OK . . . we should have a talk . . .
. . . seriously . . .
For years, I have been looking for a good way to balance hearing protection AND entertainment. In a noisy industrial shop, how does one listen to tunes, AND not go deaf, AND stay comfortable?
So, this may be my first Public Sevice Announcement/ Review/ How-To post, possibly my only. To anyone that doesn’t spend many hours a day doing noisy work, this may seem like a minor thing and not of not much interest. However, I thought this would actually be helpful to other artists/ craftsmen/ shop-hounds/ whatever . . . You know: awesome people. So, if you are one of those kinds of people, please read on. I wouldn’t do all of this typing and hyperlinking for nothing– you may even thank me. If not–please scroll down and enjoy the art.
But seriously, I truly wish this kind of research and info had been online, before. It would have saved me a lot of money and headaches.
In the shop where I apprenticed, pretty much everybody wore earplugs, or rarely the air-traffic-controller-looking-ear-muffs from the 1980s . . . In my opinion all apprentices should wear earplugs. They protect the inner ear from damage and still allow you to hear the speech of others in direct contact with you, while not allowing for needless distractions (which young trainees do not need more of). They should be listening to their elders, not rocking out. However, since leaving my apprenticeship I have searched for ways to add a little sound to my day.
I tried using standard headphones (left) over top of earplugs. I could still hear music, probably mostly through my skull, but this didn’t do too well for spoken word, so radio and books were mostly out if I was working on anything loud. This also meant that I was running the phones at full blast so the noise bleed was pretty noticeable to others. No big deal as a MICA grad student, but I’m pretty sure that rest of the fellas in the professional stone shop that now houses my studio are not t0o into hearing my cousin’s hardcore punk band . . . (all respect to my Cousin Charlie and his band)
After grad school, my loving wife got me a set of Bose head phones, though not the electronic noise-cancelling ones (those don’t actually “cancel” noise anyway–don’t believe the hype). But the Bose weren’t up to the challenge. After abusing Bose’s very generous Guarentee Policy to the tune of 5 new sets of headphones . . . they cut me off. Fair enough. I also tried an expensive set of Senheiser head phones, but these didn’t fit snug enough and were clearly not made for industrial use– maybe fine if I was “DJ Sebby-Sea-bass,” but I’m not . . . So on a whim, while working on a very well paying project, I sprung for a set of 3M Tekk Protection Personal Safety Digital Work Tunes Hearing Protector with AM/FM Stereo. And for years, thats what I used.
For awhile they were pretty good. However, despite being “work” headphones, the electronic components were not up to the task. I replaced three pairs of these over about 5 years at about $50 a pop. The light-weight, double-male, 3.5mm jack cord that came included would always fray and break quickly. That could be replaced with a better one for about $5. However, one of the nicer features, the built in AM/FM radio, would also eventually succumb to the dusty environment. I could still use whatever was plugged into the main jack, however, usually in short order the jack port and/or the speakers would go bad. At that point all of the space for the electronics and batteries is completely useless bulk. After the radio system and speakers crapped out on my 3rd set, I decided to stop replacing them and instead I inserted a set of ear buds. This required popping out the ear pads and drilling a small hole and slot so I could put ear buds in the place of the old speakers, which I also drilled out. This worked fine for a time. The iPhone ear buds could just be popped out and replaced if they blew. This is still a expensive solution, but lacking a better option, that’s what I did.
Since I might spend between 8 and 14 hours a day in these things, I figured the cost was worth it. But the drawbacks were getting to me. As a stone carver, the position of my body, particularly during high intensity roughing out, is a asymmetrical to the block, with my shoulders raised and my left arm/chisel hand raised. The shear bulk of the Work Tunes meant that they would contact my neck and shoulders uncomfortably, which get sore anyway. When I would step back and stretch and roll my neck it was particularly annoying. I tried flipping the ear cups upside-down, so that the widest part was farther away from my shoulders, but still they were very awkward at 3-4 inches wide.
So when the vinyl ear pads started to crack, that was the final straw. I had to find another option. No matter what it cost–it would be a legitimate business expense for Atlantic Custom Carving. So I asked my brother in law who does a fair bit of target shooting what he used. He put me on to the Earplugstore.com. We first looked at a lot of Electronic Ear Muffs, which seemed fine. The prices ranged from $25-$200, which was fine, but they were offering a lot more than I needed. Though I liked the fact that they were designed to be slim and tight fitting, particularly around the shoulders, they are designed to allow you to hear or even enhance normal lower range noises, while blocking out the loud stuff (something that would be of course great while hunting). Many came with built in cable jacks, but I know those to go bad. The fact that they had external microphones meant that there was just another place for dust to get in and frankly, while working, I don’t want to hear any external at all. So I started looking at the plain Headband Style Earmuffs. I really didn’t realized the dearth of options there were out there. Ultimately, I decided (from the look of it) that Bilsom Leightning line of ear muffs were the most durable, compact, comfortable and low profile. When I realized how inexpensive they were, compared to what I had been buying . . . I went a little crazy . . .
The Bilsom Leightning line comes in two styles (over head and neck band) in a variety of Noise Reduction Ratings (NRR). What I realized was that the slimmest, most compact headphone they offered had a better NRR(23) than my current far bulkier head phones(22), and at a fraction of the price!
