The right hearing protector depends on the activity. Choosing a hearing protector means looking at effectiveness, cost, comfort, durability and ease of cleaning. We look at foam, electronic, silicone, wax and other hearing noise protectors
The effectiveness of hearing protectors is measured in dB (decibels) using the OSHA NRR (Noise Reduction Rating). Every 10 dB means the physical (measured) sound intensity is reduced to 1/10, however to human ears the loudness feels reduced only to 1/2. Many hearing protectors have ratings of between 20 (feels reduced to 1/4) and 30 dB (feels reduced to 1/8).
Ear Muffs for Children, Sports, Target Shooting, Hunting etc
Ear muffs look like headphones. They cost from $10 to over $50. Popular brands include Peltor (Ultimate 10) and Howard Leight (Bilsom).
- Easy to put on and take off. Especially good for children.
- Can be worn over ear phones (ear buds) for listening to music.
- Harder to clean.
- Can be uncomfortably warm, especially in hot climates.
- Relatively big. Not easy to carry around in a bag every day. Some are foldable.
- Relatively heavy. Can be tiring to wear after a few hours.
- Can interfere with rifle holds (cheek weld).
- Not discreet, draws attention. Unsuitable for some situations such as the office.
Electronic shutoff or “active volume” amplified ear muffs are designed for shooters. Microphones outside the ear muffs pick up sound that is played back through speakers in the ear muffs. When a gunshot or other loud sound is heard, the speakers automatically switch off, turning the ear muffs into standard passive hearing protectors.
Disposable and Reusable Ear Plugs for Musicians, Swimming, Sleeping, Shooting etc
Choosing ear plugs can be surprisingly complicated as the various materials have very different performance characteristics. Popular brands include Hearos, Flents, Howard Leight (Max), Quies and Moldex.
Disposable ear plugs (sponge, soft silicone, soft wax) cost less than a dollar (most can be cleaned and used a few times). Reusable ear plugs (plastic, rubber, silicone) cost a few dollars.
- Cheap. Disposable sponge ear plugs can be distributed to a group of people (for school tours etc).
- Small and light, easy to carry around every day.
- Unobtrusive, suitable for daily use in almost any situation.
- Suitable for sleeping (blocking out snoring spouses).
- Some are waterproof, designed to keep swimmers’ ears dry.
- Many can be cut or molded for a better fit.
- Can be difficult to insert.
- Can loosen and fall out. Corded ear plugs are useful to prevent loss. Banded ear plugs use a spring head band to hold the plugs in place, but the spring pressure can cause discomfort.
- Small, easy to lose.
- Needs to be kept clean because is inserted into the ear canal. Not suitable for handling with dirty hands.
- Needs an air-tight seal to be effective. Accidentally pushing or pulling the plug can cause painful pressure on the ear drum.
Sponge ear plugs are cheap and popular. Some are rated as high as 31 to 33 dB. They are rolled and squashed between the fingers so that they can be easily inserted (better quality sponges don’t bounce back or expand back immediately). Some have a hard plastic stem so that they can be (slowly) pushed in. If too thick for comfort, they can be cut for a better fit.
Soft wax and soft silicone plugs can be molded (like clay) for a comfortable and waterproof fit, without the expense of a custom ear plug. They are good for sleeping and swimming, but pick up dirt easily. Small bits can also break off inside the ear.
Plastic, rubber or silicone ear plugs are reusable (washable) and stiff enough to be easy to insert. They are less comfortable and usually not suitable for wearing to sleep. Many have flanged designs that look like multi-level mushrooms.
“High fidelity” ear plugs have less of the muffled sound produced by ear plugs and sound more natural because they don’t block the higher frequencies as much (flatter frequency response). They are popular with musicians and rock concert audiences. Noise protection is less, usually 6 to 12 dB. Examples include Etymotic Research, Sonic II and Hearos High Fidelity.
“Sound limiting” ear plugs shut off only at high noise levels, allowing normal conversations to be heard. They are closed mechanically by sound pressure and don’t need batteries. Like electronic ear muffs, they are designed for shooting or “tactical” use, working well with the sudden percussive sound of a gunshot.
- Radians Cease Fire Sound Baffler.
- Peltor 97079 Combat Arms.
- SureFire Ear Pro Sonic Defenders.
The Best Ear Plugs or Ear Muffs
Ear plugs should be carried every day by everyone. They are small, light and cheap. They can be used in the cinema, office, library, workshop, college dorm, train, sports stadium.
Ear muffs are better for some situations. Ear plugs should still be carried as a backup, in case the ear muffs are accidentally left behind.
The Argonne National Laboratory (Division of Educational Program) has a webpage on decibels and human loudness perception (http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/eng99/eng99325.htm).