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My wife is a fairly accomplished flautist who has recently taken up the piccolo. Already practicing the flute is probably affecting her hearing, and the piccolo promises to be an order of magnitude worse.

She's tried earplugs, but she can't adequately hear the tone of the instrument when using those, so it occurred to me to try a microphone, small amplifier, and noise-cancelling earphones to allow her to hear the full tone of the instrument while protecting her hearing from the intense volume.

The problem is, I cannot find a suitable small (preferably battery-powered) amplifier. Standard mike preamps are both horribly expensive and quite bulky (and most seem to be tube type that wouldn't do too well on battery power), but otherwise about all I can find are "guitar headphone practice amps" and phono preamps.

Close as I can tell, the typical guitar practice amp is designed for an input level about 10x the typical mike input level, while a phono preamp (while it would appear to be sensitive enough) has RIAA compensation which I wouldn't want. Is there an obvious alternative to either of these, or is there a reason I've overlooked that either would work fairly well (with good tone quality, low distortion, and reasonably low noise)?

I was an electrical engineer in a former life and have considered building something, but I'd prefer to buy something in a nice package.

(It does seem odd that no one has designed a custom box for this use, perhaps with the mike built in.)

Update 2/27 Last night I jury-rigged a test setup (with a crummy, noisy amp) for my wife to try and she indicated that she liked it. Today I bought the rest of the parts I need to build something. We'll see if I ever get around to doing it.

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I'll add that it would be nice if the box had only 1/8" inputs/outputs. I don't see that XLRs are needed here. –  Hot Licks Feb 19 '12 at 23:17
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I don't think I'd trust noise cancelling headphones to cancel out a dynamic sound like an instrument being played. They're more for cancelling a constant background noise. Also this solution seems overcomplicated. What kind of earplugs have you tried? Disposable wax/foam plugs will affect her ability to hear the tone, but musicians' earplugs (starting at $25 or so) should attenuate all audible frequencies equally. –  slim Feb 20 '12 at 11:27
    
The noise cancelling probably isn't necessary, but earphones that block outside noise well. –  Hot Licks Feb 20 '12 at 11:47
    
Interesting question. I'm not sure I understand why you'd want to amplify and feed the sound through headphones. I think that could be worse for her hearing. Is the idea to get her to play more softly? Or can she not hear herself when she plays softly unamplified? –  vjones Feb 26 '12 at 4:01
    
@vjones -- The problem is that the direct sound from the instrument is too loud (and damaging to her ears). –  Hot Licks Feb 26 '12 at 23:32

3 Answers 3

An in-ear-monitoring headphone preamp would seem the right tool, such as the Fischer Amps bodypack XL. This one has only XLR inputs (two of which won't be needed, that's of course not so nice), but I can't see why you would prefer 1/8". The whole endeavour only has a point if you actually manage to make the sound substantially better than with earplugs, so I'd see to it that a proper condenser mic is used – for which you need phantom power over XLR.

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Unfortunately, most "in-ear-monitoring headphone preamps" don't have mike inputs -- that Fischer unit seems to be about the only one that does. –  Hot Licks Feb 21 '12 at 12:09

You could try "musicians ear plugs" as commented by @slim. This is not mic/amp, but earplugs that reduce all frequences equally so the sound is not distorted in any way. It just lower the volume received by the ear, and the music still sounds right, just not so loud.

Here is a online store where it seems they have some good alternatives:

http://www.earplugstore.com/nasopl.html

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So what you need is a way for your wife to hear herself play "naturally", but with a volume control.

The "right" answer is a mic setup (a clip-on, condenser on a stand, omni area mic, or some combo) that goes to a simple 4-channel home studio mixer, which has a monitor/earphones output into which you plug some noise-cancelling studio reference headphones. The "pro audio" department of your local music store can set you up; the cost of it will depend on the quality of the gear. You can get a Mackie 402-VLZ3 mixer for about $100 that will suit your needs quite well, but a good studio-quality mic and good studio-reference noise-cancelling earphones will each be in the $200-$300 range.

To save some money, you can replace the mixer in most cases with a computer (you'd have to have the computer already to save the money, of course). You can either use a USB microphone or buy a converter that will accept an XLR input and feed it into the computer via the mic-in, line-in, SPDIF, or some internal connection (SoundBlaster used to market sound cards with a "LiveDrive" interface that was installed into a 5.25" drive slot and hooked to the sound card directly with a ribbon cable).

The most important part of the whole thing is a good pair of headphones. An NRR of 25 or better would be great if you can get it, the problem is that most studio phones aren't rated like ear protection is.

One last thought that occurred to me; there are specialty earmuffs made for shooting guns. They're basically a very high-NRR earmuff, that also has a microphone with adjustable volume and a compressor circuit. They're designed to detect high-volume transients (gunfire) and compress/suppress them, while allowing the person wearing them to hear people talking normally in between shots. Depending on the exact design, you might find that a pair of these will fit the bill quite nicely in a very portable package; she puts them on and naturally gets an NRR of 30 or better, but using the mic at a reasonable volume she can hear herself. The mic will not be studio-quality by any stretch, though.

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