As a fan of live music who went without hearing protection for many years as a teen, nothing was worse than coming home from a loud metal concert with that distinctive high-pitched ringing that would stick around for days, sometimes weeks. No one wants to lose their hearing; however the standard foam earplugs block out too much noise and make music sound muddy–removing much of the enjoyment of live music. While custom earplugs are an effective option, they’re also really expensive (upwards of $150) and if you happen to misplace them at some point down the road, you’re really out of luck.

Thankfully there are several less expensive options out there that offer a design tailored to cutting the volume down while still preserving the quality of the sound. DownBeats are among a select few of these are designed solely for use in live music settings. Unlike many of the other earplugs in this category, DownBeats reduce sound by 18 decibels (dB), versus the 12-15 dB offered by most other earplug brands within this niche, including the popular 12 dB DUBS acoustic filters (which I reviewed last year). This additional 3-6 dB of protection at first didn’t seem like it would make much of a difference, but for the sake of this review (and in the name of science!) , I decided to test them against the only other plugs I own and use regularly, DUBS and generic foam earplugs from CVS.

I tried the DownBeats, DUBS, and generic foam earplugs for different types of live music (metal, hardcore, acoustic, indie, reggae, and even some hip-hop) at several venues of various sizes in my hometown of Portland, ME and in the broader New England area–ranging from small local hardcore shows at the local hangout, the Windham Veterans’ Hall, to club-sized venues like Port City Music Hall, and mid-to-large venues like Portland’s State Theatre and Cross Insurance Arena, the House of Blues in Boston, and the Worcester Palladium.

Across a variety music genres in these different venues, I found that the 12 dB DUBS (which I’d given high marks when I reviewed them last year) were only sufficient at club-sized venues or smaller–the 12dB of protection they offered did not cut the volume down enough at the veterans’ hall, nor did it suffice at most of the mid-size to larger venues (something I’d realized in the months following the original review for the DUBS).  It was at the local hardcore shows (which typically are loud as hell), and the concerts in medium to larger-sized venues that I found the DownBeats’ additional 6 dB of protection made all the difference. The music was no longer uncomfortably loud, yet what the plugs allowed in sounded clear and unmuddied.  At the same time, using the DownBeats in more quiet club settings, where I would have otherwise used the 12 dB DUBS, I could hardly notice a difference–there was just as much clarity as I’d had using the DUBS, despite the higher decibel rating of the DownBeats.

Their shape is another plus–featuring a small ear-bud shaped plug at the end, much like DUBS, DownBeats are less likely to irritate your ears after long periods of use, versus competing products, such as the cone-shaped plugs made by Etymotic. However, one drawback is that the size of your ear canal, as with DUBS and many of these types of earplugs, will dictate the fit and therefore the comfort and effectiveness of the plugs, and they don’t seem to be swappable with other silicone earbud tips as DUBS are. Because DownBeats aren’t conical, a large canal might still be manageable without major discomfort–I have more of a small to average-sized ear canal so I can’t say for sure, but I’d imagine the plug would simply sit further into the ear for those with a larger canal, which is better than trying to cram in a pointy-shaped plug that is too large (unless you enjoy stabbing yourself in the ear).

Looking beyond just performance and fit, DUBS definitely had a cool “TRON-esque” look to them, but do earplugs really need to be a fashion statement, or even readily visible? I for one would rather they just do the job and keep a low profile, and I found DownBeats to do just that–they were nearly invisible to my friends and other concert-goers.

I evaluated the “Original” variety (pictured), which features a shorter stem behind the plug–itself quite small. I’d recommend this model of the plug if you’re more concerned about concealing that you’re wearing plugs at a show. There is however a second model of plug, “Long Stem” DownBeats, which look like they would be easier to insert or remove into your ear, but definitely will stick out more. Both models come in metal tube-shaped case that attaches to your keychain (if you use one), which was great–I never once forgot to bring earplugs to a show while using these as a result.

The last positive point worth mentioning is price. Earplugs can be lost easily, as I mentioned earlier, so why fork over a lot of cash for something you’ll likely need to replace within a year? At $9.99 from the manufacturer’s website, versus competing options, such as the significantly more expensive DUBS ($25), it’s much easier to justify trying DownBeats out.

The only negative point I found with these is build quality/durability. Granted, I did use the hell out of these, but eventually the stem did separate from the earbud/plug–though I was able to reattach it after digging the plug out of my ear without issue. For the price, I’m willing to accept that the build quality might not be as high as a more expensive plug.

My 3-month evaluation of the DownBeats found they offered better performance and protection for the types of concerts and venues I go out to most often, in comparison to the DUBS–not to mention the cheaper price. Last year I gave the DUBS 5 stars, and I’ve been told I can’t take that rating back now. In light of that, I can’t give these anything less than a 5 out of 5 stars, with the disclaimer that even if I could redo the review on DUBS (they’d be a solid 3/5), I would still score DownBeats a well-earned 5/5 stars. (Nathan Katsiaficas)

You can grab a pair of DownBeats here.

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