional treble frequencies, making for a real bass-fest when you add the treble-killing effect of standard earplugs.
However the sound experience at this gig was pretty brilliant! I could hear the rest of the band and vocals perfectly, without them being overwhelming, and yet could still hear my own guitar and internal vocals well enough to play and sing with confidence. It took a few songs to get used to the almost relaxing level at which the music was coming through, but the gig as a whole went really well, and I came out of it with my ears feeling no different than when I went in.
The earplugs were perfectly comfortable to keep in for the whole night, and didn’t even slip out when my ears got a bit sweaty (ears are supposed to sweat right?) like my rubber ones often do. Though I dread to think how much gigsweat is going to be absorbed by those foams over the next few months!
To anybody who’s thinking of buying these I would definitely recommend practicing your instrument with them in as well, to allow you to adjust the dynamics of your playing to the new level you’re hearing it at. It can be a little disconcerting if you’re not ready for it.
I am now really interested to see what results the Sound Attenuation Tests come back with. From this weekend’s experience I’m pretty confident they’ll be good. If you can afford to wait until the results come in before you buy these then that’s obviously the sensible thing to do. But if you’ve got a lot of gigs coming up and you’re worried about your hearing I would absolutely recommend giving these a try. At £23 it’s a reasonable price, and I honestly don’t know how much better the titanium version could possibly be. I’m curious to see if the tests come back with a noticeable difference at all. For double the price I would hope it would be quite significant, but I can honestly say, for what I needed, the aluminium set performed brilliantly.
Great attenuation of sound as far as I can tell.
Comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
Foams appear to be susceptible to tearing.
A little too good for quieter gigs where earplugs may still be needed.
*I have a gig with my original band Ibou Tall and the Jazzmates in a few weeks’ time. This is a five piece band, including sax and keys. The dynamics of the music in that band vary hugely, and this has its own challenges for using earplugs, so I will update this review after that gig to include how Isolate coped with that.*
If you have questions on anything I haven’t covered, or general comments leave them in the comment section below.