If you’re an earplug skeptic, a non-committal earplug wearer, or just new to the idea that your eardrums aren’t, in fact, capable of being subjected to 12 hours in front of a speaker, then you’ve probably had the same thought as me some point: “What’s the point in dropping hard-earned cash on tickets to a show or party, just to ruin the experience by muffling the sound through earplugs?”
And, the real question is, does it have to be this way in order to protect my eardrums? Must we choose between actually enjoying the sonic experience of a night out, or signing a death wish for our future hearing?
I spoke with ENT registrar Dr James Schuster-Bruce to put the question to him. He asks me if I’m currently wearing earplugs. I tell him I’m trying.
“Yes, you’re trying to wear earplugs more! Because when you try to put them in, you can’t hear anything, right?”
“You put them in and think ‘great, now I can’t hear anything. I’ve paid 30 quid for this ticket to see my favourite artist, I can’t be doing this!”
It’s refreshing to hear this – frankly, honest – perspective, especially from someone whose job it is to promote ear health. Because until now, earplugs have always felt to me like they’re chipping away at the overall joy of a night out.
But, according to Dr James, that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, most people should be able to enjoy a night out – earplugs included – without sound distortion or muffling getting in the way.
Wait - can you stop earplugs from muffling music?
Yes. The muffling can be stopped – and it’s easier than you think. In fact, you don’t need to do anything at all, apart from continue to wear your earplugs.
Turns out there’s actually a scientific reason why music can sound extra muffled, distorted or generally anticlimactic when you first put earplugs in – and it’s all to do with the magic of the human ear. Emphasis here on the word ‘first’, because, as Dr James explains to me, the muffling actually wears off into the night.
Why your earplugs might sound muffled at first
“Actually your ear already has a mechanism in it, called the acoustic reflex, that dampens your hearing by 20 decibels,” Dr James explains. “When you put your earplugs in, you're basically doubling your level of attenuation to 40 decibels.”
In other words, when you first head into a party or show, your ears already magically respond to loud noises, protecting your eardrums and reducing the intensity of sounds into your ears. And, when you add earplugs into the mix, you’re getting double protection from the loud noise – but that also means the sound is extra, extra quiet at first.
How does the acoustic reflex work?
“It's really cool,” continues Dr James. “We’ve got these tiny little muscles in the middle ear that kind of tense the eardrum. They’re really small, and like all muscles, they tire – so they’re not particularly useful over a long period of time.”
According to Dr James, the solution to muffled music, then, is to simply push through.
“You need to wait for that to wear off, and then you’ll be able to hear clearly.”
So, how long do I have to wait for earplug muffling to stop?
For some it could take five minutes, for others, it could be longer.
“It's not clear how long the acoustic reflex is stimulated for,” says James. “It varies from person to person, and how much noise they’ve encountered during their day. So there isn’t an exact time limit. But it’s up to 10-20 decibels that the reflex dampens your hearing by – the same as an earplug.”
Long story short – you’ll know when your acoustic reflex has tired, because you’ll suddenly feel a lot more comfortable wearing earplugs, and start to hear the music a little more clearly.
After that, muffled sounds and distortion should lessen – and, in fact, you might find your experience of the music gets better than if you weren’t wearing earplugs at all.
To avoid muffling and discomfort, always pick the right earplugs for you. Check out our guide to the best earplugs of 2023 – according to experts – now.