Ever wanted to take phone calls and jam out to ABBA while shooting? There’s an app for that: Sweden’s Hunter Electronic Hunter SMART ear pro. It’s active electronic hearing protection with built-in Bluetooth, now available in the U.S. of A . . .
Without batteries, Hunter’s cans are ~23 NRR muffs that work in the standard, “dumb” way. Turn them on, and the SMARTs do the smart thing. Noises are picked up by the unit’s external microphones and transmitted to your ears via speakers inside the ear cups.
As is the way of e-muffs, the Hunter’s speakers won’t replay any sound over ~80 dB. Anything over 80 dB can be heard fairly well despite the muff’s muffling; there’s no need for electronic enhancement above that threshold.
Cranking the volume up amplifies softer sounds, giving the wearer Superman hearing. Sound amplification is handy when doubling up on hearing protection — wearing plugs underneath the muffs, recommended when shooting at indoor ranges bereft of sound deadening materials (cough Red’s cough).
SMART audio arrives in full stereo. The separation’s precise enough to easily identify the source of a noise — whether it’s left, right, in front, behind or any combination thereof. The volume level’s adjustable on both sides; the wearer can tune left/right amplification to his or her liking.
A lot of the low-end e-muffs are mono. And most cans that enable moving in stereo don’t do it nearly as well as the Hunter SMARTs. Which makes the Hunter SMART ear pro ideal for hunters.
While the SMARTs provide stereo functionality at a high level, so do the $89 Hunter A2s, and myriad models from other brands. SMARTs justify their genre-topping $249 MSRP with Bluetooth-enabled communications and entertainment functionality.
Connect the headset — at this point, the SMART “muffs” graduate to a “headset” — to a mobile device and you can listen to music, your favorite podcast, or take ‘phone calls. Click the volume button on the headset to play/pause your tunes and/or answer/hang up on your better half.
When you’re ready to take a call, a boom microphone picks up your voice. In the photo above, it’s tucked into its home in the left cup…
Simply pull it out and get ready to impress your mom with shockingly, amazingly good audio no matter what you’re up to. Thanks to the other microphones on the left and right cups and the sound processing power inside of the SMARTs, the cans isolate the sound of your voice from just about anything.
For instance, I called my neighbor while thoroughly exercising his snowblower. I kid you not, with the snowblower cranking at full blast, he thought I was calling from inside the house in a quiet room after wrapping up. He said I sounded crisp and clear and that there was no background noise, and, confused as to why I was asking, was certainly surprised when I told him to look out the window to the sight of a 20-foot, gas-powered arc of snow. Truly impressive stuff.
If you’re more of an analog type of a hipster, Hunter has you covered. A 3.5 mm jack can be used to connect to a two-way radio, with the pause/play button on the left cup acting as the “transmit” button. Radio communications always receive priority over anything coming in via Bluetooth or ambient amplification. Additionally, should the headset’s batteries die, a separate speaker is powered by the radio itself and acts as a fail-safe.
Also seen in the photo above, there’s a micro-USB port for charging. The SMARTs come with standard AAA batteries, but you can use rechargeables. Even better, you don’t have to remove the batteries from the cup for charging. An indicator light shows charging status.
Although charge-while-installed is a handy feature, you can change the batteries in a snap. An external cover pops off without a fuss, without any worry about breaking the tabs. With Bluetooth off, you can expect about 180 hours of electronic hearing protection using standard batteries. Under constant Bluetooth streaming, the cans deliver about 50 hours of use.
The Hunter SMARTs are ergonomically sound. Both the muffs themselves and the removable head strap padding are comfortable. I find the tension level to be a bit high, but that’s often necessary for a proper ear muff seal. Plus I have a large head and large, stiff ears. That said, I’ve worn the SMARTs for as long as seven hours straight without issue.
Sound amplification is great and the “highly precise directional sound detection” is accurate as billed. The Hunter SMARTs boast an IP54 water resistant rating (i.e. protection from splashes from any direction). Also appreciated: they have a serious, professional look — somewhere between shooting muffs and helicopter headset.
