3M Peltor Tactical Pro: These folding earmuffs have an NRR of 26, and they also amplify low sounds by up to 18 decibels. Their compression threshold is 82 decibels with an attack time of 2 milliseconds. The Tactical Pro also has an amplifier, a volume control and a microphone in each cup for stereophonic sound and improved directionality. It runs on two AA batteries.
Champion Electronic Earmuffs: This highly affordable earmuff-style protector has a noise reduction rating of 25 decibels, and it also amplifies low-level sounds. Champion’s electronic hearing protector is also collapsible for easy storage when you’re not on the firing line. Its power source is four AAA batteries.
Caldwell E-Max Low Profile Mossy Oak Break-Up: This unit has an NRR of 23. Its low-profile design and Mossy Oak Break-Up finish make it useful for hunters with long guns. The noise compression threshold is 84 decibels. Its dual microphones provide stereophonic hearing, and it amplifies low sounds made by approaching game animals. It’s powered by two AAA batteries.
ESP Stealth Digital: The ESP Stealth Digital earplugs have an NRR of 25. These protectors fit inside your ear canals and have two audio channels with 12 bands each. Therefore, it can be custom-tuned to the user’s hearing. It also has advanced feedback-reduction circuitry. The noise compression attack threshold is 90 decibels, and it magnifies low-volume sounds up to 20 decibels. The power source for the large-sized unit is a one 13 zinc-air battery.
Motorola MHP81: This earmuff-style protector has an NRR of 21 decibels. Noises above 85 decibels are compressed with a very fast attack time. Low-volume sounds are amplified by up to 20 decibels, which allows for excellent situational awareness. Each ear cup has its own circuit that runs on two “N” batteries and also has its own microphone and volume control. In addition, the MHP81 can also be plugged into Motorola Talkabout two-way radios and other electronic devices.
Howard Leight Impact Sport: These folding, dual-microphone earmuffs have an NRR of 22. The Impact Sport’s loud noise compression threshold is 82 decibels, and it also amplifies low-volume sounds. The unit is powered by two AAA batteries, and it also has an MP3 plug-in.
Pro Ears Mag Gold: The Pro Ears Mag Gold earmuff-style protector has a very high NRR of 30 and an ultra-fast noise compression attack time of 1.5 milliseconds. This protector is especially effective for protection on covered shooting positions and indoor ranges. Features include a 3.5mm plug-in for other devices, dual mil-spec circuit boards and an 82-decibel threshold for noise compression. It’s powered by four “N” batteries.
SoundGear Behind-The-Ear: The SoundGear Behind-The-Ear hearing protectors extend from behind the ear to a silicone plug that fits into the ear canal. They have an NRR of 26 and a noise reduction attack threshold of 95 decibels. Low sounds are magnified up to 30 decibels. Each unit has an on/off switch and two modes of operation: mute and normal. These small behind-the-ear devices are each powered by size 13 batteries.
SoundGear In-The-Canal: SoundGear’s In-The-Canal hearing protectors insert directly into your ear canal by means of a silicone protective sleeve. These devices have an NRR of 25 and a noise compression attack threshold of 93 decibels. Low-volume sounds are magnified up to 15 decibels. Each protector set comes with large- and small-ear silicone sleeves in both black and orange.
Walker’s Game Ear Elite: This earmuff-style protector features two wind-resistant microphones on each cup. The volume on each muff is independently adjustable for precise directionality. The NRR is 24, and the loud noise compression threshold is a very low 70 decibels. Low sounds are enhanced by up to 50 decibels. The unit is powered by two AAA batteries.
WildEar Master Series: These molded inserts contain electronic circuits to increase soft sounds and block loud ones. The compression threshold is 90 decibels, and the attack time is 3 milliseconds. The maximum gain for enhancing soft sounds is 30 decibels, and the NRR is 23 to 26 decibels. I’ve tested them on a covered range during a Bullseye match with 20 other shooters. These plugs did the best job of amplifying soft sounds of any electronic aids I’ve tested and would be my first choice for hunting with a rifle or shotgun.
