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Evaluation of ear plugs

William Costley (Tucson, Arizona) See all my reviews

I got a little carried away comparing different brands/models of ear plugs this past week and thought I'd share my experience here. Of the following three, the Hearos Xtreme Protection are my favorite. If the length of this review looks daunting, just skip the rest and take a look at the three kinds of plugs I tried and my overall assessment of their key characteristics:

Noise isolation: 5/5
Comfort: 4/5
Price: 3/5
Appearance/style: 4/5

Noise isolation: 3/5
Comfort: 4/5
Price: 4/5
Appearance/style: 5/5

Noise isolation: 4/5
Comfort: 5/5
Price: 5/5
Appearance/style: 3/5

After reading many positive reviews, I opted for Hearos Xtreme Protection. They have an NRR (noise reduction) of 33, which is the highest I could find in a plug I could afford. I even checked the attenuation data on the back of the package and saw that the decibel reduction was, quizzically, even higher at the low frequencies I was hoping to eliminate. I purchased them and went home and promptly inserted a pair into my ears, which was easier than I expected. I have seen a lot of comments about how they are difficult to get the hang of inserting, but it's really a piece of cake. Just don't skip the part in the instructions about pulling on the top of your ear with your other hand, because that does make it easier to get the plug in all the way. As I heard the second plug crinkling gently as it expanded, I could almost feel the air being sucked out of my ear and a layer of silence emerging. Suddenly I was off in my own world where I could hear only my breathing and the faintest muffled sounds from outside.

Once they were fully expanded, I was surprised at how comfortable they were. They exert only a slight pressure on my ears, but it's not annoying at all. My neighbor was not playing music at the time, so I couldn't test their effectiveness against it. However, several hours later I found out from my girlfriend, who had been sitting at her own computer (in the same room) for the previous hour, that the neighbors had been playing music for quite a while. I never knew because the Hearos were doing their job that well! Tears almost came to my eyes at that realization. A caveat, though: I have another neighbor with a deafeningly loud car stereo that shakes everything in my apartment. I'm not sure these plugs will get rid of that kind of volume, but then again, I haven't heard his stereo at all since I've been wearing them. (I will update this post when I have some real information about this.)

After such a successful experiment, I decided to sleep with them. I could feel them when I was on my side, but they were not uncomfortable--just there. (I later discovered, thanks to some other reviews here on Amazon, that you can simply cut the end off of the plugs with scissors, which does not affect their sound-blocking abilities in the least.) Coupled with the fan on my window unit, I couldn't hear a thing outside of the room. No annoying neighbors, cars, or anything...I didn't wake up once. I used that first pair for about 4 days, and could have used them longer--you could wear the same pair for a week with no problem. About the only con to these plugs is the fact that they are bright blue and a bit long (though, as I mentioned, they can be cut), which means they're not exactly discrete. But if you're anything like me, you don't really care what you look like in these things as long as you don't have to listen to other people's noise. Also, and more relevant for me, is the price. At about $0.60/pair in small quantities, they are the most expensive of the three. However, they are significantly cheaper if you buy them in bulk here on Amazon, especially if you are a Prime member and can get free shipping--this brings the price down to a much more reasonable $0.35/pair or so.

I decided, "wow, if the first kind of plugs I tried were so great, what about the others?" Since Howard Leight Max plugs also have great reviews on Amazon, I picked some up at a local C-V-S (sold as "Super Leight" in a package of 10 pairs). While I found them to be very easy to insert and extremely comfortable, they didn't seem to offer quite as much noise isolation as the Hearos Xtremes. Although they have the same NRR (33), the seal just didn't seem quite as tight, and I'm pretty sure this is the reason. Comparing the plugs side by side, the Super Leight seem just a tad smaller in diameter. As a result, they are easier to remove, which I consider a con because I would rather have earplugs stay put. However, if your ears are smaller than mine, you might find the Howard Leight's just as good, if not better, at reducing outside noise; and they would probably be more comfortable as well. Just be aware that they are hunting-jacket orange, so they are even less discreet than the Hearos XP's. However, they are the cheapest of the three plugs--if you buy 200 pairs on Amazon (sold as MAX1, but I'm pretty sure it's the same plug), it brings the price down to just a dime or so per pair! Because these plugs seem to be similar in their construction to the Hearos XP, you should be able to get at least a week's worth of wear out of these plugs as well--so you're set for four years!

Just for the heck of it, I figured I might as well try the Hearos Ultimate Softness too (another plug well regarded by Amazon reviewers). Although they were comfortable, the seal was not very tight at all and they didn't seem to block nearly as much noise as the Xtremes or the Super Leights. When I compared them side by side with the Xtremes, I realized how much smaller in diameter the Ultimate Softness are, which is almost certainly the reason. They are, however, the most discrete of the bunch. They barely stick out of my ears at all, and they blend in better with my skin tone--of course, they may not blend in with yours. It would be nice if they made the same kind of plugs in different colors, but manufacturers probably think it would be more confusing for the consumer. They are a little cheaper in the drugstore than the XP, but in bulk they become quite a bit cheaper at about $0.25/pair.

Since noise-blocking is by far the most important feature for me, I'm going to stick with the Hearos Xtreme Protection. Don't take my experience as gospel, but if you have average to large ear canals (which I'm not sure how to figure out, but I figure mine must be of the larger variety), you will probably find the Xtremes to be the best noise -blockers. If price is your main concern, go with the Howard Leights, which are almost as good at noise-blocking but much cheaper. If you want to do some of your own comparisons, Hearos will send you a free sample if you fill out a form on their website. If you don't want to wait 6-8 weeks, you can go to your local drugstore and spend about $10-$11 and pick up a few different brands for yourself.

More advice on hearing protection by R2Q-member Craig Daniels, Oregon:

I mentioned how pleased I was with using Hearos brand ear plugs (NRR-rated 33dB; can be ordered from Amazon), Peltor brand Ultimate 10 ear-protection muffs (over the ears) and, if needed, both combined. I thinl using them together only reaches a reduction of about 40dB. Perhaps that's all your head can bear. If your head is large like mine, you might want to bend out the head-band a bit for less muff pressure on your head.

The Peltors are the first muffs I have owned which are good enough to slip a pair of earphones into your ears (or just one), then add the muffs - and you can comfortably listen to a spoken programme while exposed to other noise. I want to point out that expensive "active noise reduction"-headphones only take out about 20dB in the low-frequency range (less reduction for high-pitch tones), whereas one can get 29 or 30 dB across the spectrum with a $30 pair of Peltors - then some more reduction due to the earphones one is using (and mine are just ordinary, cheap ones).

Many foam earplugs can be washed and reused dozens of times. You just wipe off the worst earwax upon removing them, then shake them in a jar of dish-soap & water when you've run through a batch. Rinse well and let them dry . I have done this with "Howard Leight Sleepers" and they seem unaffected by washings. They have dense enough foam that crud doesn't seem to get in the pores. Throwing them out each time wastes resources and money. I doubt I'm the only one doing this. Quiet shouldn't be costly, which just adds to the noise annoyance factor.

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