Orchestral musicians-an at-risk group for noise-induced hearing loss-have consistently reported great difficulty using hearing protection while performing or rehearsing, even when using earplugs specifically designed for musicians. A recent innovation in this field has been electronic earplugs that claim to deliver very high quality sound and only attenuate when sound levels become excessive. This study investigated these claims, aiming to determine whether professional orchestral musicians were able to use these devices and whether they were preferred to existing earplugs. Initially clinical and laboratory testing was carried out on the devices, indicating some spectral alteration of processed sound occurred, however claims of attenuation properties were validated. Following this, 26 orchestral musicians used the devices during rehearsals and performances for at least four weeks, providing feedback throughout this period. While musicians preferred the devices to previous earplugs, they identified issues including difficulty with orchestral balance, perception of dynamics and quality of sound provided by the devices. Results indicate these earplugs are a very positive step towards a usable hearing conservation tool for orchestral musicians to use in conjunction with other risk mitigation measures.
Keywords: earplugs; hearing; musicians; noise-induced hearing loss; orchestra.