It was 51 years ago, but I remember the day quite well. We were on the firing line at Maxwell Air Force Base for our introduction to the .38-caliber revolver. Each of the 20 or so men in my flight were given a 6-inch-barreled S&W K-38, two 50-round boxes of 130-grain .38 Special FMJ ammunition and a pair of large, blue, plastic earmuffs. Our tac officer told us that using the earmuffs was optional. On the one hand, he said that battle was noisy, and there was reason to get used to firing under the extra stress of gunfire. On the other, he said we just might want to protect our ears. The choice was up to us. I thought I’d better get used to the noise, so I left the earmuffs on the bench. My ears rang for two days, and I never shot again without hearing protection.
Shooting without hearing protection damages hearing by creating increased air pressure on the ear drums. Excessive noise causes the drums and attached bones in the middle ear to vibrate violently. This vibration is transferred to the liquid-filled inner ear, and when the sound level is over 85 decibels, inner ear fluid pressure is sufficiently high to initiate damage to small inner-ear hair cells that convert vibrations into the electrical impulses that register as sound in the brain. As more of these cells suffer permanent damage and eventually die, your ability to hear is reduced. Once the cells are gone, they’re gone for good.
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Most centerfire calibers produce noise levels between 140 and 190 decibels. When several guns are fired simultaneously on an indoor shooting range, the noise level can rise far above 190 decibels. Worse yet, the decibel scale is logarithmic, so 190 decibels is actually many times greater than 85 decibels. Because of this, a single gunshot often produces temporary damage by stunning the cells in unprotected ears, and repeated exposure without hearing protection often results in permanent hearing loss. Of course, sound isn’t only transmitted by the ear drum. The bones of the skull also transmit pressure waves from a gunshot, and this further increases pressure on the inner ear. Now put 20 service members on a covered range and have them all shoot at once, and you can imagine the abuse my ears took on that sunny afternoon in Alabama so many years ago.
Types Of Hearing Protection
Today, there are two basic types of hearing protection offered to the general public: passive protectors like foam ear plugs and muffs, and active protectors that combine either plugs or muffs with electronic circuitry. The electronic protectors usually amplify soft ambient sounds by as much as 30 decibels, and they also have dynamic range compression circuitry that attenuates loud noises. The attenuation circuits quickly block sound that is above a preset threshold, usually somewhere between 70 and 95 decibels. Almost all hearing protectors have a noise reduction rating, or NRR, of at least 19 decibels, and some reduce loud noises by up to 33 decibels.
Foam earplugs and muffs are relatively inexpensive and, when worn together, can be very effective. Unfortunately, they can be so effective that they block sounds you want to hear like range commands and the noise made by game animals as they move through the forest. They also have other drawbacks. Unless they are custom-molded silicone or acrylic products like those from WildEar, earplugs can work their way out of the ear canal and become ineffective. And ear muffs can be so bulky that it’s difficult to shoulder some types of long guns. However, passive ear protectors can be effective in reducing noise when used properly. Passive earmuffs and plugs have NRRs of up to 33, and the WildEar passive molded plugs have an NRR of 26.
There’s a wide variety of high-tech hearing devices on the market. Prices vary according to the number of features, the level of noise suppression and the length of the warranty. So here are some of the latest electronic hearing protectors to help you out.
For the hearing protection devices featured in the gallery above, please visit the following sites.
3M Peltor Tactical Pro
Champion Electronic Earmuffs
Caldwell E-Max Low Profile Mossy Oak Break-Up
ESP Stealth Digital
Howard Leight Impact Sport
Pro Ears Mag Gold
Walker’s Game Ear Elite
WildEar Master Series
This article was originally published in “Combat Handguns” July/August 2017. To order a copy, visit outdoorgroupstore.com.
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