Choosing the Best Earplugs
by Glenn Hood, CEO and Founder
Earplugs are devices inserted into the ear canal for protection against loud sounds, water, dust, wind and other foreign bodies. Usually, these are made of foam, silicone, plastic or wax. However, although widely available, these are not used as commonly as they should be for protecting hearing. For instance, in sports events or concerts where sounds could reach up to over 100 decibels, how many people actually wear earplugs? You would think that as a safety precaution, more people would use them. In reality, not enough individuals know about the importance of wearing earplugs until symptoms of hearing impairment appear.
In my case, one day, I woke up with painful ringing in my ears. I was desperate to do whatever it takes to ease my pain, so I began my search for anything that could help. My journey led me to discover the interesting world of hearing protection. I learned a great deal about this industry and now, I would like to share my knowledge to everyone. Hopefully, through my simple advocacy of spreading hearing conservation awareness, there would be at least one less person without hearing impairment.
Sharing our story
I am a motorcycling enthusiast who enjoys long rides in my Hayabusa. For years, I traveled to different locations while wearing improperly fitting earplugs, barely aware of the consequences. All of a sudden, countless times enduring strong winds and loud noises had taken their toll on my hearing. My ears had been ringing and I had also been in so much pain. After researching about tinnitus and noise-induced hearing loss, I realized that my hearing had been deteriorating. I had also found it hard to hear my family members whenever we had conversations.
Alarmed, I started the hunt for the best ear plugs in the market. There were a number of varieties and I eagerly tried so many of them. However, I ended up finding out that most of the products were ineffective in preventing hearing loss. In 2003, I finally decided to make a difference and create the solution to my own problems: customized earplugs. At that time, setting up a business for customized earplugs had been a very difficult challenge. Hearing damage was not a big concern back then so it had been twice as hard to make customers realize the value of our products. Ultimately, I promised myself to dedicate our company to spreading hearing conservation awareness and providing the best products for hearing protection.
Over the years, we have met and served more than 250,000 customers at over 500 events around the world. After more than 15 years of blood, sweat, and tears, I believe that we have gone a long way in educating people about the importance of hearing conservation. Nevertheless, the journey lives on.
History of earplugs
Earplugs have a long and interesting past of innovation and refinement.
Although mentioned in Greek mythology, the history of earplugs traces it roots back in 1864 when it was invented and patented as a response to the need of hearing protection for the military. In 1884, canal caps attached to an adjustable headband were added as an innovation for soldiers and sailors. Due to the increasing demand of limiting noise produced by weaponry, mechanical devices used to attenuate loud sounds were invented in 1905. This led to the use of Mallock-Armstrong plugs during World War I. In 1914, disposable earplugs were patented. The birth of V-51R earplugs happened in World War II. Subsequent developments in hearing protection include leather flaps and earmuffs. The main problem of earmuffs which used to have a vice-like grip around the head was overcome with the invention of fluid-filled cushions by Shaw in 1954. Progress continued on to produce more comfortable and more acceptable protective gear. Through the 1950s to the 1980s, glass-downs, foam plugs and finally, earmuffs with non-linear electronic systems were gradually developed.
Factors in choosing the best ear plugs
Selecting the best ear plugs for your needs mainly depends on urgency, accessibility and budget.
Urgency: How soon do you need protection for your ears?
Some issues should be addressed more immediately than others. Maybe you work in a place that has loud and heavy machinery for 40 hours a week. Perhaps you have a hobby which involves exposure to strong winds for extended periods of time. These are some examples which require more urgent attention.
Accessibility: How easy is it to purchase earplugs around your area?
Do you live in a town where there are numerous pharmacies or shopping centers? Are you currently staying in a rural area where it takes around an hour to get to the nearest hardware or department store? Indeed, you would probably be more confident in the quality of a product if you can see it firsthand. However, there are also many reputable online stores that offer high quality products that definitely do not disappoint.
Budget: How much are you willing to spend? Do you think that your problem is a one-time issue or one that will incur an ongoing expense?
Usually, generic earplugs costs are affordable since they are mass manufactured. Major brands are also widely sold in physical shops and online stores. However, these are probably acceptable for very short-term problems such as noise exposure while attending concerts or sporting events occasionally. More often than not, these are one-size-fits-all solutions that may need replacements frequently. Custom earplugs, on the other hand, cost a lot more but are more likely to be a good investment for long-term use. Try to weigh your options and see which ones are worth your hard-earned money.
