It has been about a year since I last talked about ear plugs. Undoubtedly, the topic on earplugs can be a rather dull subject, but I believe anyone who is in their right mind would agree on its value when it comes to protecting your precious ears in a high Sound Pressure Level (SPL) environment. This is especially relevant in today’s context where a significant amount of demographic spends their past time partying in clubs and festival, the modern design of a set of earplugs for these scenarios must fit a set of essential specifications. In my opinion, a good pair of earplug must encompass these criteria, namely SPL reduction, suitable for music applications and an aesthetically low profile design.
Earlier this year, I have received a pair of ISOLATE Pro Titanium earplugs from Flare Audio and after months of testing, here’s my take on this product.
Balanced SPL Reduction
Conventional foams or silicone earplugs are only effective in absorbing higher frequencies (link) due to their less dense material characteristics. Hence, these earplugs do not provide much protection in the low frequencies range from the sub or low woofers in a concert or club environment. To solve this problem, the Isolate ear plugs utilises higher density material, for this case titanium, to help improve sound absorption on a broad spectrum.
But isn’t metal a good conductor of sound?
As a matter fact, metals are considered to be good sound conductors due to their densely packed atomic structure. Thus, it can be quite counter intuitive to suggest the use of metal for ear protection as it will just conduct any sound waves directly to your head.
In my earlier post (link) where structure-borne sound conduction was discussed, the same principle in isolating these specific sounds applies. In order to prevent a metal constructed earplug to conduct sound directly into our head, it will require the transmission path to be broken between our ears and the metal material itself. Therefore, in the case of the Isolate ear plugs, soft foams were used at the end to decouple the earplugs from the user.
To ensure a snug fit on the user’s ear, high-quality soft foams are used to help achieve the high Noise Reduction Ratio (NRR) when applied (of course, custom ear molds can be used to achieve the highest possible NRR). The soft foams are a gracious solution to that allows the dense titanium to do its job efficiently while providing high isolation index from the environment.
*The Isolate earplugs is CE certified by an independent body to the specification, BS EN 352-2-2002 with an SNR35 rating for the aluminium version and SNR36 for the titanium version.
In terms of broad spectrum and high NRR ear protection, there are existing off the shelf products that you can probably buy in a hardware store. However, these products are not tuned for music applications in a loud environment. Simply put, these ear plugs or ear protection do not provide a balanced reduction of noise across the audible spectrum (20Hz to 20KHz), and generally, users will experience low boomy sound characteristics in these situations.
Unlike the above mentioned, the Isolate Pro can retain higher sound clarity. The earplugs are tuned to passively attenuate sound level to render higher clarity and better representation of the audio itself. These characteristics are very much welcomed for musical applications where being able to hear uncoloured sounds can often provide the user with the very much needed confidence to mix or operate in a high SPL environment.
On a side note, I have observed that the Isolate is able to provide a better representation of sound when comparing to the V Moda Fader that I have been using consistently over the years. This is attributed to the denser material used to construct the body (titanium) of the Isolate Pro earplug. If your main priority is sound quality, you should be considering the Isolate Pro.
Build quality is excellent, the materials used in the foams and metal body compliments well with each other. The product felt hefty, which is essential to help anchor the Isolate properly into your ear for a good fit.
However, after months on the road, the ear tip foams do not appear to sustain the wear and tear test. Specifically, the foams disintegrate, faster than the other earplugs on the market. I have searched online on whether are there other users who are experiencing the same problem as I do but have no luck. Then I realised that the Flare Audio Isolate is used by a diverse range of users, some for trekking (Headfonics), where others wear it during their jamming session inside a small studio room. My best guess in my case is that the material is not really suitable for sweaty (a common factor when you’re doing production on the road) and the humid environment in Singapore.
To many consumers, the aesthetic of a product, especially wearable items, are important to be not visually intrusive (at least in the context of technical production). The design of the ISOLATE Pro is very low profile, which I preferred and for the people out there who need more varieties, the ISOLATE Pro has multiple colour schemes to choose from. Ultimately, I believe that we can agree that the design of the ISOLATE Pro looks much more appealing as compared to the general off the shelf earplugs you can get in drug stores.
If you have remembered, I have always preferred a flanged typed earplug due to their ease of use. It is a bonus that the Isolate utilises my preferred method of application in this case. However, it lacks one crucial feature that I have grown towards which is a neck cord that attaches both earplugs together for easy access when not in use. There are instances where I chose the V Moda Faders over the Flare Audio Isolate just because of the convenience and ease of use an attachment cord can provide. Otherwise, the Flare Audio Isolate would have fared very well for a technical production crew to use it in his or her working environment.
Similar to any ear protectors/earplugs, for the user to benefit and observe the effect of a pair of tuned earplugs, the user needs some time for the body to acclimate itself to the change in the hearing and psychological-acoustic environment. In everyday circumstances where you’re not wearing earplugs, most of your perceived hearing comes from the sound waves travelling through the air medium into your ear. However, the ratio changes when earplugs are applied, and you also start to notice conducted sounds through your body.
For my fellow sound engineers out there
Objectively, you should give yourself some time to understand and feel the differences before you start making critical decisions in how you mix or how loud you perceived you are mixing at for the audience. That is, the Flare Audio ISOLATE Pro can be used for mixing applications in live environments.
*If you are wondering, yes, the Isolate earplugs are reusable.
Build / Design / Aesthetic
Build quality is exceptional when you compare it to competing products in the markets. The materials used are premium and have practical reasons for implementing it into the design. The weight of the metal helps anchor the earplug into the user's ears to provide a snug fit. Visually, the ISOLATE Pro is very low profile and nonintrusive, a bonus for the fashioned minded. One minor drawback of the earplugs would be the soft foams as it disintegrates shortly during my test.
This is the most important judging criteria for any earplug. Rest assured, the ISOLATE Pro performance well in the situations mentioned above, it protects your ears well, even in a concert environment. As a long time user of the V-Moda Fader, I observed that the ISOLATE Pro does provide better results regarding balanced sound reduction. This gave me higher confidence when I decided to use it for mixing application.
Cost to Performance Ratio in the ISOLATE Pro is not a strong contender here as this is one of the more pricey earplugs you can get in the market. True enough, the performance of the ear plugs are better (based on what I can hear during my listening/mixing sessions) than the other ear plugs I have used previously. In my opinion, the performance differences between an ISOLATE Pro and for this case, a V-Modo Fader would not necessarily justify the cost for me to use it in live production scenarios. As mentioned before, earplugs are items that you need to learn and understand its characteristics. Even if the earplugs you wished to use do not have a balanced reduction profile, if you understand it well, you can compensate that easily.
My experiences with the ISOLATE Pro are pleasant, the product was nicely designed, and the packaging will come with almost everything you need to store and carry them around for shows. The only feature I felt that was lacking is the ability to connect a neck cord between earplugs for convenience. This is a critical drawback for me as there are multiple instances where I will still choose the V-Moda Fader over the ISOLATE Pro just because of the convenience of a neck strap.
The product’s premium materials are just right for you to feel comfortable when in used and this is especially important if you’re wearing it for long hours. Overall, if performance is your main priority or you can justify the cost of an ISOLATE Pro, this item will suits you well.
*Side note: The ISOLATE Aluminium is cheaper alternatives that can provide an SNR35 rating. There is also a version for users with smaller ear canals which is ISOLATE Mini. Performance on both products will vary from this article as I have not tested them myself.
To learn more please visit: Flare Audio Isolate