There are some gripes, though:
The Hunter SMARTs turn on too easily. I’ve burned through a few sets of batteries due to the soft detent in the selector’s “off” position. Throw ’em in a range bag, suitcase, etc. clicked all the way off, and they always seem to come out turned on. Sometimes they come out days later, batteries dead.
I’d also like the option of forcing equal left-right amplification. It’s cool to be able to adjust them separately, but there’s no way to not adjust them separately. I find my OCD compelling me to have both sides on full volume just to ensure that they’re even.
There are no clicks between off and full-blast — it’s just a smooth rotation through that full travel. So there’s really no way to know that left and right are being amplified equally unless both are off, or both are on full.
I’d also like a separate Bluetooth volume adjustment on the headset. As the SMARTs are configured now, the volume dials adjust only the ambient sound amplification. Adjusting the volume of your music or call has to be done on your mobile device. This negates some of the benefit of wireless functionality, including Hunter’s own suggestion that “…the phone can be in the backpack…”
An approximate noise reduction rating of 23 NRR (approximate because it’s certified to the European EN 352-4 rating but doesn’t have an officially-certified NRR rating) is a bit low.
While NRR ratings are extremely complicated, the fact remains that the SMARTs provide less gunshot noise suppression for me than some other muffs and plugs. I’ve never found them insufficient when shooting outdoors, where they seem to perform on-par with other options, but I’m compelled to double-up at an indoor range.
Overall, I’m left highly impressed with the Hunter SMART active electronic hearing protection. While I didn’t think I would care at all, I must admit that listening to music or talk radio while on the range or even just having the ability to take calls in a noisy environment has been awesome.
With a few tweaks the SMARTs could be even better, but with the high quality of the active electronic hearing enhancement and the added functionality of Bluetooth and radio communications they’re well worth the cost of entry.
Specifications: Hunter SMART Bluetooth Headset
Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0
Environment: IP54 water resistant
Operation time: (alkaline batteries) >180 hours ambient sound >50h Bluetooth streaming
Power supply: 3 pcs AAA batteries (alkaline/rechargeable Ni-MH)
Charging outlet: USB Micro-B, 5V/500mA (same as Android mobile phone)
Audio outlet: 3.5mm (mono)
Hearing Protection Classification: EN 352-4 (approximately 23 dB NRR)
Weight: 370 gram (13 ounces) including batteries
Ratings (out of five stars):
Audio Quality * * * * *
Whether it’s the quality of the active audio amplification’s stereo precision or of the microphone’s superb noise-cancelling capabilities, the SMARTs get five stars. The audio quality of music reproduction won’t give Dr. Dre a run for his Beats money, but it’s still more than good enough to rock out on the range or while mowing the lawn. The sound isn’t tinny or hollow and the frequency response seems decent.
Noise Reduction * *
Three stars is average, and while it’s slightly subjective — although 23 NRR is also a fairly low rating — the SMARTs provide less hearing protection than the average muff. Thankfully, they’re great at amplifying ambient sound so hearing conversations with ear plugs in is even easier with the SMARTs than without, as long as ambient volume levels are under 80 dB.
Feature Set * * * * *
Excellent electronics, Bluetooth functionality with play/pause/answer/hang up button, 2-way radio functionality, and a retracting microphone boom. This is one advanced set of ear pro.
Comfort * * *
Average. I like the padded strap and the fact that the padding is easily removed for cleaning. As you’d expect, it isn’t ideal with a ball cap (the kind with the button on top). I find the squeeze tension to be a bit high, but then I do have a large head and this isn’t a unique issue. The padding material on the ear muffs would be more comfortable were it softer and less plastic-feeling.
Overall * * * *
Solid functionality and awesome electronics. Final star withheld for the muff’s tendency to accidentally switch “on” (draining the batteries) and the lack of on-board volume adjustment for Bluetooth, and a lower-than-I’d-like NRR.