Our hearing is vital to our daily lives and activities. If we are in the military, law enforcement or we hunt, being able to hear well is a basic job requirement.
There are many ways to protect our hearing, ranging from simple foam earplugs, which go inside your ear canal to block out sounds, to earmuffs you wear over your ears. These do a good job of blocking out sounds—both the loud sounds we don’t want to get through, as well as the quieter sounds we do want to get through. That is where the electronic “cousins” of these foam noise-blockers come into play.
A WORD ABOUT THE TECHNOLOGY
Electronic hearing protection serves two purposes: first, to block out the damaging loud and high-frequency sounds we don’t want to reach our ear drums; second, to allow us to hear the normal and even softer sounds we do want to reach our ear drums. Both electronic earplugs (inside the ear canal) and electronic earmuffs (over the ear) couple the same foam materials used in the non-electronic versions to block out the damaging noises with the same kind of technology used in hearing aids to give you the ability to hear the safe sounds.
Environmental sounds are picked up by the microphone on the outside of the earplug or earmuff. It is then sent to a signal processor that filters out anything louder than 85 or 90 decibels (dB). It might also boost the volume of softer sounds, based on the settings you apply. The remaining safe level of sound is then sent to the microphone, which plays it into your ear so you can hear it.
Electronic earplugs use the same kind of technology you find in hearing aids, but with less-complex circuitry and capabilities. They are not intended for use as hearing aids and cannot be sold or promoted as medical devices.
They are also much less expensive than medical-grade hearing aids: They start at a few hundred dollars at the non-custom fit end of the spectrum and run into the thousands with the custom-fit ear molds and more-sophisticated functionality at the higher end of the spectrum.
The basic features that are available include:
- Keeping out dangerous sounds;
- Comfortable fit;
- Less weight than external earmuffs;
- No impact on your shooting form or ability to wear headgear;
- Ability to wear them all day if desired;
- Swappable ear tips in different sizes to ensure you get a good fit in your ear canal; alternatively, taking impressions of your ear and ear canal to ensure a custom and more-comfortable fit;
- Volume control and boosting of environmental sounds;
- Different hearing programs in some models to fine-tune the device for certain kinds of sounds;
- Replaceable or rechargeable batteries;
- On/off switches or capabilities;
- Water-resistant or waterproof capabilities
Here are some of the most popular models on the market now. They are not only user friendly and effective, they also show the range of available functions and features. Prices are MSRP from the manufacturer’s website, but some have a lower street price.
MODEL: Silencer Ear Buds
NRR (Noise Reduction Rating): 25 dB
Silencer Ear Buds are Walker’s’ venture into in-the-ear hearing protection. The company took a simple design and added some innovative features, such as being able to customize the parts that go in the ear canal and in the outside of the ear to give you a good fit. They are designed for those who shoot guns and are looking for a relatively inexpensive product to protect and enhance their hearing.
- Patented Secure-Lock fitting
- SAC (Sound Activated Compression) protects hearing.
- OS-R3110 digital sound processing
- Independent volume control
- On/off power switch
- Integrated omni-directional microphones
- Full-dynamic-range speakers deliver crisp, clear sound.
- Includes baffled silicone-and-foam ear buds (three sizes each)
- Secure-Lock sizing fins (three sizes)
- Removable lanyard
- 25 dB NRR
- 80 hours battery life (estimated)
- Powered by #10 batteries (four included)
- Matte black with carbon-fiber accents
- Carry case included
The least expensive of the products in this buyer’s guide, Silencer Ear Buds are very effective and easy to use. They come with a number of different tips to choose from, so you can get a good seal, regardless of your ear’s size or shape. The thing I like the most about them is the two-part customization system they use: You can select the size and shape of the tip that goes into your ear, and you can also choose from three different exterior seals that help keep the earplug in place while also keeping out more noise.
MAKE: Etymotic Research, Inc.
MODEL: GunSport PRO
NRR: 15 dB
Etymotic makes a number of hearing protection earplugs that cater to everything from music lovers to motorsport fans—and, of course, shooters. The GunSport PRO model is designed for the sport shooting enthusiast, for whom being able to hear what is going on around them is important. These products protect your hearing and also allow you to boost it so you can hear softer sounds or sounds that are farther away. Although not on the market at the time of this writing, a rechargeable version that does not require the small hearing aid batteries, the GunSport Elite, is expected to be out by the first quarter of 2018.