There is more to choosing the most suitable earplugs for your needs than browsing websites or buying the first thing you see on the store shelf. You might think, “Why does something so small and simple have to take so much time and effort to consider buying?” Actually, the answer is also simple: it is essential to protect our sense of hearing. Through proper research, you can make a smart and cost-effective choice.
As a consumer, you have to look beyond the attractiveness of a product and thoroughly see if it meets standards. In the case of hearing protection devices, it is really helpful to know some terms such as noise reduction rating (NRR), decibel (dB), signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), and noise-cancelling.
NRR – is a standardized measure of noise attenuation or the amount of protection that can be attained by 98 percent of users in a laboratory setting when hearing protectors are properly worn. It is the rating used in the United States and in other countries. Currently, the acceptable range is from 0 to 33 decibels.
dB – is a unit for measuring the relative loudness of sounds. The human ear has the ability to respond to both very small and very large pressure waves in a nonlinear fashion. The decibel level is a nonlinear scale that can be used to describe the intensity of sound waves. It ranges from 0 (absolute silence), 30 (quiet lecture hall or bedroom), 60 (normal conversation), 120 (amplified rock music or near jet engine) to even 130 (artillery fire at close proximity; threshold for pain).
SNR – is a measure used to compare the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. Simply put, imagine talking to someone. The ratio of useful information to irrelevant or false data in your conversation is the SNR.
Noise-cancelling – is a description for devices such as headphones which pertains to its capability to minimize external noise, usually by creating a sound wave that cancels it out.
Different types of hearing protection
Three main types of hearing protection are available.
Earplugs are small devices that are inserted into the ear canal. These are usually made of plastic, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane, silicone or wax. These can either be pre-formed or moldable. Disposable, reusable or custom ones are in the market.
Semi-insert earplugs or canal caps consist of two earplugs that are attached to a rigid headband. Semi-insert plugs have conical tips which are pushed into the ear canal while canal caps have rounded ends which cover the entrance of the canal.
Earmuffs are cup-like devices held together by a headband. They surround the ears and sealed to the head with cushions.
|Earplugs||Earmuffs||Semi-Insert Earplugs/Canal Caps|
|NRR Ratings Available||YES||YES||YES|
|Ease of Use||YES||YES||YES|
|Ease of Storage||YES|
|Protection||YES, more protection at lower frequencies||YES, more protection at higher frequencies||YES, but with lower noise reductions|
|Use with Other Protective Equipment||YES|
|Fit||YES, can also be custom-molded||YES|
|Use if with Ear Infection||YES, may be worn with minor ear infections|
|Usage of Different Individuals||YES||YES|
You can see from this table that each type of hearing protection has its own advantages. Depending on the issue that you are dealing with, you have many options to choose from. Ultimately, what really matters is that you made an effort to protect your hearing.
To discuss further, there are many types of earplugs. These can be grouped depending on material, purpose, or fit.
Types of earplugs according to material
As mentioned previously, earplugs are usually made of PVC, polyurethane, silicone, wax, or plastic.
PVC or Polyurethane – Earplugs made of either of these materials are in the form of foam. These are very compressible and easily rolled into the ear canal where they can expand to block it.
Wax – This material can be rolled and molded to plug the external portion of the ear canal.
Silicone – Earplugs of this material usually come in the form of triple flanges or putty. The former can be inserted into the canal while the latter is used to cover the entrance. Unlike foam and wax, these are resistant to molding.
Plastic – Like silicone, earplugs of this material can either cover or be inserted into the ear canal. These are also resistant to molding.
Types of earplugs according to purpose
Earplugs are used for many purposes. Some of the more common uses are for:
- Basic protection against noise;
- Attenuation of sounds across all frequencies, usually for musicians;
- Provision of dynamic range compression with the use of electronics (i.e., for hunting or use at a construction site);
- Reduction of loud sounds and filtration of lower level sounds (i.e., for military or police use);
- Protection from water and other foreign bodies;
- Protection during flight
Types of earplugs according to fit
Earplugs are usually made in three types of fittings:
Preformed – Silicone and plastic earplugs belong in this group as these are less resistant to any changes in form.
Moldable – Wax and foam earplugs are compressible and can be rolled to block the entrance or to be inserted into the ear canal.
Custom-Molded – Earplugs from this category are made from various types of material. Ear impressions are taken to create molds that take the shape of ear of the wearer.
Changing to custom
Each kind of earplug has its own advantages and disadvantages. Customized ones are personalized since they ensure proper fitting each time they are worn. These can also be used for many purposes such as those that were previously mentioned. Hearing protection is provided by creating a tight and perfectly fitting seal on the ear canal.
