What style of hearing protection is right for me?
Passive hearing protection is sufficient for many situations. Generally, a good set of passive hearing protectors for short term wear with no need to communicate with others and situational awareness is not a factor, will save your hearing for minimal cost.
Electronic hearing protection is designed to help you remain aware of your environment, communicate more easily and generally feel more comfortable because you are less isolated. Passive hearing protection will cut you off from all sounds, not just the loud ones. Losing one of your main senses, even temporarily can be disconcerting and reduce your ability to concentrate.
Ideally you want just the amount of protection necessary to protect your hearing and no more. Too much protection can lead to unnecessary isolation and be unsafe. A higher NRR is generally associated with a larger earmuff and the size may cause other issues I will discuss later in this guide. The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is a guide to the level of noise attenuation provided by your hearing protector. A simple way to understand NRR is the higher the number the more noise attenuated. In reality the test protocol is not this simple. Some protectors can provide more attenuation at higher frequency sound, less protection for low frequency sounds and according to the test protocol established by OSHA, have a lower NRR. In a factory environment with specific types of equipment to protect against this can be important. For the average user being aware that in general, a higher number NRR provides more attenuation is sufficient information to decide. NRR is generally a number between 20 and 30.
Both in-ear and over-the-ear styles are sold as passive or electronic and can provide the right level of protection (NRR). Selecting in-ear or over the ear protection is a matter of comfort, fit, price and performance for your type of use.
Environmental Factors – Earmuffs trap heat inside the cups. Sound waves are converted to heat in the process of attenuation. When it is cool or cold outside the extra heat can increase comfort. On a hot day the heat and perspiration caused by the earmuff can add to discomfort and lead to lower concentration – your brain starts thinking about comfort instead of the task at hand. An in-ear protector has just the opposite result, cooler to wear in hot weather but leave your ears exposed when it is cold outside.
Form Factor – Earmuffs must fit securely to your head. Any gaps between the ear seal and the skull due to shape of the skull or ears, or interference of hair, glasses, hats or your ears not fitting inside the ear seal properly can lead to sound leakage. A secure fit of muff to head is generally accomplished by the compressive force of the headband. The type of ear seal on the earmuff can also affect the quality of the fit. The compressive force of the headband can result in headaches over time. If you intend to wear the earmuffs a short time the compression may not be an issue. The compression can also press the stem of glasses or the base of a hat into your head leading to further discomfort. Well-designed headbands and ear seals can reduce the effect of the compression.
In-ear protection relies on the ear tip to passively block sound. Tips are generally made from foam or rubber. There are trade-offs between the type of material and the shape of the tips with comfort and sound attenuation. To avoid sound leaks it is essential to get a complete seal between the tip and your ear canal. The pressure of the tip in the ear canal due to shape, length and material can cause irritation of the canal. For some people with more sensitive ear canals this can be unbearable. Foam tips with good memory can reduce the level of irritation and provide good attenuation.
Weight – The materials used to construct the hearing protector will impact the weight of the product. The earmuff rests on your head. If worn for a short period of time the added weight on your head may not be too uncomfortable. When wearing earmuffs for an extended time the added weight can cause a hot spot to form on the head.
Wearing earmuffs with glasses, hats, long hair or beards can create a gap between the ear seal and the skull leading to sound leaks. The amount of compressive force from the headband, the shape of the cup and the type of ear seal can help to minimize this issue. In-ear products are generally not affected by any of these factors.
Special attachments can help the fit of an earmuff for helmets and hardhats. There are also cups designed to fit better with certain style hardhats and helmets. These cups are generally designed with a tapered shape at the top of the earmuff for better fit under the rim of the headgear. The thinner surface improves fit but will affect the NRR.
In-ear models cannot be worn with hearing aids, however if hearing loss is modest, electronic in-ear models can provide sufficient amplification to assist with hearing in noisy environments.
Earmuffs are designed to fit most, but not all, head sizes. Adjustments for size are made using the headband to expand and contract to improve fit. Individuals with larger heads (hat size 8 or larger) may experience discomfort due to excessive headband compression. Individuals with smaller heads (babies and adolescents) may have a poor fit leading to sound leaks. Some manufacturers design products that have smaller dimensions specifically to fit adolescents and adults with smaller heads.
Ear plugs are generally one-size-fits-all. They may be uncomfortable for individuals with smaller ear canals or not fully fill the ear canal, which lessens the protection, for users with larger ear canals. Some in-ear models come with multiple size ear tips to help fit a larger proportion of customers.
Ears are like fingerprints – no two people are exactly alike. This is true both for the inner ear and the exterior ear. Additionally, ear shape and size change over time. An ear plug that fits when younger may no longer fit as you age.
The interior shape and circumference of an earmuff ear-seal are not all the same. People with longer ear lobes, or who wear earrings should consider looking for an earmuff with a larger interior circumference. A more rectangular shaped cup have a larger interior circumference and may led to an improved fit.
Comfort and fit is affected by the distance from the cups interior foam and your ear. the ear seal should hold the cup away from the ear. Ear seals that collapse too easily due to the type of foam or headband compression or models built with too little space between the interior foam and exterior of the cup may press against the ear. The foam against the ear can cause irritation. When selecting an earmuff look for cups with a thicker ear seal made with viscoelastic foam or silicone gel which tend to hold the cup and interior foam away from the ear.
