More and more churches are getting rid of the wedges on stage and switching to in-ear based monitoring systems. Generally, this is a good thing. It greatly reduces stage wash in the house, makes for a quieter stage overall, and can do a lot to protect the hearing of musicians and engineers alike. With a custom IEM, you’ll get somewhere in the neighborhood of 24-26 dB of passive noise reduction; which takes a 105-110 dB SPL A stage down to a safer and more manageable 80-ish. Of course, this is assuming that the musicians have the discipline to keep the volume reasonable in their ears. And that feedback never happens. Or a mic never falls over. Or some random, insanely loud bit of digital noise never sneaks into the IEM mix.
I admit that once or twice I have pushed the wrong button on the console and sent musicians scrambling to rip their ears out. Thankfully, both times I caught it quickly and no one was hurt. But I do know someone who lost a significant portion of his hearing in one hear because he was leaning down to adjust a guitar pedal when piercing feedback erupted from his wedge (thankfully, I was not the engineer on that one).
As more and more musicians go to IEMs, they have to start thinking about protecting their hearing. A deaf musician has a harder time making a living, or simply enjoying their craft. We can and should be diligent as engineers to do everything we can to protect them (and our hearing as well), but sometimes bad things happen.
Ultimate Ears has been making custom IEMs as long as almost any company and saw a need to help musicians protect themselves. At NAMM they unveiled a small box called the Sound Guard. It’s under 2” square and about a half inch thick. It comes with a belt clip and two 3.5mm jacks; in and out. A short jumper cable connects the Sound Guard to the wireless receiver or wired cable, and the IEMs are plugged into the output jack. It’s powered by a pair of CR2450 batteries, and runs about 20 hours on a set. Though I’ve been using mine for what seems like a lot longer than 20 hours on the original batteries.
You Have Two Jobs
Sound Guard does two things. First, it handles some impedance matching. One of the biggest problems with many IEM systems is that the output impedance doesn’t match up properly with the impedance of balanced armature-based IEMs. The Sound Guard fixes that. Without getting too technical, it cleans up the low end significantly, and improves transient response. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have heard from reliable sources that the Sound Guard really improves the sound of our favorite personal mixing punching bag, the Aviom A-16 II.
The second, and primary purpose of the Sound Guard is to protect against high-level, accidental transients. It acts effectively like a limiter, monitoring average sound levels and lowering the level of a spike to safer levels. This would include things like feedback, a mic falling off a stand, a cable short or burst of digital garbage.
I have been testing the Sound Guard with various sources for the last few months and found that it does indeed make most things sound a little better. It’s not an, “OH MY GOSH!!!” improvement in sound, at least in the sources I’ve tried, but there is a noticeable improvement, especially at the low end. It’s cleaner, tighter and better.
On the listening tests I did, it seemed like I could hear subtle details a little bit better than without SoundGuard. For example, I’ve been a fan of Lone Justice for almost 30 years, and have listened to Shelter hundreds of times. A favorite song is Dixie Storms, it’s just Maria McKee and her piano. It’s a beautiful song but I have never noticed the spring reverb they put the piano through. Now part of it is likely the UE11’s I’m listening with, but I felt like I could hear the corrosion on the springs, it was that clear.
Because the Sound Guard has a limiter in it, I kept expecting to hear it clamp down on something at some point. I never did. Of course, I haven’t injected a high-level spike into my ears either. I’ve seen test results showing that it does clamp down on spikes and I will take their word for it. Plus, I don’t have a convenient way of testing it.
So I did the next best thing; I talked to my friends at UE. They told me the limiter doesn’t kick in until approximately 109 dB. They originally set it lower, but the beta testers kept telling them to turn it up. I suggested a switchable setting perhaps between 100 dB and 109 dB. Of course, actual output will depend on the ears you’re wearing, but that gives you some options. I suspect this may be in the works at some point.
The SoundGuard isn’t one of those products you simply must run out and get right now! However, for a musician that wears balanced armature in-ears, especially one who is plugged into a wireless pack or Aviom, it is worth the investment, if not for the sound improvement alone. RF spikes can hurt and can be damaging, and this little box will protect you from them. At $199, it’s not a no-brainer, but consider what your hearing is worth. I know I’m not giving mine back.
I have to mention--mainly to keep the FTC happy--that UE gave me a SoundGuard to evaluate. So technically I don't have to give it back. But I really like it, so I'm keeping it. Disclosure over.