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If you own a firearm or have ever shot one, you’re probably already aware that ear protection is an absolute must, but your range of knowledge likely ends there and that’s okay.
Unlike humans, not all ear protection is created equally and there is a lot of science behind protecting those holes in the side of your head.
This guide will get you up to speed on what you should know about hearing protection.
Then, we’ll talk about my favorite shooting ear protection systems and where to find them!
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As always, don’t hesitate to chip in using the comment section below if I have forgotten something or you want to thank me for saving your ears!
Studying Sound Science
Sound waves are something we can’t see and most people can’t fathom how loud a firearm report is until it’s too late and they’ve damaged their hearing. To protect from one of the leading causes of hearing damage in America, we first must understand what sound is and how the report of a firearm affects our ears.
Common terminology you need to continue reading further:
Frequency: measured in hertz, calculates the height of the sound wave
Intensity: measured in decibels (dB), this tells us how loud a particular sound is
Decibels: are recorded on a logarithmic scale which means every step up is a logarithmic multiplier. The softest possible noise that isn’t total silence is recorded as 0 dB. A sound 10 times more intense than near silence is 10 dB and a sound 100 times more intense is 20 dB. Keep in mind that changes at higher levels, such as 160 dB to 170 dB are far more drastic of a change in intensity than 5 dB to 6 dB.
Duration: the length of time a sound lasts
To put this into the perspective of everyday life the following are good places to start in understanding dB levels we are exposed to:
- Normal conversation: 60 dB
- Lawnmowers: 90 dB
- Jet engines: 140 dB
- Firearm report: 140 dB+
- Rockets: 180 dB
As you can see, hearing gunfire can be louder than standing behind a jet upon takeoff. Have you ever seen those little dudes on a runway with the glowing sticks ushering jets on the runway NOT wearing ear protection? No, because they’d be nearly deaf before they even received their first paycheck.
Gunfire is as loud or even louder than that, but how can this be? Jet engines seem to be much more shocking when heard up close, there’s no way my little paper puncher is as intense!
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But it is just as intense, however, a jet engine seems more overwhelming to the ear because of its length. A gunshots report is only going to last a tenth of a second as opposed to a jet engine sustaining incredibly high dB’s.
Does this mean the noise from a jet engine is more damaging than a firearm since the duration of the sound is significantly longer?
Not exactly, because your eardrum is receiving damage despite the length of time. Of course, longer lengths of time can result in an exponentially higher build of up damage, but any exposure to high levels of intense sound is damaging at any duration. This means even one single gunshot at close range without ear protection can cause hearing loss.
Will you notice damage from just one shot? Well, this depends on a plethora of factors, including your nervous system, muscle tissue, prior hearing damage, the firearms construction, distance, caliber, weather, etc. Not every gunshot is created equal and not every person’s ear is created equally either so it’s utterly impossible for anyone to tell you exactly how much damage you’ll receive from each and every shot.
What we do know about firearm reports causing hearing loss is that in most cases, each shot causes damage but at such a small degree that it’s nearly impossible for the individual to differentiate the difference in their hearing performance. Instead, the damage is accrued over time in small increments, making it difficult for the affected individual to actually feel a marginal effect. One day they just wake up and it finally hits them, they’ve lost half of their hearing ability without even realizing it and once they finally realize this, it’s far too late to reverse the effects.
We know that tissue in the nervous system that sustains damage responds by scarring instead of rebuilding like a muscle. As they accrue damage, they become more and more scarred, resulting in a lower level of performance for that particular area of tissue. There is no way to reverse the damage done, once the tissue is scarred, it will remain scarred for the rest of your life. This means repeated exposure to high dB sound waves cause irreversible damage and should be protected against at all costs.
Think about sports-related brain injuries such as boxing or football. Every concussion sustained is one step closer to major brain damage, although each concussion on its own likely only damages the brain a very small amount. Football players and boxers may sustain several blows to the head and seemingly recover from each one, but the truth is, every impact the brain receives, a small portion of it becomes irreversibly damaged. Brain damage doesn’t show in athletes until later in their careers after several impacts. By this time, many believe “that last hit is what ruined him” but the truth is, every hit from the first to the last contributed to the progression of his/her brain damage and only now has it accrued enough for them to be obvious signs of damage, and it is now too late. Being exposed to gunshots is very much the exact same exposure. Think of your eardrum being exposed to haymakers the same way a boxer gets KO’ed from being punched.
