Tucked in the northeast corner of Miami's Ultra Music Festival near the UMF Radio stage, dozens are unabashedly grabbing condoms courtesy of the Florida Department of Health. Most pick up the flavored ones that come in pineapple and strawberry varieties, and there are the confident few who grab the Magnum XLs. (Just a reminder, kids: Set your ego aside and make sure the condom fits properly.)

However, the table next door is giving away an even better form of protection: earplugs.

“The response has been so great. We can't keep them on the table,” says Dr. Tricia Scaglione, an audiologist at the festival with the University of Miami Health System. She, along with Dr. Dana Libman and a handful of volunteers, wants to educate Ultra's attendees about hearing loss.

Their table isn't exactly buzzing with activity on Saturday when I stop by to speak with them. They admit that at first people hesitate to approach, perhaps a little afraid to face the truth: The volume levels at festivals like Ultra often exceed 100 decibels, which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), can cause damage after more than 15 minutes of exposure. (Even at 85 decibels, WHO says exposure should be limited to no more than eight hours a day.) Ultra lasted for three days, more than 30 hours of exposure. 

With a decibel reader installed on my iPhone, I measured decibel levels from 96 to 107 at the various stages around Ultra. However, Libman warned me that the mics on smartphones usually cancel out background noise — a feature that helps the call quality but can prevent decibel-level apps from picking up the bass, meaning that the levels were probably much higher than what my phone could pick up.

So, with levels so dangerously high, why aren't more people concerned about hearing loss?

“I believe the most common misconception about using earplugs is that they will interfere with the enjoyment of music,” Libman says. “This can be absolutely true if the wrong kind of plugs are used. There are different types of hearing protection for different types of sounds.”

According to Libman, the foam plugs you can buy at the pharmacy often reduce the high-frequency sound, which leaves the listener with a less full and complete sound of the music.

“There are these really good musician plugs with a filter in them that help lower the dangerous volumes but keep the frequency range across the whole spectrum that make it so you can enjoy these concerts for years to come,” Scaglione says.

My own journey with earplugs started last year when I attended Miami's III Points music festival. Unprompted, I stopped by a Walgreens to buy foam plugs, probably because I was tired of my ears aching after going to multiday festivals.

Even for those in the back rows, earplugs are essential.; Credit: Photo by George Martinez

Even for those in the back rows, earplugs are essential.; Credit: Photo by George Martinez

I've been attending Ultra since 2006, as well as countless concerts and club nights throughout the years. At some point, I found that my right ear is hard of hearing and that, when a person is standing on that side speaking to me, conversations can sound muffled in loud places.

Still, I've avoided one thing: tinnitus, aka ringing in the ears. I've experienced some temporary symptoms but never the continuous ringing that plagues some so badly that, when the background noise is low, the ringing can make it difficult to concentrate or sleep.

I wore those foam plugs the entire weekend during III Points and found that, for the most part, I could hear the music pretty well but had to keep removing them every time I tried to have a conversation.

Still, according to Libman and Scaglione, something is better than nothing, so foam plugs are good in a pinch.

At Ultra, I used a pair of Etymotic Music Pro plugs, which, other than going to an audiologist to get a pair of custom-made plugs, is the next best thing. They retail for $299, so while not exactly cheap, they offer a superb quality that allowed me to be able to hear Richie Hawtin's set at the Carl Cox tent clearly — and safely — with the added bonus of cutting out all the background noise around me without limiting my ability to hold a conversation.

It also meant that by the time Ultra was over on Sunday, my ears were thanking me. 

“I think people naturally take hearing for granted,” Libman says. “Noise-induced hearing loss, specifically, often occurs very gradually. … Many people also associate hearing loss with aging and are not aware of the risks of extended exposure to loud sound.”

WHO warns that between this generation's use of headphones and love of noisy venues, 1.1 billion people are at risk for hearing loss.

Ultra seems to want to make sure its attendees try to protect their ears. So when tickets were mailed out this year, in addition to including free Ultra-branded sunglasses and a bandanna, there was also a pair of musician earplugs.

According to Scaglione and Libman, the UHealth contacted Ultra about attending the festival, and Ultra was more than happy to have them there.

“Based on our positive experience at this year's festival, we look forward to being involved with the 2017 Ultra Music Festival,” Scaglione says. The entire supply of 1,200 plugs was handed out at Ultra, and they expect to bring a larger stock next year.

Still, walking around the festival, it was painfully obvious that most attendees opted to leave their Ultra-branded plugs at home — particularly the younger festivalgoers. Those who did sport earplugs looked like festival veterans or were Ultra staff.

I stopped Ariella and Jocelyn, two 18-year-old women who were making their way to the mainstage with naked ears. Is there any reason why they should be wearing earplugs at Ultra?

“No, not really,” Jocelyn says. “It's not like I go to the front where the bass is.”

“They are really uncomfortable,” Ariella adds.

This article originally appeared in our sister publication, Miami New Times. Visit its music section for more Ultra coverage.

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