Custom earplugs can be grouped into two categories: laboratory-made or formed in place. Creating laboratory-made ones starts by a professional taking ear impressions of the outer ear and ear canal. The impressions are then sent to a laboratory where it is finally processed. Earplugs that are formed in place undergoes the same process but is available immediately. Both types are non-disposable and typically lasts for several years.
Similar to the generic products in the market, there are also filtered and non-filtered earplugs available as custom-made. Filtered earplugs block loud sounds but allow low level sounds to pass through such that situational awareness of the user is maintained. These are useful in both the military and industrial sectors with hardworking individuals who work in very loud workplaces.
Not surprisingly, this innovation also applies to musicians since they also require hearing the music played around them. They also benefit greatly from having situational awareness. At Big Ear, we developed custom filtered earplugs specially for musicians. Find out more here.
Quick look on transducers
In the world of earphones, transducers are considered the big cheese. They are the most significant parts of our products at Big Ear and literally the music to our ears. These convert the physical or chemical energy of a product into an analytical signal that can be monitored. There are two types of transducers used in designing earphones: dynamic and balanced armature.
Dynamic transducers work on the same principle as dynamic microphones or most loudspeakers. Typically, they are made of a thin diaphragm that is attached to a coil of wire suspended in a magnetic field. When current is applied on the coil, it vibrates according to the voltage and also forces the diaphragm to vibrate, causing variations in air pressure which the human ear interprets as sound. Commonly, dynamic transducers are used in most earbud types. There are also some custom-molded earphones that use this.
On the other hand, balanced armature types are smaller in size but with higher sensitivity. As a matter of fact, these were used in the hearing aid industry originally. These are built with a horseshoe-shaped metal arm with a coil wrapped around one end and the other suspended between the north and south poles of a magnet. As current is applied on the coil, the opposite end moves toward either poles of the magnet, creating vibrations transferred to the diaphragm. Aside from increased sensitivity, balanced armature transducers provide higher frequency response. In order to get the proper frequency response, a good seal between the earphone and ear canal should be achieved.
Between the two types, balanced armature offers better hearing protection. This is an important reason why all of our products use this type.
To sum up, we have tackled the history of earplugs, factors in choosing them, some useful terms, different types of hearing protection, and different types of earplugs.
After reaching the end of this article, hopefully, you have more knowledge now on hearing protection than before you started reading. You now understand your needs and what product might best suit those needs. At the end of the day, it is you who will make the final decision.
What’s in store
As a promoter of hearing conservation, I would like to interest you in checking out our custom products that will not disappoint. I am proud to say that we have served over 200,000 customers who have benefited from custom hearing protection. Big Ear guarantees excellent sound reduction in every device that will last for years!
While you are here, check out our range of products in different categories. From cycling, power sports, aviation, military to even sleeping, we have so many hearing protection devices to choose from.
You can also read about the buying cycle here.
For more details, do not hesitate to contact us.
We’re here to help!
Make Listening Safe. (2015). Make Listening Safe. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/pbd/deafness/activities/MLS_Brochure_English_lowres_for_web.pdf
Acton, W. I. (1987). History and development of hearing protection devices. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 81. doi: 10.1121/1.2024272
Witt, B. (2016, May 31). Calculating Noise Reduction Ratings. Retrieved from https://www.ishn.com/articles/104106-calculating-noise-reduction-ratings
Berg, R. E. (2019, July 25). Sound. Retrieved August 19, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/science/sound-physics/The-decibel-scale#ref527163
Gragido, W., Pirc, J., Selby, N., & Molina, D. (2013). Signal-to-Noise Ratio. Blackhatonomics, 45–55. doi: 10.1016/B978-1-59-749740-4.00004-6
Definition of ‘noise-cancelling’. Retrieved from https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/noise-cancelling
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health. (2019, August 22). (none). Retrieved August 22, 2019, from https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/prevention/ppe/ear_prot.html
Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. (n.d.). Institution of Occupational Safety and Health[The Main Types of Hearing Protection Factsheet]. The Grange, Highfield Drive, Wigston, Leicestershire, Leicester.
Wikipedia. (2019, August 01). Earplug. Retrieved August 23, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earplug
Sekhar, P. K., & Uwizeye, V. (2012). Review of sensor and actuator mechanisms for bioMEMS. MEMS for Biomedical Applications, 46–77. doi: 10.1533/9780857096272.1.46
Ballou, G. (2013). Handbook for Sound Engineers(4th ed.). Taylor & Francis. Retrieved from https://www.taylorfrancis.com/