Hearing protection should never be ignored. Noise-induced hearing loss is a major problem faced by shooters. Too many shooters don’t think about the health of their hearing until it’s too late. Taking proper precautions to protect your hearing is vital. Hearing damage from shooting isn’t inevitable. The right ear pro is essential.
The Nature of Sound
Sound is the sensation that’s experienced when the brain interprets vibration within the structure of the ear caused by rapid variations in the air pressure. We use decibels (dB) to measure sound. Decibels are logarithmic in nature. What this means is that for every dB, the intensity will increase by a factor of 10
The specification of the intensity of the sound, as ordinarily used, implies a comparison with the smallest level of sound detectable by the human ear. The smallest level of sound that can be detected by the human ear is around one dB (0.1 bel).1 Normal conversation is around 60 dB.
There are two types of noise that can damage hearing: short-duration, high-intensity noise, such as gunshots and prolonged exposure to lower levels of noise. Although individual sensitivity varies, many authorities believe that prolonged exposure to noise above 85 dB can lead to hearing damage.
In the U.S., the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide a Hearing Conservation Program (HCP) whenever employees have 8-hour time-weighted-average (TWA) noise exposures of 85 dB or more.2
Hearing damage is cumulative and irreversible. Although most noise-induced hearing loss results from continuous exposure to loud sounds, even a single gunshot can result in permanent damage.
Types of Ear Protection
There are two major types of hearing protection: in-ear and muffs. They can be further divided into two categories: passive and electronic (digital). Each has advantages and disadvantages.
Passive hearing protection blocks dangerous noise using a physical barrier, either in the ear (earplugs) or over the ear (earmuffs). Earplugs can be disposable (single use) or reusable. Reusable earplugs may be either full-block or filtered. Full-block blocks all noise, while filtered attenuates only dangerous noise while allowing safe levels to pass though. All disposable earplugs are full-block.
Electronic ear protection electronically amplifies ambient noises and cuts off the amplification or lowers the sound level whenever there is a dangerous noise level, providing protection when you need it but still allowing you to hear what’s going on around you. Electronic ear protection is available as earbuds or as muffs. Many consider it to be the best type of ear pro for shooters overall.
Many electronic ear protection earbuds and muffs now offer Bluetooth-capable integration with your smartphone. Features vary, with some allowing you to even make and take calls. These are obviously more expensive.
Noise Reduction Rating
Hearing protectors in the U.S. are tested in accordance with American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards.3 In order to comply with the ANSI standards, hearing protection needs to be tested by an authorized testing facility.
The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is the unit of measurement used to rate the effectiveness of hearing protection devices in the U.S. Rated in dB, it is the level of protection that you get when you wear the device by itself. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires every hearing protector sold in the U.S. to have an NRR label.
The higher the NRR number associated with a hearing protector, the greater the potential for noise reduction. This potential is subject to many other factors, including whether or not the protection is properly worn. And that potential is generally less under real-world conditions. Wearing ear plugs under muffs will provide added protection. The sound attenuation of a dual hearing protector is generally lower than the sum of the NRR of each single hearing protector.4
Comfort of ear protection
When choosing hearing protection, comfort is an important factor that needs to be considered. Are you going to be wearing ear pro for long periods? In-ear protection has a clear advantage over muffs in this respect. That said, you can’t beat muffs for convenience.
The cost of hearing protection varies widely. The cost can range from a few cents for disposable earplugs to several hundred dollars or more for electronic earbuds. The price difference between passive and electronic earmuffs may be only $50 or less. This being said, how much is your hearing worth?
Which Ear Protection Is Right for You?
Proper hearing protection is essential for every shooter. Finding the best ear pro is a must. You have a lot of options to choose from. Whichever you choose, you’ll be making a smart move by preserving your hearing over time.
 Kelechava, Brandon. “ANSI/ASA S12.6-2016 Hearing Protectors Real-Ear Attenuation”. American National Standards Institute, https://www.blog.ansi.org/2020/08/ansi-asa-s12-6-2016-hearing-protectors-ear. Accessed 17 June 2022.
 Sharon M. Abel, Nadine M. Armstrong. “The combined sound attenuation of earplugs and earmuffs”, Applied Acoustics, Volume 36, Issue 1,1992, Pages 19-30,ISSN 0003-682X, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0003682X9290071Y. Accessed 17 June 2022.