Hearing Protection Buyer's Guide

It’s curious that we marvel at the ability of deer and other game to detect our presence with their incredible sense of hearing, yet we do little if anything to protect our own. Before it’s too late, and irrevocable damage is done, learn the basics of protecting one of the most valuable possessions you have.

To be effective in the field, hearing is a major factor, if not mandatory. Without good hearing you can’t detect the delicate approach of a sneaking whitetail, or the soft call of distant waterfowl. With keen hearing anything is possible, however, all too often this blessing from birth can be taken for granted or even abused until it’s too late. The problem with hearing loss is that it is subtle, cumulative and may not be noticed until the affects are quite severe.

Noise induced hearing loss is painless, odorless, tasteless, and invisible but toxic nonetheless. Exposure to harmful sounds, either very loud impulse sound(s) or repeated exposure to sounds over the 90-decibel level for an extended period of time damages the sensitive structures of the inner ear. Sounds louder than 80 decibels are considered potentially dangerous, especially when the exposure occurs over an extended period of time. Hair cells of the inner ear and the hearing nerve can be damaged by an intense brief impulse, like an explosion, or by continuous and/or repeated exposure to noise.

A lawnmower, shop tools, truck traffic, and many common household appliances are all in the 90-decibel range, and can be even higher at close proximity.

What’s a Decibel?

The intensity of sound is measured in decibels (dB). The scale runs from the faintest sound detectable by the human ear, which is labeled 0 dB, to over 180 dB, the noise of a jet engine throttling up on the runway.

The kicker is that decibels are measured logarithmically. What this means is that each increase is 10 times the lower figure, as decibel intensity increases by units of 10. Therefore, 20 decibels is 10 times the intensity of 10 decibels, and 30 decibels is 100 times as intense as 10 decibels. The muzzle blast from a firearm is around 140 dB, and magnum loads can run much higher.

If you shoot firearms a lot, or subject your ears to high levels of sound on a daily basis, here are some of the warning signs that are indicative of a problem. If you must raise your voice to be heard, or have trouble hearing someone close to you speaking at a normal level, or if conversations around you sound muffled or dull after leaving a noisy area then you may need to consult a hearing specialist. While the aforementioned symptoms are good indicators, the most common complaint from someone suffering from hearing damage is pain or ringing in their ears. This condition is known as tinnitus.

Sitting at my keyboard, typing this article, I am accompanied by an ever-present humming sound similar to cicadas singing in summer. It is a constant reminder that I tuned a deaf ear to the advice of many, and shunned the use of hearing protection too many times. Believe me, it is very unpleasant, and something that can be avoided by using proper protection.


Who Should Wear Hearing Protection?

Hearing protection isn’t just for shooting sports. If you must work in an excessively noisy environment, you already know that you should wear protectors, and probably do. Using power tools, noisy yard equipment, or firearms, or riding a motorcycle or snowmobile are other activities that dictate protection.

Susceptibility to hearing loss varies individually, however, no one is immune. Habitual exposure to noise above 85 dB will cause a gradual hearing loss in a significant number of individuals, and louder noises will accelerate this damage.

Hearing protectors are rated by their noise reduction rating (NRR). Keep in mind when you’re shopping for hearing protection, that the larger the NRR rating number, the greater the amount of protection that is provided. A number of options are available, with varying degrees of quality, convenience and effectiveness.

Protection Options

Hearing protection devices are used to decrease the intensity of sound that reaches the eardrum. The two basic forms of protection are earplugs and earmuffs, but the ultimate is a combination of sound suppression and hearing enhancement available in products like Walker’s Game Ear.

Foam ear plugs are one of the most common types of hearing protection used, perhaps because it’s cheap, easy to carry in a pocket and not a major loss when left at the shooting range. This rudimentary approach is simply a cylinder of sound-attenuating foam that is compressed and inserted into the ear canal. Once released, the foam expands to fill the canal. They must be snugly sealed so the entire circumference of the ear canal is blocked. An improperly fitted, or worn-out plug may not seal, negating their effectiveness and dirty plugs can irritate the ear canal. They can also become uncomfortable with prolonged wear.

While readily available, inexpensive, disposable and lightweight, foam plugs reduce all sounds and have to be removed to communicate with others. Many shooters tire of inserting foam plugs and stop using them before they are through shooting, and that’s as bad as not using them at all.

Earplugs made from more substantial materials are available in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit individual ear canals and can also be custom made. If you have trouble keeping earplugs in your ears, a headband can be used, but this is not a summer solution.

Earmuffs are designed to fit over the entire outer ear to form an air seal so the entire outer ear is covered and the canal protected. Muffs are held in place by an adjustable headband. The down side to earmuffs is the difficulty of sealing around eyeglasses or long hair, and the adjustable headband tension must be sufficient to hold earmuffs firmly around the ear, which takes some getting used to.

Properly fitted, earplugs and muffs will reduce noise 15 to 30 dB. The better earplugs and muffs are approximately equal in sound reductions, although earplugs are better for low frequency noise and earmuffs do a better job of attenuating high frequency noise. Using earplugs and muffs at the same time usually adds 10 to 15dB more protection than either used alone. Combined use should be considered when noise exceeds 105 dB.

Electronic enhancement provides the ultimate in both convenience and a quality experience and is available in either the inner canal style or the muff approach. With electronic enhancement, internal circuitry makes it possible to hear everything around you and talk in normal tones. When loud noises rise above a preset threshold the sound is attenuated or reduced to protect your hearing.

The better quality models have two microphones that enable you to tell which direction a sound is coming from, and increase coverage. More innovative units have four microphones for maximum coverage and a stereo-like effect that captures every sound. By using the adjustable volume, (and frequency control on some units), you have the best of both worlds; protection and an increased ability to hear the subtle sounds that may have escaped your notice before.

With enhanced protection, you don’t have to remove your muffs to hear range commands, which makes you a safer shooter on the range, but it’s in the field that these units really shine. By turning up the gain on the microphones you can pick up the sound of game approaching from a long distance away, and minimize the number of times you are surprised by sneaking game.

Frequency control provides the distinct advantage of being able to adjust the type of sounds that you can hear.

Some muffs are also available with built-in radio receivers, but keep in mind that if you turn up the volume excessively, to hear the game over the ambient noise, you may be doing as much damage as not wearing any protection.

Your hearing is a gift that is as delicate as a butterfly, and once its wings are damaged the repair process may not be achievable. Protect your hearing like you were going to lose it with the next loud noise, and the chance of hearing cicadas singing every waking hour of the day and night will be diminished dramatically if not totally eliminated.

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