The best hearing protection
I am often asked what is the best ear and hearing protection. The answer is that it all depends on what features are important for the person concerned; and the answer to this question will differ from one person to another. This page alerts you to the most common purposes, so that you can make an informed decision. Often a compromise is necessary. You would not for example, choose ear defenders for sleeping because of their bulk, even though they are particularly good a cutting down noise.
The following sections are in no particular order. A companion page gives a review of the types of hearing protection on the market. It considers specific types of earplug and ear defender in the light the purposes described here.
The volume or the loudness that can be reduced is expressed as its Decibel rating, written as a number of dB, and good manufacturers do supply the decibel rating for their protection. However the conditions under which the ratings are measured tend to be hidden away in small print. The fact that the effective decibel rating must depend on the size and shape of the earplug or ear defender generally passes without comment. Yet it becomes particularly significant where the earplug is, for example, hollow, ostensibly to make it more comfortable for sleeping. Common sense dictates that, being thinner, it cannot cut out as much noise as a solid version.
Using ear protection to cut out sound is not as straightforward as it may at first seem. No ear protection can ever cut out sound completely because sound travels through bones and muscles as well as through ears. So unless you wrap your whole body in many thicknesses of insulating material, some sound will get through. (Incidentally bones and muscles transmit some frequencies better than others. So although sound can be heard that way, it seems distorted, muffled and jumbled, and words cannot be properly identified.)
While on decibel rating, I have yet to come across a manufacturer which gives the pitch range for their decibel ratings. The capacity of any material to dampen down sound varies according to the pitch of that sound - and intrusive sound comes over a range of pitches.
Let me explain:
- Children at play are painful to my ears because children naturally have high pitched voices. It is honestly no exaggeration to say that their screaming is as if knives are being stabbed into my ears. As it is of course impossible to avoid this sound completely, it would be helpful to know which ear protection manufacturers would advise against high pitched noise. Incidentally although my intolerance to high pitched sound is due to a botched ear operation, I find that most older people share it to some extent. It seems to be a problem of increasing age. So manufacturers would do well to take note of its importance.
- The pitch of engine noise is much lower. So it would be helpful if manufacturers would provide information on the best ear protection for a long car, air or train journey. In this request too, I am by no means alone. Although I do not find low pitched noise painful at most volumes, I do find it tiring for any length of time.
So although decibel ratings are essential if manufacturers' products are to be taken seriously, they are not enough. For the time being, though, they seem to be all we have.
The companion review of ear protection gives the various types of hearing protection available and comments on the noise reduction capabilities of each of them.
Particularly important to many people is comfort while lying in bed - perhaps to protect against background noise or a partner's snoring. With the weight of the head on the earplug, it should not feel hard and should not unduly transmit the sound of rubbing against the pillow while tossing and turning.
The reviews page offers advice for suitable types of protection on the market under 'Comfort'.
When I mentioned to someone that I liked a particular type of earplug because I could eat with it in, he laughed. Yet it was a serious comment. Let me explain:
It is important for the self-confidence and wellbeing of people with painful hearing that they are able to join in social gatherings where there is the noise of lots of people together in the same room. Such social gatherings invariably involve eating, drinking and chatting, all of which constantly change the shape of the ear canal and accordingly tend to break its contact with an earplug. As soon as the slightest chink is formed, noise suddenly and violently intrudes.
Yet I have found no earplug manufacturer which gives this information. The reviews page offers advice for the various types of protection on the market under 'Flexibility in the ear'.
Some types of ear protection on the market are specifically unsuitable for swimming as they are not water tight. The reviews page offers advice for suitable and seriously unsuitable types of protection under 'Water tight'.
It is common to get ear ache when out in a fierce wind. The reviews page offers advice for types of protection that can help, under 'Wind pain'.
The ear plugs advertised specifically for shooting are the silicon putty type, but I have to say that I am surprised. The reviews page explains why. Advice needs to be taken from the shooting community who, I suspect, would recommend ear defenders.
All earplugs and ear defenders can trap long hair if not carefully pulled back during insertion. What is significantly different about some ear protection is that it can catch and pull long hair while in use. See the reviews page under 'Stickiness'.
This consideration too will probably come as a surprise to anyone who hasn't used earplugs, but some types of ear plugs can cause echoing of one's own voice inside one's head when speaking. This can be so distracting that it stops one thinking straight to the extent of rendering one speechless. In some situations this does not matter at all, but in others it can matter a great deal.
I rather suspect that the better the earplug is at reducing noise, then the greater the echoing from one's own voice. Hence the need for a range of protection for different purposes. The best at noise reduction is not necessarily the best for every situation.
The reviews page offers advice for suitable types of protection on the market under 'Non-echoing'.
Some types of ear protection are not immediately ready for use. The most dramatic example is the extensive rolling between fingers that wax earplugs require to warm and soften them before insertion.
Similarly earplugs need to be able to be removed smoothly without falling apart and leaving bits in the ears.
The reviews page offers advice for suitable types of protection under 'Readiness for use'.
Ear defenders are bulky and not as straightforward to carry around as earplugs. Yet their effectiveness normally better than earplugs. In some circumstances this outweighs their bulkiness.
The reviews page offers advice for suitable types of protection on the market under 'Portability'.
Earplugs and ear defenders are available in a range of colours and styles; Some are more discrete than others. One would not, for example, wear ear defenders to a dinner party. The reviews page offers advice for suitable types of protection on the market under 'Appearance'.
Some people are allergic to certain materials, particularly silicon; and they cannot wear silicon earplugs in their ears. Fortunately a range of non-allergic earplugs are available on the internet.
I have no experience of hearing protection for industrial use, although I am certain that it is something that companies take seriously and look after their workforce well.
If you have any comments on this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.
Costs and availability are tied to how complex and expensive the manufacture is, but also how often the protection can - or should be - reused as this affects the costs of repeat buying.
Fortunately most protection is fairly readily available from the internet which also provides the greatest choice. See the reviews page for the costs and availability of various types of protection.
More on problems with sensitive hearing
Disclaimer: The information on this site is for a lay audience and I cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. The views, strategies, advice and suggestions etc are based on my personal experience and are not necessarily appropriate for anyone else. They should, hopefully, stimulate individuals to develop their own strategies.