I tried earplugs designed for motorsports at one of the longest and loudest races in the world -- here's what I thought

For the past few years, I’ve been rather frequently attending car races, and I’ve discovered that an indispensable piece of equipment is a set of earplugs.

As a member of the media, I usually have some sort of access to the pit stops, where the race cars pull in to get tire changes and to be refueled. The noise they make, up close, it literally eardrum-obliterating.

But even if you don’t get down close to the action, the type of intense racket that race cars generate can be very bad for your hearing.

In the past, I’ve usually made do with disposable foam earplugs, which dampen the wail of screaming engines, but also muffle everything else.

Then a company called Etymotic, which makes a range of earphones and hearing-protection devices, offered to let me sample a pair of ER-20 XS high-definition earplugs designed specifically for motorsports.

I had a great test in mind for the product: the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race, held every June southwest of Paris in the French countryside.

How’d they do? Read on to find out:

Over the past two and half years or so, I've been attending sports-car races fairly often. This one took place in Upstate New York and featured only screaming Ferrari 458s.


Noise levels in the pits can be ear-shattering. Seriously, you don't want to be down there without earplugs when the race cars pull in -- and especially when they pull away!

Matthew DeBord/Business Insider

Normally, I use disposable foam earplugs, such as these. That cord allows you to keep them around your neck so you don't lose them when you take them out.

Matthew DeBord/BI

Etymotic, a 33-year-old company based in Illinois, thought that as an auto journalist I might be interested in trying their new motorsports-oriented earplugs. They kindly sent me a complete set of ER-20 ES plugs, which retails for about $25.

Matthew DeBord/BI

Read about Etymotic here.

Here they are up-close. They come with a very thin, detachable, threadlike cord.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The set includes two different sizes of silicon plugs and a pair of foam plugs, for old-school types. The cool thing is that the plugs reduce potentially ear-damaging noise by about 20 dB, according to the company, but they don't completely block out sound.

Matthew DeBord/BI

They are also designed to be more comfortable than foam earplugs. In my experience, they very much were.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The entire kit comes with a black case, so you can store and protect your earplugs when you aren't using them.

Matthew DeBord/BI

So what's the verdict? (That's me this past June at the famous Dunlop Bridge on Le Mans' Circuit de la Sarthe, by the way.)

Matthew DeBord/BI

I took my Etymotic earplugs with me this past spring to test them at one of motorsports' greatest events: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an endurance race that starts on Saturday and ends on Sunday -- an entire day of racing, designed to break men and machines.

It's a big race, and there are lots of cars, and once they start running, the noise never lets up.

I had access to much of the race track and had the chance to see how the Etymotics performed over the long haul.

They did very well -- far better than foam plugs, which do indeed block out too much sound and can be uncomfortable, with a tendency to fall out of my ears. The Etymotics stayed put in my ear canals and were comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

For $25, I think they're worth the substantial premium you might pay over a decent pair of foam earplugs (the kind you might use for a few races), and they're less expensive and cumbersome than full-on over the ear hearing protection.

I had one minor problem, however, that has to be mentioned. Because they're so light and unobtrusive, after the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans was over and I took the earplugs out, leaving them dangling around my neck, the French winds carried them away, to a place I know not where. (Etymotic was kind enough to send me another set so that I could take some photos.)

Aside from that drawback, they were amazing. Highly recommended if you take in a lot of auto racing and don't want your love of the sport to ruin your hearing.

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