Hush, children. What’s that sound? Is it sweet silence or ringing that you hear? Las Vegas audiologist and Sound Signature CEO Courtney Smith is on a mission to protect the hearing of music lovers and those who work in the Strip’s “intense noise environments,” creating custom in-ear monitors for musicians and DJs, and earpieces for security teams, nightlife industry professionals and others. With top local clients including Drai’s, The Bank, Hyde Bellagio, SBE’s club portfolio, Encore Beach Club, the Vanguard Lounge and more musicians than you can shake a 100-watt amp at, when Smith spoke up about hearing protection, we were all ears.
What is it that you do, exactly?
I’ve been an audiologist for 11 years, and nine of those have been in Las Vegas. Audiologists treat hearing loss with technology, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. I have a mobile office, and I custom fit products for people where it’s convenient for them.
How can I tell when it’s time to put in the earplugs? Is there a rule of thumb?
The time you are exposed to noise and the volume level of that noise matters the most. You can be exposed to 85 decibels of noise for eight hours without hearing protection before hearing loss is a concern. For every five-decibel increase in sound intensity, the time you can be exposed before you risk hearing loss is reduced by half. You can be exposed to 90 decibels for four hours, 95 decibels for two hours, etc. In a nightclub, where noise can peak above 110 decibels, without hearing protection you risk hearing loss in less than five minutes.
After a long night at the club, what does that ringing in my ears mean?
It’s called tinnitus. It’s a signal from your body that hearing damage has taken place.
I’m at an outdoor music festival—not in a club. That means I don’t need earplugs, right?
Wrong! Music festivals are actually more dangerous than one night at the club. Noise exposure is like sun exposure—the length of exposure time and intensity of the noise equals the damage. If you stay at the beach in the beating sun for three days without sunscreen, you’ll get a terrible sunburn. The sunburn goes away, but if you repeat this behavior, you’ll eventually have permanent skin damage. The same is true for your hearing. If you go to a festival and rock out to your favorite bands or DJs for three days without earplugs, that damage accumulates, and you are left with ringing ears and, eventually, hearing loss.
Are cheap drugstore-brand earplugs effective?
If they are inserted as the manufacturer intended, they can be effective. Compared with custom hearing protection, they don’t protect as well in the high frequencies. They can be uncomfortable and difficult to insert properly, but they’re better than nothing. Certainly some form of hearing protection is better than none.
What about the foam freebies often available at shows? Do they even work?
They can be difficult to insert properly, and people often can’t wear them for long periods of time before they become uncomfortable. Also, they distort the clarity of speech and music by protecting at certain frequencies better than others. Foam plugs don’t protect as well in the high frequencies, and sounds in that pitch range can cause the most hearing damage.
What’s the typical decibel level in a Las Vegas nightclub, and what has a comparable noise level?
There’s very little formal research on current noise levels in Las Vegas nightclubs. I’ve done some informal readings of my own at some Las Vegas establishments. I found peak noise levels as high as 120 decibels next to the speaker. That is comparable to a sandblaster or jackhammer. A jet engine clocks in at about 140 decibels.
Is hearing loss reversible?
There are certain types of hearing loss that are reversible, such as the type of hearing loss you get from an ear infection or having wax build-up in your ear. That’s called conductive hearing loss. Once the situation is treated, your hearing returns. Sensorineural hearing loss is the type you get from noise exposure, and it causes nerve damage, which is permanent.
Is there anything I can do to make my hearing better? Like for eavesdropping on the conversation at a nearby table at a restaurant, or my boyfriend talking on the phone in the next room?
Unfortunately, there are no magic pills or potions to make your hearing better. But with today’s technology and a few microphones, anything is possible.
What do you say to audiophiles who claim earplugs ruin their music experience?
People who are passionate about music and sound demand perfection. Audiophiles are to sound as foodies are to the restaurant world. They want to taste, feel and experience music in its purest form. Reducing volume with earplugs can take away some of that richness. But if you love sound, you should listen to what science tells us. Protect your hearing and you will enjoy your passion for music much longer.
How do you help DJs and musicians protect their ears?
Musicians and DJs depend on their ears for everything. I work with musicians and bands to fit them with in-ear monitors (IEMs). IEMs are custom-fitted, miniature speakers fitted inside the ear. Think of the wedges [speakers] that musicians use to hear themselves during a show, but built for the ear. IEMs deliver the band’s mix directly to the live performer, so they can hear themselves and the band and also get about 26 decibels of hearing protection from the crowd noise. DJs don’t often like IEMs because they get too much isolation from the energy of the crowd, but there’s some new technology coming out in the next year that allows DJs to use monitors to hear their mix while also hearing the crowd. A lot of DJs use custom hearing protection for added comfort while they play because they stand very close to the speakers.
How are these custom pieces made?
They are created by a process called an ear impression. A silicone material is poured into your ear and a cast is made in five to seven minutes. The custom product is made from that cast and it fits perfectly, like a suit that is tailored for your body.
I don’t go for that EDM stuff; I’m strictly a chamber music fan. Do I need to wear earplugs at concerts?
It depends on the length of time you will be there, how close you are to the sound source and the acoustics of the room. Let your comfort be your guide. Everyone has a unique perception of loudness and tolerance for it.
Movie-theater sound systems seem to be getting louder and louder. Is there any danger to my hearing in that environment?
Movie-theater sound systems are intense. Studies have shown that movie-theater sound peaks in the 100-decibel range at some theaters. This level of sound can cause tinnitus and hearing loss. If you are cringing during the previews, it’s too loud.
How about ear buds? Are they damaging my hearing? Are exterior headphones safer?
Ear buds and exterior headphones are safe depending on the volume you are using to listen to your music. The rule of thumb is that if you can’t hear someone talk to you while you have headphones or ear buds on, it’s too loud. If someone else can hear your music while you are wearing them, you are definitely in the danger zone.
Do you get a lot of “Can you hear me now?” jokes?
At least three times a week for the last 10 years!