Your social life is damaging your hearing

...Hear's what you can do about it (see what we did there?!)

If you’re reading this section then the chances are you like music and you like clubbing. But that also means you’re at risk of noise-induced hearing loss. Time Out investigate the options for protecting your ears


Larry Heard, Ozzy Osbourne, Zedd, Grimes – the list of famous musicians and DJs who have acquired tinnitus is staggering. For these people it can be an occupational hazard, but have you ever been out clubbing and woken up with a ringing in your ears? It may seem as normal to us as the accompanying headache and dehydration the morning after, but far from being a benign fact of life, this ringing is a sign that your hearing has been under too much stress in the club the night before.


With nightclub and electronic music culture now well into its 30s, our attitudes to our own hearing have barely improved. But if you’re a person who enjoys going out clubbing and listening to loud music, then you’re at risk.


It all seems abstract and intangible, that is – until it happens to you. ‘Often we see people coming here after the noise-induced hearing loss happens,’ audiologist Petter Vibe tells us. ‘Unfortunately the damage is in the inner ear 99 percent of the time and it is irreversible – you have hearing loss for the rest of your life.’


Compounding all of this is a hidden danger that, for many people, goes hand-in-hand with clubbing: drinking. You have probably noticed that the drunker you get, the more you feel like you can handle high volumes of music; Vibe tells us why this is. ‘There’s a small muscle that pulls your ear drum when you hear a very loud sound, it’s a kind of natural hearing protection. When you drink, that muscle loosens and the reflex gets tired and doesn’t work as well.’


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So that’s it then: time to hang up the raving shoes, stop going clubbing and trade it all in for a pipe and slippers. Well not quite – there are a few simple steps you can take to keep the old lugs at their best.


First, and most obvious, is to take breaks. Most clubs play music at a volume in excess of 100 db. According to soundadvice.info and WHO guidelines, at this level a permissible exposure time is only 15 minutes. At 103 db this reduces to seven and a half minutes, while at 110 db (not unusual for a club sound system) that reduces to less than two minutes. A few decibels makes a huge difference – taking breaks gives your ears time to rest and recoup. If you want an idea of how loud a place is, there are a host of free apps available that can give you a rough indication, just search ‘sound meter’ or ‘decibel meter’ in any app store.


Another simple trick is to step further away from the sound source. ‘Every time you double the distance from the speakers, you reduce it by three decibels,’ says Vibe. ‘That doesn’t sound a lot but it makes a big difference.’ But with clubs often installing speakers in several spots around the dance floor, it’s easier said than done.


These measures may be free and easy to achieve, but they don’t guarantee your hearing. Through the course of a night you’ll still be exposed to music at dangerous levels and tinnitus can be a slow-burning affliction, sometimes taking years to develop. The best solution is the one that has experienced a huge coolness glut over the years: earplugs.


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Most people’s first impression of earplugs will be the foam ones given out at gigs and clubs. Often these totally dull the sound and ruin your enjoyment of the music. For many this will be the last time they use earplugs, deciding that the sacrifice of quality is too great. It’s understandable, but there are much better solutions out there.


One company that has been trying to kick some life into the earplug market is the USA’s Doppler Labs, whose Dubs earplugs have already launched to much acclaim in North America (retailing at 25USD) and are slated to arrive in China soon. Available in four colours, they tuck in neatly behind the tragus, while the -12 db attenuation keeps you protected and the music clear. The round, earbud-like tips are comfortable, but may be prone to letting in sound depending on the shape of your ear. Marketing so far has emphasised going harder for longer in clubs, a concept with wide appeal and a refreshing counterpoint to the sometimes dreary, matter-of-fact manner in which earplugs are often sold.


Already available here are Pluggerz ear plugs, which Vibe’s company New Wave sources from Holland. For those not wanting to spend too much money, the all-fit plugs make a good solution – ensuring the sound level is cut while maintaining overall clarity. At 168RMB the standard earplugs are the cheapest option and work well for the average clubber. The tradeoff is that they don’t decrease all frequencies evenly, meaning some audio freaks might not find them to taste. At 268RMB the flat response all-fit Pluggerz provide a truer representation of the music, without sacrificing your hearing.


Aside from New Wave, it’s currently difficult to find other professional solutions in Shanghai, especially those geared towards DJs or music lovers. Most music shops we spoke to directed us towards Taobao where a wide range of brands including Partyplugs, Pluggerz and Alpine’s MusicSafe range can be found. However the lack of options and actual sales on Taobao is a good indication of how far China still has to go when it comes to awareness about hearing loss.


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Of course the best solution is also the most expensive. Custom ear plugs ensure that the ear canal is sealed and no sound can sneak in through gaps, as is often the case with one-size-fits-all plugs. At New Wave the prices run from 1,950RMB for the standard filter for more general use (sleeping, travel, clubbing), to 2,250RMB for the flat response filter. The flat response custom-made plugs are better for music use and are loved by many of the city’s main DJs such as ConRank, Howell and DADA’s Michael Ohlsson. You can personalise the decibel reduction, though most people stay at -15db, which allows the feel of the music to come through, yet means you are not in danger from the volume.


With loud music it’s as much about what your body feels physically as what your ears hear – a set of earplugs allows the sound system to be loud enough to rattle your chest without putting your ears at risk. And can you really put a price on that?


New Wave Hearing is at Room C, Fifteenth Floor, 9 Zhenning Lu near Zhaohua Dong Lu. See full address detail.

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