We will all likely suffer some form of hearing damage as life progresses. From walking down the street near a construction site to being exposed to loud music at a concert, high dB levels are not always avoidable, however, wearing ear protection while operating a firearm is certainly one major way to avoid damaging your ear tissue. It is a proven and indisputable fact that operating a firearm without ear protection damages the tissue in your ears and causes irreversible damage. There are plenty of cases you can find online that very clearly outline a shooter’s deafness and there is clear evidence suggesting firearm reports are to blame.
Many shooters first incur hearing loss in the dB range of what a firearm produces, but this doesn’t mean you’ll only lose hearing performance in that range as the entire ear is affected. This, however, is incredibly dangerous because many people think that over time, their ears have simply gotten tougher. The sound of their firearms no longer causes them pain and discomfort and the effects after shooting don’t seem to be as heavy as when they first started so they assume they have built acclimation to the gunfire. The truth is, they have actually damaged their ears so badly that they are no longer sensitive to that range of sound. They assume, just like a muscle being trained in the gym, that their ears have been damaged and then have repaired themselves to be stronger but that it is just not the case and sadly many realize this far too late and then have to suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Aside from sustaining damage to the sensitivity of your hearing, you may also be subject to tinnitus. This is typically an immediate symptom of ear damage and results in that coveted shell shock ringing sensation. Hearing this ringing doesn’t always mean your ears will be damaged beyond recognition, however, it’s more of a warning sign that whatever sound you’re being exposed to is far too intense for your ear tissue to handle and you need to act quickly to protect them from further damage.
Some reports have stated that after negligently choosing not to protect their ears, the ringing lasted longer and longer after exposure until it became permanent. Others have reported that the ringing slowly became less and less as powerful until they no longer notice it at all. Both of these symptoms are major signs of hearing loss and depends largely on how your body reacts to damaging sound waves.
$1 in Prevention is worth a Million in Treatment
Yes, using hearing loss as an excuse to ignore your wife may be quite a tantalizing goal, however, most people with hearing loss suffer from migraines, sleeplessness, loss of balance, and extremely costly medical checkups. Hearing aids are a great way to blow through your retirement funds and require monthly hearing checks to calibrate and maintain.
All in all, hearing loss is far more of a pain in the ass than listening to your wife and/or wearing ear protection at the range and unfortunately, there is no way to test this theory because once you give hearing loss a go, there’s no coming back from it. I guess you’ll just have to take my word on this one!
We already know that to operate a firearm safely, we need something on our ears to block those damaging sound waves from wrecking our future hearing performance, but most people have no idea what the best way to achieve this actually is!
I’ve seen shooters wearing apple earbuds as “ear protection”. C’mon, guys, you have to be smarter than that and I promise you, investing in proper ear protection will save you far more Benjamin’s than having to receive medical treatment for hearing loss. Investing in proper ear protection is a no-brainer but what does “proper” even mean?
To get started, you should be looking for ear protection that offers a reduction in sound intensity of at least 20 dB. Anything less and you will likely still sustain minor hearing damage. But wait, don’t firearms produce roughly 140 dB of sound?
Yes, a firearm is producing DBs in the 3-figure area, but you don’t necessarily need to protect from all of that. You only need to muffle that sound to acceptable levels and by using ear protection this is a feat easily achieved.
There are hundreds if not thousands of products out there that will provide the proper defense you need against those pesky dB ear missiles. You don’t even have to spend an arm and a leg to defend an ear if you don’t want to, as there are very affordable options available to everyone.
The first and by far the most affordable method of ear protection is ear plugs. We’ve likely all seen them, those tiny little hunter’s orange foam ear dildo’s that shooters have been jamming into their ears for many years now. These are extremely cheap often costing less than a craft beer so there’s really no excuse for not having a pair. Whether you prefer the jam and stuff method or the twist and place method, getting something inside your ear that lowers the intensity of sound is the primary objective here, leaving much to be desired in terms of comfort and tacticoolness.
