When a gunshot’s sound can cause permanent hearing damage, you should always have the best shooting ear protection possible. Whether you’re hunting, competing, or just spending a few hours at the range, your personal protective equipment is a mandatory part of your kit.
Nowadays, hearing protection comes in a wide variety of shapes and forms. In this guide, we’ll detail some of each of the four major types’ pros and cons:
Passive In-Ear, Active In-Ear, Passive Over-Ear, & Active Over-Ear.
In addition, we’ll detail some of the most popular options in each category, so you can make the right decision when purchasing your next set of hearing protection.
Best Shooting Ear Protection: Passive In-Ear
Passive in-ear ear protection includes basic earplugs, which are made of either foam or rubber. Though simple, passive in-ear protection still provides the best average noise reduction rating (NRR) overall. Consequently, passive in-ear protectors are the best shooting ear protection when you want simple, effective noise reduction for the lowest possible price.
Passive In-Ear Benefits
Value: Passive in-ear hearing protection is the most affordable hearing protection available, as most passive earplugs are priced under $20. Many gun-owners will keep spare passive in-ear hearing protection as a back-up in their range bag with this much value.
Noise Reduction: Peltor Sport Blast Ear Plugs, which come in an 80-pack for under $15, offer up to 32NRR protection. This is well above average for any over-ear headsets, making foam earplugs one of the safest options when shooting. You can also wear foam earplugs in conjunction with over-ear protectors, giving you the best hearing protection possible.
Low-Profile: Many gun-owners find earplugs more convenient than over-ear protection since there’s no headband or neckband pressure. In-ear protectors ensure the best possible cheek weld on the stock comb for rifles and shotguns without any obstruction.
Passive In-Ear Trade-Offs
Hygiene: All in-ear protection can have hygiene concerns. Earwax buildup on the plug’s surface will attract bacteria, so you’ll need to clean them off occasionally to prevent ear infections. Fortunately, this is an easy process, so long as the fouling is not excessive.
If you’re using disposable protectors, you won’t have to deal with earwax buildup, but you’ll have ongoing costs as you replace them.
Audibility: While noise protection is important, you still want to hear range commands and conversation of those around you. Passive protection doesn’t have any electronic system to differentiate between gunshots and ambient noise, so it can be hard to hear your surroundings. Fortunately, the SureFire EP4 Sonic Defenders have a special triple-flanged design with a channel that filters explicitly loud noises above 85 decibels.
Potential Discomfort: The other side of the coin. Some individuals really don’t like the feeling of earplugs. If you’re one of these individuals, over-ear hearing protectors might be preferable to you.
Best Shooting Ear Protection: Active In-Ear
Active in-ear hearing protection includes electronic earplugs that use external microphones to capture and amplify ambient noise. In effect, the user will hear the world normally (or better), though gunshots will sound much quieter.
Active in-ear hearing protection is the best shooting ear protection for those who want earplugs’ effectiveness with the advanced features of electronic hearing protection. Some electronic in-ear protectors are Bluetooth compatible, allowing for use in conjunction with a cellphone.
Active In-Ear Benefits
Audibility: Electronic hearing protection is excellent when needing to interact with friends and family. If you want to have a conversation at the range without shouting at each other, you need electronic hearing protection to amplify ambiance. Noise amplification is also great for home defense since electronic hearing protection can amplify noises around you for greater awareness when listening for intruders.
Noise Reduction: While active hearing protection is generally less protective than passive protection, active earplugs are still capable of excellent noise reduction. With a 25NRR reduction rating, Walker’s Silencer Electronic Earbuds still outperform many passive over-ear options.
Low-Profile: Just as with passive in-ear protectors, electronic earplugs are lighter and smaller than comparable over-ear protectors. While over-ear protectors may interfere with cheek weld, in-ear protectors have no such issues.
Active In-Ear Trade-Offs
Price: Active in-ear protection is the most expensive category of the four, requiring extensive technology fit into a compact footprint. Most units cost over $100, though Walker’s does offer some great affordable units like the Walker’s Rope Hearing Enhancer.
Hygiene: As with passive in-ear protection, active in-ear protection needs regular cleaning. Most active units feature replaceable rubber tips, so you can always replace them when they get too dirty.
Potential Discomfort: If earbuds are uncomfortable to you, active in-ear hearing protection will not be any better. If you’re not sure about comfort, try wearing passive earplugs for a few hours. That will give you a good sense of your tolerance for in-ear hearing protection.