- ACCU•Technology with high-definition, balanced-armature drivers, high-sensitivity microphones and proprietary, wide-dynamic range compression K-AMP signal processing
- Dual-mode switch
- Automatic hearing protection, plus “blast protection” mode
- Provides 15 dB of automatic hearing protection when noise exceeds safe levels
- Protects from blasts
- Amplifies up to five times
- Assortment of ACCU-Fit eartips
- Durable neck cord
- Filter tool and ACCU-Filters
- Cleaning tool
- Batteries (#10)
- Protective case
- User manual
The GunSport Pro was the first electronic earplug I reviewed for this buyer’s guide. It set the standard against which the others were evaluated, and it has a number of nice design features. Using a switch for controlling the volume, rather than a wheel, makes for simpler controls and easier use in the field. Making fine adjustments with a wheel can be difficult if you have large fingers or are wearing gloves.
The “high” volume setting—five times normal volume—is also a good feature. It allowed me to hear conversations from several yards away, as well as the steps of a deer in the leaves as it approached my stand. The protective hard case that comes with the earplugs is another good feature, because it can readily be hung from your belt or pack to keep the plugs available at all times.
MODELS: Master Series (tested); Tactical Series
NRR: 23 dB (Tactical); 26 dB (Master)
MSRP: $1,099 (Master); $999 (Tactical)
When it comes to custom-fit electronic earplugs for shooters, WildEar is an example of the other end of the spectrum. This company offers two models— the Master and the Tactical. Both are at the lower end of the custom-fit price spectrum. WildEar differentiates itself from the competition in a number of ways: lower prices for quality gear, a set of programs to choose from based on your hearing needs and a number of accessories other brands don’t offer that help you maintain your earplugs. These products are targeted at the military, law enforcement and shooting sports enthusiasts.
- Multiple pre-defined digital programs to choose from (four in the Master model;
two in the Tactical model)
- Adjustable volume up to five times normal hearing boost
- Sound guard
- Water resistant
- Color-coded right and left ear
- Custom fit for all-day comfort
- Vent system (Master model)
- Wax protection system
- Neck cord
- Cleaning kit
- Pelican mini-case for storage and protection
- Extra batteries
WildEar has put together one of the best packages available for custom-fit electronic earplugs. It offers two models, both of which offer different programs to help tailor them to your hearing needs. They use a switch to turn the power on and off. As a result, you don’t have to remove the batteries or open the battery compartment.
In addition, you don’t have to go to an audiologist to get your ear molds made, because WildEar sends you a do-it-yourself “Fit Kit” with everything you need to make your own molds. Then, to top it off, the company includes a Pelican brand mini-case to protect your earplugs and keep all the pieces together.
As you can see, there are many vendors making a wide range of products. The products discussed here are just the most-popular models that represent the kinds of features available. When you start deciding which one you want, consider the following:
How long will you be using them each time? Although the noncustom or universal-fit models are comfortable with the right size and shape of ear tip, the custom-fit models will be more comfortable for longer periods of time. The tradeoff? They are pricier.
How much money do you want to spend? Operationally, the universal-fit models do 80 to 90 percent of what the higher-end custom-fit models do, but for several hundred dollars less. However, they aren’t as comfortable for extended use.
What features do you want or need? There is no need to pay for a feature you don’t care about—such as sound enhancement to hear softer sounds better—if you don’t need it.
Do you want rechargeable earplugs? Replacing the small batteries each time you use them is a minor inconvenience, but if you are the kind of person who wants everything to be as simple as possible, you might want to look at the rechargeable models on the market.
Electronic earplugs have come a long way. They’re more rugged, offer more features/advancements, are more comfortable … and all for a lower cost.
The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) associated with each product does not really tell you how much noise it reduces, because it isn’t calculated based on gunshots. Rather, it is determined via a weighted average of duration of exposure at several different frequencies over a period of several hours. What the NRR can be used for is to help you determine which product better blocks sounds from entering your ear.
A version of this article first appeared in the January 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.