This brings us to the next level of ear protection which is your basic earmuffs systems. No, your gaming headset or noise canceling gym headphones will not suffice here. Get yourself a dedicated set of earmuffs designed for shooting and your ears will thank you. These can be found in a wide range of prices from roughly the price of a box of .22s to a box of .50 cal. Tacticoolness is primarily the main difference here. Basic earmuffs are cheap and do the job but if you want to look cool and have state of the art sound baffling, you’ll have to pay for it.
Speaking of state of the art, ear protection is no exception to technological advancement. Our third category of ear protection includes electronic sound deadening systems, Bluetooth speakers, communication systems, hearing aid optimized plugs, etc. There are hundreds of different options that will satisfy our tech nerds and backwood hunters alike.
Ear Protection Buying Guide
This is the part where I show you a bunch of cool gadgets that you’ll likely want to load up on! Of course, I cannot possibly review every ear protection product on the market as there are literally thousands of options. Instead, I’ll make this incredibly easy for you by showing you products tried and tested by a US Marine.
Before we get started, though, let me do a little sales persuasion and inform you how expensive it is to NOT buy ear protection.
According to this research on hearing loss I found here, yearly income can be reduced up to $12000 a year due to hearing loss. That’s a lot of missed opportunity to buy new guns and ammo, it’d really be a shame if you missed out on a bargain deal for a new M1 Garand because you missed out on 12 big ones. Hearing aids also cost roughly $1500 – $3500 per ear. That is FAR more expensive than most hearing protection systems and doesn’t include all of the time you’ll be spending at the doctor’s office getting them checked, calibrated, etc.
As you can see, buying ear protection is a fantastic investment and should be a high priority on your sportsman’s Wishlist. Now that you are well aware of the costs, both health and monetary, let’s get you into a new pair of ear plugs or muffs and on your way to paper punching!
Here Are the Best Shooting Ear Protection Products (Listed by Price)
Ear Protection That Simply Works – Under $25
Unlike most categories found on my website, ear protection is a bit of an exception to the “buy once cry once” mentality. When it comes to protecting your ears, so long as you don’t have a need for the latest and greatest tech, really anything that is designed for the job will work decently well. To protect yourself, you won’t need to spend much allowing those dollars to go to other cool gear and ammo. With that said, these options will likely not be very comfortable or great for long-term use. Personally, I recommend buying something off of this list to have as a backup in case your higher quality ear protection grows legs and runs off.
12. 3M Disposable Earplugs
Decibel Rating: 32 dB
My Review: Having a box of these around is never a bad idea. They cost less than a pack of cigarettes, are extremely lightweight and literally take up hardly any space at all. They’re great to lend to other people that are watching or shooting with you and are fantastic to use in a pinch if you find yourself needing earplugs for any reason.
They’re versatile and small allowing them to be used in just about any application. There’s not much to say about the construction other than the fact that they are literally just foam inserts that you jam into your ear and hope they stay in. For some people, you may need to twist them or mash them in really hard for them to stay. I’ve even heard of people licking them to stay in (not recommended if they’ve been used).
- Among the cheapest possible ear protection
- 3M is a very well known brand in earplugs
11. Pro For Sho Shooting Ear Muffs
Decibel Rating: 34 dB
My Review: They aren’t great but they certainly aren’t bad! These Pro For Sho earmuffs are perfect for those of you on a tight budget looking for the bare minimum to protect your head holes. These won’t be comfortable and they won’t look the greatest but they will get the job done for less than 20 bucks. You also get to choose between two sizes and a bunch of different colors. All in all, these would probably be best used on smaller caliber weapons or as a backup set. They will work for any firearms but like mentioned before, they’re lightweight and they don’t offer a whole lot of material between you and the evil dB sound monsters.
- One of the cheapest but usable ear muff design options available
- Extremely lightweight in the ear muff style category
10. Otis Technology Ear Shield
Decibel Rating: 31 dB
My Review: If you want something cheap that doesn’t look so basic, these are a great option. They’re essentially the same thing as the aforementioned Howard Leight band, but they look much cooler and offer a little more comfort, although certainly not comfortable at all.
