Typical ear pro uses baffling to reduce ALL sound. Electronic ear muffs (or whatever version you use) uses microphones to transmit ambient sound into your ears, but, using an on-board amplifier, attenuates louder noises.
The way it works – in the broadest strokes; please feel free to elaborate in the comments section on the details – is through an algorithm in the amplifier. It detects sounds louder than a pre-set maximum (for instance, anything over 80 decibels) and uses electronic interference to reduce the sound piped into the ear via the speakers in your ear muffs. Essentially, it’s like noise-canceling headphones just wired backwards.
As a gun owner, what you want to look for in hearing protection of ANY sort – electronic or otherwise – is the highest NRR, or noise-reduction rating. The higher the rating, the more it attenuates noise.
What you’ll generally see is an NRR of 20 or more. An NRR of 30 or higher is preferable, and 34 or higher is best. Granted, electronic hearing protection will muffle any noise above whatever the threshold is (80 to 82 dB is common), but erring on the side of more protection is better than less. Once your hearing is lost, you don’t get it back.
The old gun writers that some of us like to wax philosophical about — Elmer Keith, Jack O’Connor, Warren Page and so on — were deaf by the end of their lives, to a man. Writer David Petzal from Field and Stream has written more than one article about his hearing loss. As he points out, spending money on good hearing protection is cost-effective. It turns out that decent hearing aids cost about $1,000; really good ones go for more than $5,000.
Eyes and ears, everyone. Spend a little now, avoid spending a lot more later.
That said, what is the best electronic hearing protection to get? That mostly depends on features. For the shooting range, electronic ear muffs do the best job. For extended sessions, some models even let you sync up your MP3 player and enjoy some tunes. (Gimme back my bullets…never mind.) If you’re going into the field for hunting, ear buds can be better and more comfortable…though wickedly expensive, particularly the custom-molded models.
Regardless of overall features, you need a set with a comfortable fit. Water-resistant models are always a good idea in case you do your shooting outdoors. For in-ear models that put a bud in your ear canal, having swappable ear plugs are a good feature to look for. Just as with foam earplugs, they need to fill the ear canal to effectively block out sound. You’ll also be out a lot of cash if you lose them!
What are some good models to start with? Here are a few to look at.
For a good basic set, 3M Peltor makes several excellent models. The Peltor Sport Tactical 100 is a good starting point. Adjustable headband, low-profile ear cups and they run on two AAA batteries. The base model, the Sport Tactical, reduces all noise with an NRR 22, though the active digital sound attenuation dials out background noise more. That’s ideal for the controlled range environment if you have to listen for range commands. It even has an audio input jack for an MP3 player or what have you. Additional models, such as the Tactical 200 and 300, add even more features. That said, the 100 model is a good basic pair and can be found for less than $60.
3M Peltor also makes electronic ear plugs for those who don’t want to carry ear muffs in the field. The hunting set as well as those in military and law enforcement can all benefit…if they don’t mind laying out $400 for the TEP-200 Tactical Ear Plug set. It features micro directional microphones for environmental noise management, and Li-ion batteries so they can be recharged. They have an NRR of 23, making them decent ear protection for the shooting range, doing run-and-gun events, the duck blind or on a deployment. They’re marketed to law enforcement and military, but the benefits for any shooter are obvious.
However, you can also shell out less and spring for Walker Silencer in-ear electronic hearing protection. These ear buds feature many of the same features of 3M’s TEP model, but at a lower price. Directional microphones, an NRR of 25, sound-activated compression to reduce noise, as well as being lightweight and insanely portable. The standard model runs on #10 batteries, but a rechargeable set can be had if you spend a bit more. The base version has an MSRP of $229.95, and the rechargeable set will add another $20. You can find them at Amazon or elsewhere for much less, however.
Howard Leight products (made by Honeywell) also make a number of quality electronic hearing protection sets. One of the most popular models is the Impact Sport models, which start at a very reasonable $45 on Amazon. The base model has an NRR of 22 and automatically damps any noise over 82 dB. There are directional microphones for range commands, and low profile ear cups to allow easier use with long guns. (When you’re pivoting the stock, the ear cups can really get in the way.) The headband adjusts, and the ear muffs fold for storage. It takes 2 AAA batteries, with a 350-hour life. There’s even an aux input for audio.
If you want something a little hardier, Howard Leight Impact Pro series hearing protection has a more durable and thicker housing, so it’s not great for use with long guns. It has broadly the same features as the Impact Sport, but the NRR rating is up to 30. The larger over-ear cup housing has additional baffling for greater protection against hearing loss. The price only climbs to $55 on Amazon, so they offer some of the best bang-for-the-bucks, so to speak.
Hearing loss is irreversible, but it’s also wholly preventable. Electronic hearing protection can help a great deal in this regard. Chicks dig scars, but nobody appreciates having to say “huh?” after anyone says anything.
What do you think, though? Any sets of electronic hearing protection that you’ve found? Don’t bother with it? Sound off in the comments!