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7 Best Shooting Ear Protection to Save Your Hearing [2021 Guide]

Image of Bryan Hill, Founder of Pistol Wizard Bryan Hill / October 02 2021

Guns are LOUD. The bigger, the louder.


But even the smallest guns can cause permanent hearing loss when fired, especially indoors.

And you can still damage your hearing while wearing ear protection! They're not made equal.

We'll cover options for protecting your hearing when shooting, and offer an easy calculator to help you choose what you really need to save your hearing.

On this Page:

  1. Decibels (dB) vs. Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
  2. Electronic vs. Passive Earpro
  3. Earmuffs vs. Earplugs
  4. Earpro in Practice
  5. 7 Best Hearing Protection for Shooting

Decibels (dB) vs. Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)

Chart of noise levels, with examples of sounds and how dangerous they are for your hearing. Source: Hearinglink.org
Image from Hearinglink.org.

Decibels (dB) is a measurement of sound. It scales in a weird way: Increase dB by 3 (from 10 to 13, 13 to 16, etc.), and it doubles the loudness.

Sounds louder than 120 dB can cause immediate hearing loss.
Pistol shots are around 163 dB.

Earpro has a noise reduction rating (NRR): how much it reduces dB. More is better.

If a gunshot went off right by you at 163 dB, but you were wearing NRR 43 earpro, your ears would get 120 dB of sound. No immediate hearing loss.

However, that protection makes everything harder to hear. Maybe a friend or instructor is trying to tell you something. Or, someone is sneaking up on you. How do we protect our hearing while hearing important stuff like that?

Electronic vs. Passive Earpro

Electronic

Electronic earpro uses microphones to pick up sounds around you and play them inside your protected ears. You set the volume, like listening to music on headphones. What happens when a gunshot goes off? It depends on the type of speakers:
  • Cutoff speakers: Loud noise cuts the speakers until noise levels get safe.
  • Compressor speakers: Loud noise gets adjusted to safe levels, while not affecting the already safe sounds.
Electronic earpro always has volume controls, microphones, and wires:
Noise levels
Newer electronic earpro has microphones that pick up sounds well enough that you can tell where sounds are coming from.


Passive

Passive earpro just muffles all sounds. It has a smooth shell. No wires or switches:
Noise levels

They save money:
  • Passive earmuffs, NRR 30: $20
  • Electronic earmuffs, NRR 30: $55 and up

Which is Better?

Get electronic earpro for:
  • Situational awareness when you shoot
  • Hear people talking when you shoot
Get passive earpro for:
  • Cheapest earpro
  • Most protection
  • Don't need to hear people speaking, or sneaking up on you
If the right choice seems clear, there's still something else:
How big do you want your earpro to be?

Earmuffs vs. Earplugs

Earplugs

Alpine MusicSafe Pro Earplugs

Earplugs fit inside your ear. They're cheap and convenient. You might be thinking of the cheap, disposable earplugs. They're great as a backup, but they kill sound quality. If someone's talking to you, they'll be hard to understand, even if they yell.

High-fidelity earplugs are made for people who want to enjoy a concert while also protecting their hearing. They're non-disposable, and retain high sound quality. For shooting, they'll protect you and let you understand speech. That comes in handy at training classes, or if you want a better range experience with friends.

Earmuffs

Howard Leight Impact Pro

Earmuffs are like headphones. They're bulky, and more expensive than earplugs. But that bulk has a good side:
  • Passive earmuffs protect your ears more.
  • Electronic earmuffs have better sound quality.
  • Electronic earmuffs give better situational awareness.

Our Solution

The Ultimate Solution

Double up: Wear passive earplugs under electronic earmuffs. Why?
  • Passive earplugs are convenient and cheap.
  • High-fidelity passive earplugs retain sound quality.
  • You can turn up the volume on electronic earmuffs and still hear everything.
  • You can be in a training class or long range day without losing hearing.

There are a few things to be aware of, though.

When Doubling Up, the Total NRR Isn't What You'd Expect

Some recommend taking the most protective of the two and adding 5. However, experiments have shown that doubling up results in 85-95% of the combined NRR, or 12-20 NRR of extra protection. Other experiments had NRR increases of 2-13, 2-14, 3-14, 3-17, and 7-17, depending on the earplugs/muffs.