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They’re cheap and they do the job, however, don’t expect industry-leading sound hampering. These are going to offer only the bare minimum you need and will not be suitable for long-duration usage. I would recommend using these as more of a backup or just to pop off a few rounds every so often. Regardless, they’re great to throw in the range bag and lend out to friends who may have not brought ear protection.
- Budget-friendly but gets the job done well
- High level of tacticoolness at a very low price
9. Decibel Defense Professional Safety Ear Muffs
Decibel Rating: 37 dB
My Review: For under $25, you absolutely cannot go wrong with Decibel Defense products. These are built specifically for shooting in mind and offer the best protection of any budget ear muff system I’ve tried (which is roughly around 50 different sets). Not only do they provide adequate ear protection but they come in a few different colors and personally, I enjoy the style as far as cheap ear muffs go. All in all, these would be the absolute bare minimum that I would consider as my permanent primary protection. Not bad at all, but certainly not great. Also, they claim to be rated at 37 dB but I think that’s probably a bit of an overstatement. Remember, you pay for what you get and you really only find true 37 dB protection in higher-end models. I’m not necessarily calling them liars but I’m not calling them truthers either!
- By far one of the most comfortable designs under $25
- These offer some of the best sound defense ratings of all budget earmuff designs
Where Proper Protection Meets Price $25 – $100
Ear protection systems found in this price range are likely to be the best compromise between protection and price. For most shooters, these will probably be just enough to provide adequate protection without having to compromise on other boom boom related stuff. Most of these will sacrifice comfort for high levels of protection or will offer decent comfort with minimum protection but in this price range, its hard to find high levels of both of those attributes.
8. Howard Sound Amplification Electric Earmuffs (Best Value)
Decibel Rating: 30 dB
My Review: As far as electronic amplified ear protection headsets go, these are unbeatable at the price point they are offered. It’s incredibly difficult to find quality electronic ear protection that doesn’t cost at least a couple hundred bucks, but the Impact Pro series does a fair job here.
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The amplification isn’t perfect and you will notice a bit of feedback noise, but it does do the job well and offers pretty good battery life inclusive of an auto shut off feature. Overall, the headset is lacking in comfort but the quality and durability seem to be pretty decent. I’d say these are by far the best budget electronic system you’ll find. They also come with an aux input for listening to your own tunes!
- Fantastic electronic sound dampening system
- Long battery life
7. Peltor Sport Electronic Hearing Protector Tactical 300
Decibel Rating: 24 dB
My Review: Top-notch electronic hearing protection for under $100? I was skeptical, but after trying these on an indoor range I was pretty impressed. Now, I have tried $400 pairs of ear protection so I wasn’t overly blown away, but I think for those of you looking for a budget system that’s just good enough, these are great. They don’t offer incredible ear protection, only decent, but I think its probably suitable for most cases while still allowing for electronic amplification of range instruction and conversation. The sound quality is much better than any set I’ve tried in the $100 price range and the comfort is by far the best. These are a tad bulky but somehow still lightweight and look great. For a crispy $100 bill, these are definitely my go-to.
- Incredible sound amplification alongside a decent amount of shot suppressant
- Extremely lightweight and comfortable
Quality Qualifiers $120 – $250
These will likely be the end of the line for most shooting enthusiasts. Ear protection systems in this price range bring a great level of sound protection as well as technological gadgets that will suffice with almost anyone. Expect omnidirectional amplification, great battery life, comfortable fit, and Bluetooth capabilities in this section to emerge without having to sacrifice anything.
6. Peltor Sport Electronic Hearing Protector Tactical 500
Decibel Rating: 26 dB
My Review: I liked the Peltor Tactical 300 so much that I went ahead and added the Bluetooth capable version on this list as well, which only costs $20 more.
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If Bluetooth is a necessity for you, these are fantastic for a low price. As a matter of fact, these are the cheapest Bluetooth capable ear protection muffs I’ve come across. Aside from Bluetooth, they are pretty much the same exact earmuffs as the tactical 300 with a slight bit of extra padding in the earcups.