An ear tip or earplug may not fit all ear canals equally. To work properly the tip must be fully inserted into the ear canal. The angles and depth of ear canals are unique for all people. It is best to look for in-ear hearing protection that comes with multiple size ear tips to find a good fit. Ideally, the tips will be made from flexible material with memory to form to and fill the specific shape ear canal.
Secure fit is the key to effective hearing protection. Earmuffs require the least effort to correctly wear. An earplug is more difficult insert properly, getting a good seal to block sounds. It is also difficult to assure proper fit for children since they do not always provide good feedback. Because of the headband compressive force the earmuff can fit more securely to your head. This can be important if you are involved in strenuous physical activity. The secure fit of an earbud can be enhanced with the use of ear hooks, either in ear or around the ear. Additionally, the smaller the ear bud housing the less weight resting outside the ear. This creates less gravitational pull for the earbud to fall out of the ear.
Clarity of Sound
Sound quality, in my opinion, is the most important and often overlooked (at least initially) differentiator between different models of electronic hearing protectors. A passive hearing protector, by design, blocks most intelligible sounds. Electronic hearing protection is designed to allow the user to hear lower decibel sounds, either as a pass-through sound (not amplified) or at various levels of amplification. There are different technologies employed to accomplish this task. The more advanced technologies try to mimic natural sound. Static, cutting out, electronic sound, tinny sound or delayed sounds are unnatural. When the brain processes unnatural sounds it requires energy which is energy that is not being applied to the task at hand (competing, concentrating, enjoying) and causes fatigue. For a short period of time the fatigue may not be noticeable. For extended time it becomes it becomes more apparent. Small amounts of fatigue or loss of concentration can be the difference between optimal performance and second place. For better performance select electronic hearing protection that provides the most natural sound. Factors that impact sound quality include microphones, speakers, amplifiers, pcb’s and the programming. Cup shape and material can also impact sound quality. The specifications for each of these components impacts the final product sound quality. Just like you can purchase a stereo at a discount store and it will reproduce music, the sound quality will not be the same as a system bought from a high-end audio store. The difference is design and components. The way to compare is via specifications. High quality audio can be found in both earmuffs and earbud hearing protection.
Some electronic hearing protectors have separate amplification adjustments for each ear. Other models have a single adjustment control so the level of amplification is equal in both ears. The benefit of separate adjustment controls for each ear is the ability to balance the sound between each ear to fit your personal hearing profile. This may be important to individuals with unequal hearing loss in each ear. It also comes in handy to be able to turn down or off one side when it is particularly noisy to that side. Think about having someone two lanes down using a muzzle break. Wouldn’t it be nice to turn off that side of your hearing protection and not lose your situational awareness?
Whether sighting in a long gun or working in close-quarters, your hearing protection should not interfere with the job at hand. Bumping your ear muff against the stock of your gun or on other items in an industrial setting or not fitting properly when wearing a bump cap reduces your performance. The design of earmuffs, the larger the hearing protector the greater the noise attenuation. To block out more sound the interior volume of the cup needs to increase. When selecting an ear muff consider the trade-off between NRR level and the intended activity you will be participating in while wearing the protectors to get optimum performance.
Earbud stye protectors can be an effective alternative to earmuffs for certain activities where the size of the hearing protector is an issue. Some earbud style protectors have an NRR as high as 28 or 29 and are less obtrusive than earmuffs.
Electronic and passive hearing protectors can offer connectivity to radios, telephones, walkie-talkies and scanners. The most common type of connection is the 3mm mic jack. These hearing protectors will usually come with a cable to connect the hearing protector to the radio/phone. Newer telephones no longer include a mic jack so wired connection is not possible. Bluetooth may be the only alternative to connect to a telephone unless you have an older model phone. When connecting to other types of devices check the size of the mic jacks to be sure they are compatible.
Being able to connect to a radio may be job essential. Wearing a hearing protector with connectivity will allow the user to avoid the need to remove the hearing protector, remain in contact and not endanger hearing.
Passive protectors may have similar connections but without the ability to hear through for other ambient sounds. Basically, all sounds are attenuated except those emanating from the connected device. This type of hearing protector can be either via wire or Bluetooth. Earbuds tend to be Bluetooth connection only.
Typical batteries used for hearing protection include AAA, AA, N, CR123. Some hearing protection is rechargeable using either a micro USB, USB or USB-C port.
Battery life using a non-rechargeable battery will vary from 80 to 300 hours. A larger voltage battery such as the N style battery will generally extend the operating time of the hearing protector.
Hearing protection with a rechargeable battery will usually operate from 4 to 8 hours depending on use. USB-C chargers are usually much faster to recharge. A few newer models have rechargeable batteries that last over 20 hours.
Consider your expected use, your access to a port to recharge when not in use. Carry spare batteries in your kit bag so you avoid losing your electronics at an inconvenient time.
Reliability is an important factor to consider. Hearing protection is a safety device and should be considered an investment in your hearing. Electronic hearing protection can be a big investment. Typical industry warranties go from nonexistent to 5 years. Select your hearing protection from a company that offers a longer warranty as they are likely to be of higher quality.
Passive hearing protection ranges from a few dollars for foam ear plugs to $40.00 for high quality ear muffs and approximately $100.00 for custom molded ear plugs.
Electronic hearing protection can range from $30.00 to $500.00 and can cost even more for specialized communications headsets.
Sound quality, adjustability and features all impact price. Choose wisely!
Where it is made
Most hearing protectors are made outside the USA. Only a select few models are still made in the USA.