PAR Studio Review: Etymotic Research Inc. MP·9-15 Music·PRO Electronic Earplugs

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The MP·9-15 Music·PRO ($299 direct) is an adaptive noise-reduction earplug that epitomizes the old adage “less is more.” Now in its second generation (and I’ve field-tested both), Etymotic Research Inc.’s active, high-fidelity musicians earplugs are even more low profile, and at a lower cost than when initially launched, without sacrificing any features. The acoustic research company, building on decades of experience in hearing aids and audiophile earphones, conserves hearing alongside effective personal monitoring.

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Though far from protruding before, the universal-fit Music·PRO has shaved down its original, more antennae-like form factor and been reconfigured as a “bean” that nestles even more comfortably into the auricle. An assortment of over five ACCU-Fit tip styles (from more plush foam to deeply penetrating triple-flange silicon) assure you can achieve that imperative seal in the ear canal. What hasn’t changed is the tiny apparatus’s ability to amplify or attenuate high-fidelity sound, increasing both ease and protection in highly percussive sound environments.

Powered by #10A zinc air batteries (inserted in an easily accessed swinging drawer), the Music·PRO combines high-sensitivity microphones, high-definition balanced-armature drivers and K-AMP signal processing that functions in two modes. By flipping a diminutive toggle (accessible while the earplugs are inserted, though you might not want to trim your nails to the quick), you can pick between +6 dB with -9 dB ducking, or “open ear” levels with -15 dB ducking.

What this delivers, unlike frequency-muffling foam earplugs, is wide bandwidth of 40 Hz to 16 kHz, either boosted or at normal volume. However, regardless of mode, once a high SPL tone is detected the circuit reduces levels instantaneously. The compression is applied uniformly, ensuring the dynamic range isn’t impacted even as the sound pressure is adjusted to the equivalent of a -35 dB passive earplug at peak levels (120+ dB). And, once SPL returns to a safe level—whether at the end of a short transient or a sustained passage—the Music·PRO’s output intelligently recovers increments until it returns to a conversational setting so as not to impact the fidelity of quieter moments.

So that’s how they work. Now you’re surely wonder if they work. And the answer is absolutely. Recently I attended a show by the Foo Fighters at Washington, D.C.’s Black Cat, a 700-person club (feel free to read all about it on the site of PAR’s sister publication Electronic Musician). So, imagine a six-man band delivering arena rock-sized riffs in a venue that small and you understand the need for hearing protection.

Preceding the show, part of a series of previews leading up to the release of the band’s Sonic Highways album, was a screening of the HBO docu-series chronicling the recording of the album. This two-part evening allowed me to test both the +6 dB and -15 dB modes of the Music·PRO. Set to boost before I entered the club, the Music·PRO assured I had no problem speaking with the staff about the guestlist, eavesdropping on some conversations at the bar or listening to the television episode being broadcast on six flat screens around the venue. Honestly, the transmission was so natural that I would almost forget the earplugs were in until a sharp burst of hollering and applause would create a flutter sensation.

Flipping to -15 dB reduction as Dave Grohl and company took the stage, I experienced the sensation of dampening as the crowd’s fervor built up from 70 dB (triggering the circuitry’s threshold). And once the band kicked in full force I had the opportunity to appreciate the next three hours of unflagging energy in relative comfort. The music came across with unaltered timbre, just without punishing effects.

So, is the Music·PRO the perfect ear fatigue solution? Yes—for most applications. Performers, front-of-house engineers, support staff, security personnel and fervent audiences alike can all benefit from the dual-mode balance of responsiveness and unobtrusiveness. If your circumstances require transitioning between varying ambient levels while retaining clarity, the Music·PRO assures you won’t miss delicate phrases, thundering climaxes, invaluable instructions or enjoyable exchanges.

At the same time, Etymotic does offers an equally recommendable passive solution in its custom-molded silicon Musicians Earplugs, which feature a wide bore capped with a replaceable diaphragm-equipped “button” to evenly reduce SPL via a uniform 9, 15 or 25 dB. Undeniably comfort kings, the personalized option (which does require a trip to the audiologist and can’t be shared) might be better for observers catching just the main act, rather than participants in the whole show.

If you’re looking to avoid fumbling with ear protection for hours on end, however, and want to save both your hearing and your resale value as you wander through venues, the Music·PRO Electronic Earplugs get my highest recommendation for combining plentiful features in a freshly refined package.