High-end Hearing Protection: Say What?
K.J. Houtman 04.07.14
The more expensive the hearing protection, the more desirable it is, right? To answer that question, I decided to review two custom-made products that most shooters wouldn’t have a chance to try. After all, they are tailor-made items and not available without extending significant effort and dollars.
These custom pieces are molded hearing protection plugs with state-of-the-art suppressors built in; they offer quality hearing protection for use at the shooting range. Traditional ear muffs are probably the most common hearing-related items used by shooters, and far less expensive. The price range for electronic muffs runs $40 to $90 and allow sound under a certain decibel range to pass through (like 80 to 85 or below), but suppress higher decibels (usually above 85—model specifics vary).
The custom pieces follow the same concept and fit inside the ear. Several companies offering custom hearing protection exhibited at the SHOT show, so I sat for a custom fitting and ordered a set. I did this with two different companies to compare their products, their fit, and overall experience. I wish I could have compared more than two companies, but even with a writer’s discount of 50 percent off, I still had over $1,000 into the two sets ordered. The two companies in this comparison are SportEar and Westone DefendEar.
The folks at SportEar provided a hearing test first. They identified any hearing deficiencies I may already have regarding specific and varying tonal ranges, and asserted that their hearing protection would not only block the big noises but amplify the sounds in the ranges for which I needed help. I didn’t have a marked deficiency, but due to plenty of outdoor activities, including shooting, I have some issues—particularly with my left ear.
The Westone folks were confident their fitting process provided for an improved fit and function. They did not have any hearing test associated with their fitting, and no amplification promised, only suppression of high decibels.
Both companies filled my ears with a cotton-substance blocker, and proceeded to shoot a warm plastic into my ear canal to create the shape of my inner ear. Both companies took about six to seven weeks to provide the final product to me. It wasn’t a fast process at all.
With both sets in-hand, next stop was the range. The devices required a fresh battery that needs replacing just about every use. It’s not that hearing aid batteries are terribly expensive; you just the need to have them on-hand and be aware that you’ll be burning through your supply. Taking the time to replace batteries before each use is a bit tedious. The first few were included in the original order for both brands.
I took turns using them. Both were comfortable in place with no noticeable difference physically, except that the SportEar was much smaller. The sound amplification was interesting in the SportEar; I felt like I was eavesdropping on the girls at the next shooting lane—I could hear everything they were saying! In a hunting situation, I suppose that amplification would be quite welcome. The sound was crisp and clear.
Once the range got busy, and it sure did on a Friday night, there was so little downtime that we couldn’t have a normal conversation anyway. The sound suppressed constantly with a dozen busy lanes filled with people and apparently, lots of ammo. In those noisy periods, it didn’t really help to have the high technology. Plain-old shooting muffs would have been just fine, or, ideally the electronic muffs.
The custom-molds were more comfortable than muffs, and I could envision their ease particularly in extended shooting sessions. In those cases, muffs can get warm and after an hour or more a headache isn’t far away. One nice attribute to the Westone DefendEar product: the guts (the expensive part) are interchangeable. Someone else, like my husband, could have his custom molds made (price range $100 to $200), then switch out the electronics. The SportEar didn’t offer that feature.
Here’s a short list of pros and cons:
- Small and compact
- Allows normal-voice conversation while suppressing high decibels
- Very comfortable
- Amplifier for hunting (SportEar brand)
- Interchangeable mold (Westone DefendEar brand)
- Expensive, non-writer retail prices for each pair is well north of $1,000
- Heavy noise suppression is on all the time
- Batteries must be replaced regularly
- Did I mention that they’re expensive?
If you do a lot of shooting, you may like investing in the top-of-the-line hearing protection in either the interchangeable-mold Westone DefendEar, or if you could use a little amplification in a hunting situation, the SportEar might be the product for you. Forewarned, you’ll need to be ready to part with some serious cash to make it happen.
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.