It has been a while since I have done a product review, and recently I have been seeing the Flare audio earplugs on my social media non-stop – so I figured I would pony up the cash and buy a pair to give them a try. While I don’t often photograph concerts, I see earplugs as a necessary accessory for any photographer shooting live music.
Being legally blind, I rely on my hearing to navigate the world around me, and therefore protect my ears whenever I will be in a situation with amplified audio.
I love live music of all genres, I attend concerts in small to large venues as often as I can. My go-to ear protection has always been the orange foam earplugs because they reduce the incoming volume by 32 to 35db depending on the manufacturer. With 120db being the average concert level volume, they are a necessity for comfortably listening to live music regardless of where you are in the venue.
The classic orange earplugs provide a heavy-handed approach to ear protection, reducing the overall sonic spectrum. When I saw the Flare Audio Isolate earplugs, which promise 25db sound reduction with increased fidelity in the highs I had to try them. For the purposes of this review, I will directly compare the Isolate earplugs to the classic foam earplugs because I think that is a more realistic real world situation. If you are a mus
ician or work in pro-audio then you most likely have custom molded pro level earplugs, which these earplugs will not replace.
The Isolate earplugs come with three sets of foam tips which allow you to customize the fit for your ear. I tried both the medium and the large size foam tips and found the large size the best fit for my ears. I don’t rush any product reviews, so I wanted to give the Isolate earplugs a thorough trial in live music venues I had been in before, and with varying genres of music.
For my first test, I saw a rock cover band with a female singer in a local bar, hardly an acoustically tuned environment, but certainly a real life situation one would find themselves in. I sat in several locations throughout the show and performed an A/B comparison between the Isolate earplugs and the classic foams. The volume level was not as loud as one would encounter at a “real” concert venue, but this was a good first real world test. I found the claims of the increased high frequency response for the Isolate earplugs to be quite true. The guitars and especially the female vocals came through with clearer crisp highs than the traditional foam earplugs. The Isolate earplugs reduced the incoming lower bass frequencies significantly better than the classic foam earplugs which can be a bit “boomy” in the low frequency reduction. I wore the Isolate earplugs for half of the show and the classic foams for the second half. I found the fit of the Isolate Earplugs as snug as the classic foam earplugs, they did not feel like they were going to fall out. At first I was a bit worried because the foam tips of the Isolate plugs don’t compress and expand to fill the ear canal as much as the classic foam ones do – but the fit was more than adequate. Sound quality and overall wearing experience for the classic foam was as you would expect, overall sound reduction, muffled and a bit “boomy” regardless of the location in the bar I sat. This is where the Isolate really differed from the classic foams. Sitting in the middle to back of the bar I found the sound quality excellent, just as they claimed the highs were significantly clearer than the classic foams. The problems occurred when I moved closer to the front. At higher sound volumes the high frequencies of the Isolate earplugs became distorted and crackly. The distortion was distracting and detracted from the enjoyment of the show for me. My final conclusion for a small venue like a bar was that the Isolate shined with medium to low incoming volume levels, but the classic foams worked best for sitting closer to the band.
My next test was a 5000-person capacity venue – a small concert club. I saw a few different shows at this venue ranging from Rap to Metal. I had similar experiences with the Isolate earplugs here, the back of the venue and near the middle was excellent, but moving closer to the band yielded crackly and distorted highs. I was still as confident in the fit of the Isolate earplugs even while being jostled around in the venue floor.
Next I saw a hard rock show at a 20,000 seat arena. I consider this a standard test for any noise reduction device. The Isolate earplugs did not handle the volume in this venue as well as the smaller quieter venues. I was on the floor for a while and later sat in the lower bowl seats for this show. The louder volume of this show produced similar results to being closer to the band in previous shows. The highs and vocals were distorted distracting and tough to listen to.
Wanting to give the Isolate earplugs every chance I could, next we went to see Metallica on their Hardwired To Destruct stadium tour. The show was in the Mile High outdoor stadium in Denver which has an 80,000 seat capacity. With the large speakers of the festival and higher volume level, the Isolate earplugs really were unusable, and I had to switch back to the classic foams. I was not able to wear the Isolate earplugs for half of the show as I have done in all other tests.
The next test for the Isolates was at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The show takes place in a small valley in Telluride, Colorado each year. This is where the Isolate earplugs really outshined any other earplug I have worn. The volume was not as loud as the other rock festival I attended, but was too loud to listen to for prolonged periods without protection. I found that the Isolates did a fantastic job of letting through the highs while reducing the lows and mid range frequencies. I wore them all day long without fatigue, sitting in locations ranging from the back to the middle for most of the day. For the last act of the night I moved right up to the stage area and found that the Isolates handled the increased volume excellently.
Update July 2017: I am still experimenting with the Isolate earplugs. This time, I saw Jack Johnson at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado. My expectation was that like the Bluegrass festival the earplugs would really whine and they did. The sound level was too loud for me without earplugs and the Isolates brought the volume down to reasonable levels and I ended up wearing them all night long. I found the high frequencies significantly better than the classic orange foams as before.
The final verdict after all the testing in so many different venues is that the Isolate Earplugs well outperform classic foam earplugs in certain situations. The way the Isolate earplugs let through high frequencies can’t be beat if you are attending a concert or event with medium to low volume amplified music. Whether these earplugs will work for you really depends on where in the venue you will be sitting and the kind of music you are listening to. They are good to excellent sound quality up to medium loud situations. I didn’t want to go as far as bringing in a sound pressure meter so the actual levels are a bit objective. One of the biggest advantages to wearing these earplugs is that you can hear people talking to you, this was a bit odd because the people I was with at the shows would talk to me and I could hear them well which is just not possible with the classic foams. Overall, I liked the Isolate Earplugs, and think they have their uses, I think the quality (if you can use them at the show you are at) is well worth having to bring a second set of earplugs with you.