So if you had 30 NRR muffs with 20 NRR earplugs, the conventional wisdom is to expect 35 NRR. What you can really expect based on experiments (and modern gear) is 42-47 NRR.

Why is this? Sounds come in different frequencies, like treble vs. bass. NRR takes the average of protection across all those frequencies. An example:

A graph showing the real NRR for earplugs across the full spectrum of sound frequencies. There's a lot of variation.
Most gunfire is loudest at 500Hz, and remains high through 8,000 Hz.
Human speech is 85-255 Hz.

If either muffs or plugs give awesome protection against a frequency, adding more protection helps, but not as much. If both muffs and plugs are weak against a frequency, then their combined NRR won't be much better against that. If one covers the other's weakness, though, you gain NRR at the high end. This is why the experiments cited above had NRR improvments of 2-20 dB from doubling up.

Limits of Doubling Up

Even with the best muffs and plugs, you can't go above a total of 40-50 NRR. Why? Most sounds travel through the air and into our ears. But extremely loud sounds can travel through our bones to reach inside our ears.

Ever felt a sound so loud you could feel it in your chest? Earpro can't help you as much there. You'd need a full body suit to protect your hearing.


Earpro in Practice

Indoor range

Here's a secret: Sustained noise at "safe" levels can still damage your hearing. Each gunshot's sound wave lasts up to 5 milliseconds. 200 gunshots make 1 second of noise.


Pistol Shots until Hearing Loss

Practicing alone, you may go through 200 rounds. But in group practice or training, all the people around you will be firing, too. Outdoors, some of that sound drops off with distance, but being indoors amplifies the sound (as much as 8x).
How do we account for that?

7 Best Hearing Protection for Shooting

  1. Shooting Earpro Calculator
  2. Best Ear Protection for Shooting

Shooting Earpro Calculator

The best hearing protection for shooting depends on how you shoot. Take out the guesswork from protecting your hearing and try our calculator:
I'm shooting , in ,
with a , time(s).
There will be other people shooting while I'm on the firing line.
To prevent any hearing loss, I need at least __ NRR of ear protection
My budget is:


Best Ear Protection for Shooting

If you'd rather browse, here's our roundup of the best ear protection for shooting.

Best Earmuffs for Shooting

As price goes up, sound quality goes up for electronic earmuffs. If you just want protection, you can go budget.

Best Electronic Earmuffs for $99 or less

At this price point, the Howard Leight Impact Pro offers great protection, awesome battery life, and stereo sound at acceptable quality. What's the catch? For some people, its bulk can get in the way when shooting a rifle or shotgun, breaking the earmuff seal and degrading sound protection.

The Walker's Razor Slim offers a slim profile for more versatile use, at the cost of some hearing protection and mono sound.

If you only shoot pistols, get the Howard Leight. Otherwise, the Walker's may be a better choice, doubled-up with earplugs like the SureFire Sonic Defenders.

Updated hourly


Best Electronic Earmuffs for $100-250

The Peltor Sport Tactical 300 seems like a great choice, with good NRR and great sound quality. Only downside? The headband inexplicably has no padding. Wear a hat with this one.

The MSA Sordin Supreme Pro X may seem a worse choice, but beware: its NRR is deceptive. It's built in a way that minimizes noise reduction from speech and lower-frequency sounds (NRR 16), while maximizing noise reduction from gunshots (NRR 21-28). Its average NRR of 18 seems low, but for shooters, it really isn't. And its headband is much more comfy.

If you want more comfort, get the MSA Sordin. If you want more hearing protection, get the Peltor.

Updated hourly

Peltor Sport Tactical 300
$180.00
$110.99
@ GrabAGun
Compare Prices
Check price @ Amazon
$110.99 @ GrabAGun
$111.99 @ Primary Arms
$116.19 @ OpticsPlanet
$122.19 @ Impact Guns
$139.30 @ E-arms.com
$149.90 @ MidwayUSA
$154.59 @ Impact Guns
$156.49 @ Primary Arms
$159.49 @ OpticsPlanet
$180.00 @ E-arms.com

MSA Sordin Supreme Pro X
Check price
@ Amazon
NRR 24-26 18 (21-28 for gunshots)
Sound Type Stereo Stereo
Sound Quality
Comfort
True NRR is 16 for speech and lower-frequency sounds, 21 for mid-frequency, and 31-39 for high frequency. Gunshots are mid to high frequency. True NRR is 16 for speech and lower-frequency sounds, 23 for mid-frequency, and 25-38 for high frequency. Gunshots are mid to high frequency.


