What is the noisiest place you’ve ever been? For most of us, things which spring to mind are likely to be a concert, a big city, or perhaps a child’s birthday party fifteen minutes after cake and ice cream are served.
Maybe you’ve had the misfortune of trying to sleep through your neighbor’s home renovations, roadwork going on nearby, or accidentally plugged in your headphones with the volume set to full blast.
While these kinds of noises may not be particularly pleasant and might even give us a bit of an earache, generally, they won’t cause any lasting damage. But what happens when noisy environments are your daily life?
When do you need professional hearing protection?
Guidelines established by the Environmental Protection Agency recommend that a person’s average daily noise exposure not exceed 70 decibels (dB).
That’s about the equivalent of a large appliance like a washing machine or dryer running. Anything over 85dB – equivalent to a hairdryer, a kitchen blender, or cinema speakers – is considered damaging to hearing if you are exposed to it regularly (8+ hours a day).
The following scale from the American Acadamy of Audiology gives you an idea of the kinds of noise levels which pose a threat to your hearing:
Although construction noise in your building may well exceed the limits of what is “healthy” for our ears to take in, it shouldn’t cause any permanent injury in short durations.
But if you work in the music industry, construction, aviation, manufacturing, and these noise levels are part of your average working day; it’s a different story.
Prolonged, regular exposure means you need to take your ear protection seriously. Hearing loss caused by exposure to unsafe sound levels is irreversible, but thankfully it’s also entirely preventable.
So, whether you go clay pigeon shooting on the weekends or spend your working day on an airport runway, let’s look at some of the best custom and professional-grade options to protect your hearing.
Let's talk about products and brands.
For just $25.99, Decibullz Custom Molded Earplugs make a great starter pair for professionals and hobbyists who want to experience better hearing protection for themselves.
Made from reshapable thermoplastic, they work like the “boil and bite” mouthguards you might have worn in high school gym class. Decibullz has a comprehensive video demonstration of the molding process.
Put simply; you heat the earpiece in hot water until the hard plastic softens, attach a foam or silicone tip, and mold it to your shape ear using your fingertips.
They have a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 31dB, meaning that they reduce the volume of any sound by 31 decibels. For context, this could make a blender running on high sound more like a dishwasher, which I’m sure sounds like an attractive prospect to anyone who whips up a breakfast smoothie before their morning coffee. It’s worth bearing in mind that a reduction of 31dB may not be sufficient for very loud environments.
While it might drop the level of a 110dB concert to 79dB – bringing it under the 85dB limit for potential hearing damage – it would only reduce a 130dB jackhammer to 99dB, which is still well within the dangerous range.
- Budget-friendly option
- Molds to fit all ears
- Infinitely reshapable if you don’t get the fit right the first time
- Insufficient NRR for protection against sounds on the top end of the spectrum
3M & PELTOR’s EEP-100s are smart earplugs. Designed with construction workers in mind, they are passive noise canceling earplugs with an added microphone on the outside and a miniature internal speaker (which has a noise limit of 82dB, below what is considered potentially harmful).
Using a power tool? Switch them off and block out the drone. Do you need to speak to a co-worker but don’t want to hear harmful background noise? Switch them on to activate the microphone – the crisp audio filters out ambient noise but boosts conversation, allowing you to communicate clearly without risking your hearing health.
Their small size and compact carry case means they can be safely transported in your bag or pocket, and while you might worry about losing them on-site, 3M also sells an interconnecting cord that attaches to the plugs and sits around your neck. If one accidentally falls out, you won’t have far to look. The carry case doubles up as a charging station and has a rubber safety seal around the sides, making it dust and water-resistant to keep your buds safe in transit.
They are powered by a lithium-ion battery with up to 16 hours of use between charges and feature just one button to turn the buds on/off and adjust the volume, meaning they can be easily operated even if you’re wearing gloves. The kit comes with four different tips to help you get the best fit, and more styles can be purchased online.
- Don’t have to be removed to communicate
- Long battery life
- Can be worn alongside other PPE such as helmets and goggles
- Accessories such as alternative tips and neck cord sold separately
- NRR changes with each tip, and seems to max out around 34dB, so not suitable for protection against extremely loud noises (fireworks, gunshots, jet engines)
Decibel Defense promises the “quietest and most comfortable” noise-reducing earmuffs on the market or your money back. They claim the highest NRR of all the products on this list at a reduction of 34 – 37dB, and the product is recommended for use for drummers, shooters, construction workers, at gigs and concerts, and for “personal quiet time”, which we could probably all use more of.
From reviews on Amazon and Google, they seem to have a responsive customer service team and plenty of happy users. Do keep in mind their bulky shape might make working in smaller spaces difficult, and they may also be incompatible with some helmets and other protective headgear.
- Reduce sound by an impressive 37dB
- Money-back guarantee
- Can be worn over in-ear plugs for maximum protection
- Bulky size
- Incompatibility with other protective headgear may make them unsuitable for construction and aviation jobs
The VeriShield 100 range from Howard Leight is built to protect without causing discomfort. While personal protective equipment is essential, it is unlikely to be worn if the user finds it awkward or painful after long periods, which is why the VeriShield range balances hearing protection with user ease and comfort.
Designed with softer and denser memory foam than earlier models, the VS130 also features an increased cup size which is specifically designed to accommodate people who wear hearing aids.
They have a very respectable NRR of 30dB and come in a range of styles (over the head, behind the head, and ones that clip onto hard hats), so you don’t have to choose between safeguarding your skull or your eardrums.
- Versatile design allows for maximum protection
- Can be worn without removing hearing aids
- Reasonably priced
- Don’t fold and not particularly compact
Based in the United Kingdom, Snugs make custom-molded, professional-grade earplugs for all kinds of workers and hobbyists. Their most versatile product, SnugsShield, makes use of one of four filters
- A dampening filter to protect industrial workers from very loud noise
- An acoustic filter for live music
- A filter specialized for sudden loud noises such as fireworks
- An under-helmet filter to protect against wind noise for those in motorsports
Swimmers and surfers are also covered against potentially damaging inner-ear infections by SnugAqua.
Snugs also make custom-molded inner ear monitors (IEMs) for musicians. SnugsGo custom-molded tips can be attached to most forms of earbud technology from popular brands like Apple and Bose Sennheiser, Beats, Skullcandy, Sony, Samsung, Jabra, and Amazon.
The idea is that by creating an in-ear plug molded to fit your ear canals perfectly, you can attain a better seal and thus a higher level of passive noise canceling protection than a “universal fit” option.
Before ordering your custom Snugs, you’ll need to visit a local audiologist and get them to take an impression of your inner ear. This service isn’t included in the price of your Snugs, and the cost will vary from provider to provider (it shouldn’t be more than $100). Snugs ship internationally and wherever you’re based in the world, they have a handy guide to getting a good custom fitting with a reputable audiologist.
- Versatile design suitable for a wide range of activities
- Wide range of customization options
- No NRR information given
- The extra cost of third-party audiologist taking ear impressions
- The fit of the earphones depends on the skill of the audiologist you visit
Whichever brand or style of ear defenders you choose, make sure to think practically about the environment you will be using them in. If you spend a lot of time in hot or humid environments, earmuffs might make your ears sweaty and uncomfortable.
Similarly, if your hands are usually dirty while you work, it would be good to avoid foam plugs that require you to touch the surfaces that sit against your ear canal to insert and remove them.
Before making your choice, check out this guide from the CDC, which will help you decide what type of hearing protection is right for you. Not sure whether your workplace or hobby exposes you to dangerous levels of noise? Download the free NIOSH Sound Level Meter app to find out exactly how loud your background is.