So I got the Bilsom Leightning L0F. (left) I also got the heavier duty L1 model(right), because they were only $9, and appeared and were still described as “slim,” with a NRR of 25. There are heavier duty versions, L2 (NRR27) and L3(NRR30), but they get pretty bulky.
Then . . . I got to thinking that it would be nice to have a set of ear muffs that would work for those situations where I couldn’t easily wear the over-head-band ones. So I got the Bilsom Leightning L0N neck-band model(left), which would work in situations where I was wearing a sandblasting-hood, face-shield, welding mask, or hard had. And at only $9, why not?
Also, I discovered a little solution to a problem that I have been annoyed with for years: sweaty ears–gross. Cool II Ear Muff Pads! I am fortunate enough to have a very well heated studio, but there is no AC of course so during the summer– it’s HOT. The non-breathable vinyl of my other headphones would make my ears and head slippery and just disgusting feeling. I had tried a few things to absorb sweat, but had found nothing better than continuing to wear a light wight cap. These little numbers self-adhear right to the ear pads. Awesome!
So when my order showed up (all for about the same cost as one set of the Work Tunes) everything was actually better than expected. I was impressed with the quality of the construction. I haven’t seen how they perform over time, but there really isn’t much to break because I got models that did have all of the extras that go bad so fast. The sleakness and subtley of the L0F set was kind of shocking–after years of being in ear muffs that were bright yellow made my head look like Stewie’s from Family Guy. I was happy to see that the interior of the headband and the ear cup pads were soft and lined with two different kinds of a sort of faux-leather that was way more supple and comfortable than the hard vinyl of the Work Tunes. The quality of the head bands was actually pretty shocking. They were both very sturdy, but in addition to the leather-ish padding, they are covered in a black neopren-like material on top and trimmed out with thick black nylon–impressive. To be honest though the neoprene is nice, I could have done without the “neoprene” material–only because I anticipate it sucking up a lot of dust over time (stone carver-issue . . .)
Actually, only real issue I had was with the headband of the slimmer L0F. This model is made to fold in on itself so that is packs up really tight. The problem here is that this makes the head band itself longer than it needs to be and so if I have the ear cups adjusted all the way up and in they hit the wire bars that hold them from the sides and won’t pivot independently. The L1’s band is made from what seems to be two strong metal wires, rather that a thin, but wide band. Maybe I have a small head, I don’t know, so if someone had them let out more this probably would’t be a problem. But it was an easy fix. The headband from the L1 model (non-folding) is shorter so, since the plastic ear cup can pop in and out of the retention arms, I just popped them into the other headband and they were a perfect fit! This made the L0F headband kind of useless for me, but if you have a bigger/longer head it might not be an issue at all. And for such a low price, a minor issue. The noise damping is just as good as the old and while they don’t feel “not there,” they feel more like wearing a hat than safety equipment.
The behind the neck L0N is great and has a very thin, but removable, over head strap to help keep in place, while the compression is provided by the metal bands. I find the over-head-band of the L0F to be tighter and more comfortable, so probably will only use these guys when other protective equipment warrants it, but I’m glad to have them around. And at only about $10– why not?
As far as giving these guys sound there are simple and really cheap ear buds–from Earplugstore.com for less than $3, but for just a few more bucks on Amazon you can find Apple-style ear buds with the voice mic and inline volume control. This way when I receive a phone call in the shop, assuming I’m plugged into my iPhone, I can just switch the cords to the front of my head and answer, so I hear the caller through my insulated ear muffs without all of the ambient shop-noise and the caller hears me through the inline mic that has a limited reception range. Easy and hands free. Also these kind of ear buds have the slim 3.5mm jack that fits most industrial iPhone cases without needing an adaptor. Use a Lifeproof case, which is fine, but the threaded jack port is a pain. Also you can order the ear buds in Black, as opposed to the Apple-Bright-White, which look funny coming out of black earmuffs and their rubberized finish picks up shop-schmaltz quickly and so they end up looking gross really fast.
Turns out that inserting the earbuds themselves into the ear cups, is way easier than expected. The ear cup pads just snap right out. Position the earbuds inside the ear cups in a direction that points the speakers towards your ear canals. I found it helpful to swap the right and left buds for this purpose. Just secure with a little piece of electrical tape and put the ear cup pad back in. Boom! Done. If (when) they fray or blow a speaker I can just pop in a new set for a few bucks.
So, bottom line is: I’m super stoked to have new ear protection that is more comfortable, effective, and durable, while less expensive and ridiculous looking. While for me, I really wanted the tighter model, so swapping out the headband on the L0 model made the difference, for anyone that doesn’t mind a little bit of bulk, the L1 model (—>) is probably a good all around choice. I’ll probably use both at some point, especially if I have to do something with some really loud equipment. My suggestion to purchase, for someone that wants to cover low-profile, comfort and versatility, would be: get the slimmer L0N (neckband model), because they are less expensive than the L0F headband version (I think becasue the L0″F”s are made to be foldable), and the still slim but heavier duty L1 head band model. This way you get the (in my opinion) nicer, tighter headband and you can swap the ear cups between the two different styles of bands depending on what you are doing and how loud it is. And of course a couple of sets of ear buds. And, boom! You’re set! All for less than about $50.
I know that I am glad to have less of . . .
and more of
! ! !
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