Best Electronic Earmuffs for over $250

The OPS-Core AMP with NFMI Earplugs is the Holy Grail headset that special forces use.

Why? Normally, combining earplugs and earmuffs maxes out protection at the cost of sound quality and directional hearing. Special forces need to sneak around and detect enemies, so that doesn't work.

The OPS-Core AMP earmuffs and NMFI earplugs use the latest technology to work together as a system, giving top sound quality, directional hearing, and max protection. It enhances your hearing while protecting it. It's the ultimate in hearing protection.


OPS-Core AMP
$1279.85 @ Gentex Corp
NRR 34 (41 for gunshots)
Sound Type Surround
Sound Quality
Comfort
Requires NFMI earplugs


Best Earplugs for Shooting

With earplugs, the choice is simple. If you have electronic earmuffs, use the SureFire Sonic Defenders for max hearing protection. If you want electronic earpro you can carry in your pocket, consider the Peltor TEP-100s.

Updated hourly

SureFire Sonic Defenders
$25.99
$17.90
@ MidwayUSA
Compare Prices
Check price @ Amazon
$17.90 @ MidwayUSA
$18.00 @ MidwayUSA
$18.00 @ MidwayUSA
$18.00 @ MidwayUSA
$18.00 @ LA Police Gear
$19.99 @ OpticsPlanet
$25.99 @ OpticsPlanet

3M Peltor TEP-100
$
$9999.99
@ GrabAGun
Compare Prices
Check price @ Amazon
NRR 28 23
Sound Quality
Adaptive protection only reduces noises over 85 dB Electronic earplugs. Protection and awareness at max convenience.

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you.


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References

  1. What Noises Cause Hearing Loss? (2019)
  2. Protecting your hearing (2019)
  3. Degradation of front-back spectral cues inducedby tactical communication and protective systems (2015)
  4. Performance Assessment of Passive Hearing Protection Devices (2014)
  5. Performance Assessment of Communication Enhancement Devices: TEA HI Threat Headset (2015)
  6. Performance Assessment of the OTTO Hurricane with Invisio V60 and Sonic Defenders EP4 (2015)
  7. Hearing protection devices and methods used for their evaluation: A military perspective (2019)
  8. Better Protection From Blasts Without Sacrificing Situational Awareness (2011)
  9. How to Use the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) (2011)
  10. Comparison of different types of hearing protection devices for use during weapons firing (2015)
  11. Efficiency of Attenuating High-Level Acoustic Impulses with Double Protection (Earplugs and Earmuffs Used Simultaneously) (2006)
  12. Attenuation performance of double hearing protection devices (2010)
  13. Auditory Levels of Sport Firearms (2012)
  14. Selection of Level-Dependent Hearing Protectors for Use in An Indoor Shooting Range (2019)
  15. Bone Conducted Noise and Mitigation Techniques (2009)
  16. Hearing Protection for Bone-Conducted Sound (2005)
  17. A Primer on Indoor Shooting Range Acoustics (2012)
  18. Estimating Sound Levels With the Inverse Square Law (2007)
  19. Sound Distance Attenuation Calculator (2019)
  20. Electronic Ear Muff Recommendations (2016)
  21. Auditory risk estimates for youth target shooting. (2014)
  22. Auditory Risk to Unprotected Bystanders Exposed to Firearm Noise (2011)
  23. Estimates of auditory risk from outdoor impulse noise. II: Civilian firearms. (2009)
  24. Assessment of Noise Exposure for Indoor and Outdoor Firing Ranges (2007)
  25. Summary of Gun Shot Acoustics (2006)
  26. Physical Characteristics of Gunfire Impulse Noise and Its Attenuation by Hearing Protectors (1995)
  27. High Level Impulse Sounds and Human Hearing: Standards, Physiology, Quantification (2012)


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