I’ve had a few folks reach out and ask me what kind of ear protection I prefer, so I thought I’d write a blog about it.
My relationship with sound is complicated. Certain high pitched sounds actually cause me pain. Any sound disrupts my concentration, but long periods of exposure to any sound, or short periods of exposure to very loud or complex sounds can be so disconcerting that I lose the ability to think and speak.
I like to preserve my ability to think, so I’ve experimented with lots of products to find the best one to help me navigate different auditory scenarios.
These are my top picks.
1. For light protection I like Etymotics brand High Fidelity Earplugs ER 20XS. They lower sound by about 20 decibels, which I find to be a perfect reduction in environments such as parks or retail environments without music. The clear, rounded stem peeks out subtly, so not a lot of attention is drawn to the ear.
2. For medium protection I like Radians Custom Molded Earplugs. They have a 26 dB noise reduction rating (NRR). The silicone plugs mold to fit your ear. Because of the custom molding, I’ve found them to be among the most comfortable plugs I’ve used. I wear them in the shower on days when I’m particularly sensitive, or when I’m traveling and need to block out the sound of a fan in a hotel bathroom that comes on automatically with the light.
3. For heavier protection, I reach for Mack’s Dreamgirl soft foam earplugs. They help block the sound of low volume music or urban traffic noise. I can’t imagine sleeping without them. They have a hefty 30 dB NRR but don’t sacrifice comfort like bulkier plugs in the same NRR range. If your ear canal is larger, you may want to opt for a different Mack’s model.
I’ve tried my share of earmuffs too and the brand I’m happiest with is 3M. Their Peltor series muffs offer comfortable protection for a range of auditory situations.
I’m no longer self-conscious about protecting my senses. I consider wearing hearing protection in public to be analogous to using a mobility aid. I can’t really get around well without it, so it isn’t really anything to be ashamed of.
4. With a NRR of 21 dB, I like the 3M Optime 95 for short duration or less demanding sensory challenges. I keep a pair on hand in my car for the times I’m stuck at a stoplight next to a kid with a booming radio or when a fire truck or ambulance races past me.
5. When the volume goes up, I reach for my 24 dB NRR muffs. Worn over the Mack’s Dreamgirl plugs, these can get me past a whistling locomotive with minimal disruption to my train of thought.
6. If you find that your town has been invaded by a motorcycle rally, then it’s time to grab a pair of 3M Peltor X5A muffs. With a noise reduction rating of 31 dB, they’re the most powerful muffs in my collection. They are a bit heavy, but are still comfortable enough to wear for a few hours at a time.
The customer service team at 3M is top-notch too. I had a less than fun encounter with the TSA staff at my local airport when I attempted to wear my yellow 24 dB muffs though security. I explained they were a medical device and the TSA screener requested I remove them and run my hands over them before returning them to my head. I complied, and my hands were swabbed for explosives. My eyes sure got wide when I saw the screen flash detected. Seconds later I was pulled aside for a private pat down. Once I demonstrated I was not in possession of anything threatening, I was allowed to board, but the incident worried me. I emailed 3M to find out what had caused the alert.
I received the following reply explaining the reason for the event.
“Our Peltor Earmuffs are manufactured in a facility with many different 3M products and we can confirm that there are not any explosives manufactured in that location. I did find some information that indicates that the TSA’s reader flags glycerin as a component in explosives. Our earmuffs are filled with glycerin to create the comfort fit around the ears, the glycerin is non-hazardous but is a chemical building block of some explosives. Please let me know if you have any additional questions or concerns.”
I thought 3Ms commitment to seeking out an answer to my rather unusual question about their product was pretty amazing.
7. The most awesome piece of equipment in my repertoire of anti-auditory assault tools are my Bose QuietComfort 20. If you can fit them into your budget, they’re worth every penny. I can get past screaming toddlers at Target with my Bose plugged into red noise from the White Noise Ambience by logicworks app. Even if you aren’t comfortable masking sound with sound, the earbuds bring the sounds around you down a notch if you just plug them into your phone and turn them on. In the on position, the noise cancelling is activated and the sound around you becomes dimmer.
I commend Bose on top notch customer service too. The noise cancelling button on my first pair stopped working after I’d had them for about 8 months. Getting a replacement under warranty was a rather painless process. I only had to pay shipping for my replacement.
The Bose QuietComfort earbuds are specific to Apple or android products, so make sure to get the right ones for your device.
Finding the right protection for you may be a trial and error process. I encourage you to keep trying until you find the products that are most suitable for you. Living with hyperacusis or other sound sensitivities can be very isolating, so finding the right hearing protection can be incredibly liberating. There is joy in being able to do something as simple as shop in a grocery store after finding the right protection against the music and the sounds of other shoppers.
As a caveat, I’ve spoken with some audiologists who warn against overprotecting the ears. There’s a theory among them that overprotection prompts the auditory system to try harder to detect sounds, making hyperacusis more severe in the long run. I can’t speak to the validity of that theory, but I urge you to speak to the professionals in your life and do your own research to determine the level of protection that is appropriate for your situation.
Blocking out sound keeps my confusion at bay and enhances my productivity, so it’s a choice I make. I do try to spend time without any protection, but I’m never able to focus and accomplish anything I consider worthwhile when my ears are exposed to the sounds around me.
Best wishes on your journey to finding the perfect ear protection!
Share your thoughts. What kinds of ear protection work for you, and how often do you use ear protection?