Best Shooting Ear Protection: Passive Over-Ear
Passive over-ear hearing protection includes traditional ‘ear muff’ designs, which cup over your ears with applied pressure from a headband or neckband. Most gun-owners are well-familiarized with the basic over-ear protectors, which are common with range rentals.
Compared to in-ear protection, over-ear protectors offer a greater variety in design and technology, though the core concepts remain the same. Passive over-ear hearing protection is the best shooting ear protection for low-cost, low-maintenance coverage with good all-around performance.
Passive Over-Ear Benefits
Value: Earmuffs are slightly more expensive than earplugs, but earmuffs can last a lot longer. A basic set of Pyramex Venture Gear VG80 Series Hearing Protection only costs around $25, but they can last many years of use if not abused. Even if you decide to upgrade to active protection, a back-up set of earmuffs can be great for guests.
Noise Reduction: Passive over-ear hearing protectors provide solid overall noise reduction. For the absolute best results, earmuffs can be worn in conjunction with foam earplugs. This combo can tame the blast of the loudest firearms—even when shooting at indoor ranges.
Low Maintenance: While in-ear protectors require regular cleaning for hygiene, over-ear hearing protectors are considerably less demanding. You should occasionally clean the earcups since they can get saturated with sweat and oil.
Passive Over-Ear Trade-Offs
Headband Pressure: Some headbands may feel uncomfortable after hours of wear. This is usually due to sizing issues or poor material quality. In general, expensive earmuffs are more comfortable, since premium earmuffs use softer materials with more adjustment to match any head size. If the headband lacks sufficient adjustment, you may develop a headache due to increased pressure.
Cheek Weld: Some passive over-ear hearing protectors are rather large. This can cause problems when trying to look down the sights on a rifle. If a rifle’s stock interferes with your hearing protection, you may find sight alignment to be a challenge. In this case, do not push too hard against your earmuffs. If the cup is raised off the ear, the gunshot will not be fully mitigated, leading to possible hearing damage.
Best Shooting Ear Protection: Active Over-Ear
Active over-ear hearing protection includes electronic earmuffs that use advanced sound-dampening technologies to filter gunshots and amplify ambient noise.
Most active hearing protection uses an over-ear design, and prices range from $50 to $500 and beyond, depending on your desired features.
Active over-ear hearing protection is the best shooting ear protection if you’re looking for great all-around performance, balancing comfort, price, and innovation with acceptable noise reduction ratings.
Active Over-Ear Benefits
Audibility: Active hear protection has the benefit of full ambient audibility. Just like with in-ear protection, you can even amplify the surrounding noises to have a greater hearing ability while filtering out the gunshots. The comfort and convenience of properly-fit earmuffs make them a top choice for most firearm activities.
Wide Selection: Active over-ear hearing protection is far more common than active in-ear protection, so you have a tremendous variety of designs to choose from. This makes it a lot easier to find a set that perfectly matches your head size and ear shape while keeping within your budget. Walker’s, Peltor, and Howard Leight are the most popular brands for budget-friendly active over-ear hearing protection, offering dozens of different designs within the $50-$80 price range.
Comfort: In general, active over-ear hearing protection is more comfortable than passive over-ear hearing protection. Since these units are more costly, manufacturers use better materials that allow for more flex and cushioning without excessive headband pressure. Some products offer a gel ear cup option, which is highly recommended for maximizing comfort.
Active Over-Ear Trade-Offs
Lower NRR Average: On average, active over-ear hearing protectors have the lowest noise reduction rating of the four major categories. With common cartridges at outdoor ranges, this shouldn’t be an issue, but if you need added protection, we highly recommend that you keep a pack of foam earplugs around as a back-up. A combination of electronic earmuffs and foam earplugs will protect you in almost any circumstance.
Headband Pressure: As discussed with passive protection, headband sizing is important for long-term comfort. If your earmuffs aren’t sized properly, they can place excessive pressure around your ears, which creates a headache. Most electronic over-ear hearing protectors are highly adjustable, though, so this is not a common issue.
Hearing protection is an important subject that all gun-owners should understand fully. Unfortunately, hearing damage is common in the firearms community, and tinnitus is a life-long condition that cannot be repaired.
Every time you fire a gun with insufficient protection, you reduce your hearing ability by just a bit. You might not notice it, but over the years, those small compromises accumulate to serious forfeiture.
That’s why we recommend you guarantee your safety with high-quality ear protection, following all the basic range rules to reduce the risk of personal injury or hearing damage.