The 10 Best Earplugs
10. 3M Peltor Sport
9. Howard Leight Honeywell Quiet
8. Etymotic Research ETY
7. DownBeats High Fidelity
6. Surefire EP4 Sonic Defenders Plus
4. LiveMus!c HearSafe
3. Vibes High Fidelity
2. Mack's Ultra Soft
1. Eargasm High Fidelity
A Few Words On Ear Protection
Your hearing is the sense most susceptible to long-term damage based on the external factors to which you expose yourself. Hearing acuity will often decline with age just as will a person's sense of sight and even taste, but so too can hearing be damaged and reduced prematurely by too much exposure to loud noises.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss, sometimes abbreviated to NIHL, is a condition suffered by millions of Americans (government estimates place the figure at near 15% of the population aged 20 to 69, in fact), with more joining the unfortunate ranks every day of the year. This condition can come on suddenly, with exposure to an extreme sonic event such as an explosion or car crash, or it can develop over time, becoming a chronic issue. NIHL can affect one ear or both at the same time.
Regular and protracted exposure to sounds measured at more than 85 decibels can cause hearing damage. For a bit of context, that's about the noise level of a busy city street: walk down the sidewalk of downtown Chicago or Washington D.C. in the middle of the afternoon and you'll be hearing about as much noise as your ears can safely handle. Add in a passing siren, and you might experience a noise level as high as 120 decibels. Brief, infrequent exposure to a siren is not likely to damage your hearing indefinitely, but now consider this: a standard industrial-grade jackhammer produces a noise level near 130 decibels. Anyone working on a bustling construction site, therefore, is frequently subjected to enough sound to cause serious hearing issues.
While permanent Noise-Induced Hearing Loss can't be reversed, fortunately hearing loss caused by noise exposure can arrested at its current level by a change in a person's approach to life. While reducing exposure to potentially hazardous sounds may be implausible due to a person's living or working arrangements, it's easy enough to protect your precious hearing by committing to the regular use of earplugs.
Choosing The Right Ear Plugs
To open our discussion of earplug selection, let's begin with a sweeping albeit not inaccurate generalization: there are two basic categories of earplug, which are those designed simply to block out noise, and those designed to reduce and filter noise while maintaining sonic fidelity. At first blush, one would think no contest existed, then, and that the latter category is the superior choice. While indeed an earplug that permits its wearer to hear much of the sound around himself or herself can be a boon in many situations, such as at a music concert or while conducting a tour of a factory floor or lively city, there are also many times when it behooves one to block out as much sound as possible.
Take for example the earplug used for slumber: whether lying in one's own bed at night or trying to catch some rest en route during a business trip, the person trying to sleep is not interested in the high fidelity filtering of the sounds around them, they are interested in having some peace and quiet so they can sleep. So too might the marksman working on his aim at the rifle range be interested in the lack of distraction afforded by overall noise reduction, and of course he (or she) will appreciate having ears that are protected from the loud crack of the gun. (Some big-bore rifles can create a report rated at 175 decibels, enough to cause immediate hearing issues without proper ear protection.)
So before you choose your earplugs, consider how and wear you are likely to use them and how much -- or how little -- you really want to hear. Then you can move on to considering options that maintain frequency fidelity, that block loud, deep waves of sound but let in speech and melody, and so forth. And know that even the most expensive pair of earplugs around will be affordable for anyone truly committed to aural safety.
Proper Ear Plug Maintenance
Many cheaper earplugs, such as those made of PU foam (polyurethane, that is) are designed to be worn a few times, or a singe time, and then discarded. These earplugs are perfectly effective so long as you take the time to properly insert them, and their maintenance is blissfully simple: toss them out and grab a new pair as needed.
With more permanent earplugs, maintaining cleanliness and hygiene becomes a more important issue. While most modern earplugs are made with hypoallergenic materials such as silicone or polymers, the build-up of earwax or natural oils on the plugs, or the accumulation of dirt and dust that comes with regular use, especially on worksites, in the woods during hunting, or in other outdoor applications, means you will have to clean your earplugs from time to time.
The easiest, most reliable way to clean a pair of reusable earplugs is to use a dishwasher or a washing machine. Just send them through a cycle of either unit, but make sure you have placed them in a dishwasher safe basket for the former and in a mesh bag for the latter, for fear of losing the earplugs and potentially damaging your machine. You can also hand wash your earplugs with mild soap and a clean toothbrush. After any washing method, wipe them down with isopropyl alcohol, and then make sure to thoroughly dry them before use or storage.