Ironically, when it comes to earplugs, I'm a hater. I've even managed to form a loud band with other anti-earplug enablers. One of my bandmates describes earplugs as "condoms for the head." And they are: they dull your present experience, yet protect you from stuff you don't want to deal with in the future. And hey, it's your body—the only ride you get—so the choice to wear earplugs is yours. But admittedly, earplug rebellion is bad behavior.
Quick science lesson: Your inner ear has microscopic sensory hair cells that transform sound energy into electrical signals that travel to your brain. Studies show that decibel levels measuring 85 and higher are damaging to your hearing. Basically, all this noise destroys the hair cells and they never grow back. Ever. Here's a handy chart to give you an idea of where noise falls in terms of decibels.
That said, if you want to rock when you're too old to rock, or if you want to understand conversations as an octogenarian, you should wear earplugs. Here's a guide to figure out which ones are right for you.
Those orange, foamy earplugs? They're not for playing music or for listening to it—they're for blocking out the world. They cut the high- and midfrequencies so you end up only feeling the low end in your bones. If you're a bartender at a rock venue, a tour manager on the road, or have any job that requires you to be in a loud rock club every night, these are your jam. If you sleep next to a person who snores, coughs, or tells his darkest secrets in his sleep, these are also your jam.
I've seen many people stuff toilet paper in their ears. It's convenient. But don't do that. First off, it's not very effective, because it only dulls sound. Second, it can result in horrible consequences. True story: My bandmate put toilet paper in her ears, and when she pulled it out a tiny piece got stuck. After a collective panic attack, we called our doctor friend; it took two people and a pair of tweezers to safely extract said toilet paper from deep within her ear.
Etymotic earplugs are awesome for both band rehearsals and going to shows. They are vented and filtered to lower the decibel level. You can still hear textural elements with clarity, just at a lower, nondamaging volume. Plus, they're only $15, and they even come with a case that you can attach to your key chain so you won't lose them.
If you want something high-end, Sensaphonics in River West makes custom-fitted earplugs specifically for listening to music. Make an appointment, and an audiologist will test your hearing to determine the range of frequencies you hear, then shoot a bunch of foam into your ears to make impressions. Your earplugs will be custom molds that fit perfectly. Don't lose these, though—they cost about $150.
One last thing. If you're hard-core about preserving your ear holes, you may want to wear earplugs on your commutes. Whether you're on your bike or on the el, dBs are most likely over 100. Street sounds often surpass 90 dBs, and the el peaks at 103 dBs.
Andrea Bauer writes about band life every Saturday.