Electronic Hearing Protectors

Electronic hearing protectors cost two to ten times more than the passive kind. What are you paying for, and when might you need them?

Peltor Surround electronic hearing protectors
Image courtesy of US NIOSH
Passive hearing protectors use sound-absorbing foam to reduce the level of sound reaching your ears. The result is a muffled, muted sound, which in most situations is what you want. But if you're a hunter or shooter, or even a construction worker working with a nail gun, you want to block the dangerously loud impulse noises of gunfire, yet still be able to hear people speaking at ordinary volumes or in low tones. A passive device can't do that.

For these impulse noise environments, electronic hearing protection is ideal.

Here's how it works:

  • Ear cups with acoustic foam provide the hearing protection, just as in passive hearing protection muffs.
  • When sound levels in your surroundings are acceptably low, the sound is picked up by microphones mounted outside the ear cups, amplified, and delivered to the inside of the ear cups electronically, reaching your ears at a safe and comfortable volume. The effect is as though the foam hearing protection is "switched off."
  • When a sound approaching unsafe levels is detected, within microseconds the amplification circuitry is switched off. The effect is as though the foam hearing protection has been "switched on," for the duration of the impulse noise.
In this way, you can hear (via the electronic circuitry) normal sounds such as people speaking, while your ears are protected from loud noises, such as bursts of gunfire. This technique is called active clipping, or peak clipping with amplification, and is used by nearly all electronic hearing protectors.

Another technique is sound compression, used in Altus Brands' Pro Ears devices, in which the circuitry remains on during the noise impulse, but electronically compresses the sound to a safe level. The active clipping and the sound compression methods each provide excellent hearing protection, but sound compression offers an even smoother speech enhancement effect.

Although often called "active" hearing protectors, these devices do not use true active noise reduction (also known as noise cancellation technology). For information on active noise reduction hearing protectors, click here.

Electronic ear muffs use batteries, and are a bit bulkier and heavier than passive muffs. And, naturally, they are significantly more expensive — in the range of $100 to $300 (US dollars), compared with $10 to $50 for passive ear muffs. But in hunting and shooting sports, being able to hear what's going on around you can be at least as important to your personal safety as protecting your hearing, and that's what these devices provide. Many shooters discover, once they try them, that they truly enjoy wearing them.

Optional features to consider:

  • Independent circuitry in each ear. This maintains your directional hearing, so you can tell where a sound is coming from.
  • Independent volume control in each ear. This is especially helpful if you have partial hearing loss in one ear.
  • Adjustable frequency controls.
  • An audio input jack. This can be mono (for speech) or stereo (for music).
  • An automatic off switch, to conserve batteries.
  • Slim or beveled ear cups, to minimize interference with rifles and shotguns.
  • Folding style, for compactness and portability.
  • A behind-the-head neckband instead of a headband.
  • Special coloring:
    • Bright colors, for visibility (in a hazardous construction environment, for example)
    • Camouflage patterns, for hunting

Two brands that are widely recognized for their quality and reliability are Peltor and Altus Brands' Pro Ears. You may see them called "tactical" hearing protectors. You can find electronic hearing protectors at sporting goods stores and hunting supply shops.

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