- A step up from the already amazing Peltor Tactical 300
- Bluetooth capabilities
5. Walker’s Razor Silencer Earbuds
Decibel Rating: 25 dB
My Review: These little earbuds are awesome! They work to amplify sound up to 85 dB and suppress the rest, giving you ample ear protection in incredibly small little pods. These work almost as well as full-size ear muffs but they don’t provide enough ear protection for indoor use to be considered “great”. You can certainly use them while shooting indoors but I just feel like they lack ample ear protection to be a permanent solution for people that shoot indoors often. All in all, these are actually really cool earbuds and they offer a lot of protection in a small and lightweight little package alongside great sound amplification.
- Incredible sound-activated compression design
- Best valued electronic earbud sound suppressors
4. Walker Electronic Hearing Protection Earbuds
Decibel Rating: 31 dB
My Review: These are among the best affordable ear protection earbuds on the market today. There are two models, the Razor X and the Razor Xv and the only difference is that the Xv comes with Bluetooth capabilities. These have fantastic sound suppression and are rated at 31 dB, which is much higher than most other earbud systems. They are extremely flexible and durable and are comprised of a very lightweight design. Overall, these are a really neat alternative for earmuffs. They aren’t flawless but they’re pretty good. They would be nearly perfect if their omnidirectional sound capabilities were improved but at $150, you can’t beat them.
- 10-hour rechargeable battery life
- Incredible sound suppression for earbud standards
3. 3M Peltor Tactical Pro Hearing Protection Headset
Decibel Rating: 26 dB
My Review: If size and weight are no issue, these are some of the best ear protection earmuffs on the market today. With a combination of both liquid and foam-filled ear cups, there is a great seal between your ears and a noisy environment. They clip anything above 85 dB flawlessly and allow for easy 2-way communication even during constant gunfire.
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Despite their massive size, these are quite comfortable to wear for several hours at a time and you won’t have sore ears even after 6 hours of continuous use. The electronic sound amplification is nearly one of the best in this set of earmuffs and offers a huge advantage over nearly all of the competitors in this price range. The directional accuracy of the sound is fantastic and leaves nothing else to be desired.
- Offers two-way communication
- 360 degree omnidirectional sound capabilities
Bank Busters $250+
These are for those of you who don’t mind shelling out cash for the highest quality ear protection with the best technology. These are typically battle tested and implemented by those in combat situations.
2. Etymotic Gunsport PRO Electronic Earplugs
Decibel Rating: 15 dB automatic hearing protection
My Review: If earbuds are your thing and money is not an issue, the Etymotic Gunsport Pro’s are by far your best option. They have best in class sound amplification properties while offering a decent level of ear protection from sounds greater than 85 dB. There are a lot of professional shooters who use these earbuds and with good reason! The only complaint that most people have with this product is how fast the batteries drain. It’s no secret that sound amplification in-ear protection requires a lot of energy and with these being so small, the batteries are tiny. You’ll have to replace them often but other than that, these are fantastic little buds!
- Best in class earbud sound protection systems
- Sound amplification up to 5x using adaptive attenuation technology
1. MSA Pro X Electronically Amplified Earmuffs (Best Overall)
My Review: The MSA Sordin earmuffs are what you see on the battlefield and for good reason. These have both a headband and behind the headband for a super secure fit. On top of that, they’re really comfortable and extremely reliable.
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You can simultaneously filter out mortar blasts while having a conversation with your battle buddies with best in class sound amplification and 85 dB+ deadening. Overall, these are built tough and built to do one job which is to help soldiers and Marines be as effective as possible in the field. Overall, I would say this is easily some of the best hearing protection for shooting so long as they’re within your price range.
- A whopping 600-hour battery life
- Absolutely no amplification humming or buzzing
No matter what fancy functions your ear protection has, the important part is finding a product that fits you and provides the protection you need for long-lasting hearing performance. There is really no need to take another shot without ear protection on and I think anyone who can afford to shoot firearms can afford ear protection.
As always, these reviews are based on my personal experiences and opinions and if you think I’m terribly off base, let me know in the comments section! Also, if you’ve bought a set whether they’re in this guide or not, let us know! I love hearing about the experiences of a fellow sportsman. Ear protection is an industry that’s been around for a long time but only now is technology starting to infiltrate new products so if something new comes out that I haven’t covered, let us know and I’ll try my best to get my hands on one for a quick discussion about it.