We have all been in a noisy situation, whether it is on the train, trying to work, or trying to sleep next to your snoring partner. There are various ways in which you can try to eliminate those noises, from headphones, foam earplugs, or even a pillow over the ears. But we are in the 21st century now. We don’t have to rely on those uncomfortable and unreliable methods anymore.
So, what can we do instead? Well, you can now buy earplugs that have a lot more technology behind them than you would imagine. First of all, let’s have a look at the options that you have:
- Simple earplugs
- Hi-Fidelity or Musicians’ earplugs
- Custom earplugs
- Sleep specific
- Flight ear protection
As you can see, there are probably more options for earplugs than you may have first thought when you clicked on this article. So, throughout this article, I will go into some more detail about each type and how they work.
If you have ever worked in a factory, or any other industrial workplace that has loud machinery, you have probably seen and used these.
Often made from memory foam, they are the most common and fundamental forms of hearing protection and noise reduction. They are easy to use by simply rolling them into a small cylinder, inserting them into the ear, and holding until the foam has expanded. Simple earplugs work by sealing the ear canal to block the vibrations that would otherwise reach the eardrum.
However, they can become pretty uncomfortable after wearing them for any length of time. That is because there is some internal pressure placed on the ear canal from the expansion of the foam. Also, if you are trying to use these earplugs for sleeping, you may well discover the occlusion effect. That effect is where the body sounds, that you do not usually hear, such as chewing, etc. can not escape through the ear canal. They cannot exit the ear canal because of the earplug and reflect backward towards the eardrum.
Those sounds can be quite annoying when you are trying to sleep or work. However, if you are in a loud environment, then you may be unlikely to notice it at all.
There are times that you do not want to have all sound around you dulled. For those times, you have the option to use hi-fidelity, or musicians’ earplugs. However, even hi-fi earplugs can come in a range of styles and designs, all with their pros and cons.
The basis behind their operation is that they provide clear hearing but at a lower volume. Some of the best that we have seen are the earasers, they are similar in design style to other, non-battery operated hi-fi earplugs. However, there are still differences to the un-powered earplugs:
Those four types of technology are the main types of un-powered hi-fi earplugs that you are likely to see at the moment. However, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether the valve style of protection is useful. I will go into that in a minute.
The use of a tunnel is a simple method of lowering the amount of sound that can physically reach the eardrum by reducing the size of the ear canal. They are very similar in appearance to the filter earplugs that you will see in a moment. However, they are the cheapest option that you have other than the disposable foam plugs above. That is because they are basically the same, but have a tunnel in the center of them to allow small amounts of noise into the ear.
The issue that you may find with this design is that the tunnel will be more receptive to allowing specific frequencies to pass through than others. Therefore, you will end up with a muffled sound that is unlike hearing without them in at all.
As we are talking about the un-powered filter earplugs at the moment, we will only be looking at the passive designs.
As you can see from the image above, the basic principle is pretty simple. The outer flanges of the earplugs act a lot like earbuds used for gaming, etc. They produce a seal around the ear canal and stop the soundwaves passing to the eardrum. However, you will notice that. As with the tunnel earplugs above, there is a tunnel that goes all the way through the earplug. The difference between these and the tunnel plugs is that these have two filters inside.
Now is where things can start to get complicated. Those two filters will reduce noise at different frequencies depending on the material used for them. As you can also see from the image above, the outermost filter is removable to allow more sound through to your eardrum.
However, this is not the only type of available filter earplugs.
Again, diaphragm filter earplugs are similar in principle to the cheaper, filter plugs that you see above. However, they are quite a lot different in operation.
The blue section of the earplugs above is a mechanical diaphragm that works by resonating at the same frequency as the sound entering them. Because it is the sound that is making the diaphragm move, it takes energy out of the sound-waves, and then passed through a tunnel and into your ear canal.
Some models of diaphragm earplugs do have exchangeable diaphragms for differing amounts of sound reduction, often from around -3 to -30dB. Depending on the brand and model that you buy, there are some excellent diaphragm filter earplugs, such as these:
Core earplugs are a little bit of a meld between filter and diaphragm earplugs. The majority of filter earplugs only come with pre-installed filters, and diaphragm earplugs often come with the option for different diaphragms for different circumstances. Core earplugs have different cores for different situations.
For more information about core earplugs, check out our article about Quiet Buds.
As I said earlier on, there is some uncertainty as to whether the mechanical valves are as useful as intended. Take a look at this next image of the inner workings of one of the first mechanical valve earplugs available.
Although there is slightly more to it than my explanation here, there is a fundamental principle behind them. The plug is inserted from the left-hand side of the image, (EAR INSERT CUSHION) with the center hole going from inside the ear canal to the outside (HAIRSPRING CHAMBER). At average talking volumes, the valve stays open and allows the noise to pass through easily into the ear canal.
When there is a loud noise, the soundwaves hit the back end of the valve, closing it, and shutting off the sound. After the audio has dissipated, the hairsprings open the valve back up, allowing ambient noise to enter the ear again.
However, before you go out and buy some, there is one pretty significant downfall to them. That is, physical valves are mechanical. Therefore, they have a mass that requires moving to close them off, which takes time.
The biggest issue with that is the time that it takes to close the valve, is always at the outset of the loud noise, which is the most damaging to the ear. Although the Lee Sonic Ear-Valv (Not an earplug, as advertised) is not available for sale anymore, the basic principle remains in use. Mechanical valves have made their way into some other, newer earplugs such as the Sonic Valve Shooters Plugs:
Unfortunately, there have been the same points of criticism made with these, as was the original design. There are still some very great products in this range with some brilliant reviews.
Electronic, or active earplugs are the newest innovation in the hearing prevention world. There are a lot of different brands of active earplugs on the market now, but really, there are only three main sections that they come under:
However, the basis behind the sport and music variety is pretty similar. Only the sleep earplugs are slightly different, but we will go into that in a little while.
Sport/Tactical Active Earplugs
Some sports, such as shooting and motorsports, have similar noise properties as tactical environments. You need to be able to hear what is going on around you, but you may be subject to sudden loud noises, either from gunshots or loud engines, etc.
The active control circuit in the earplugs use high-quality, highly responsive microphones to detect volume levels, and reduce, or increase them as required. Yes, you read that right, some earplugs can even increase the volume when needed.
Law enforcement and military both need to be able to hear their environment a lot more than standard earplugs will allow. However, as with all hearing protection, they have to fit well into the ear to allow for excellent sound reduction. Therefore, there will be some reduction in noise just by wearing them, even if they are turned off. That could be the difference between life and death in some cases.
So, Companies like 3M have designed Tactical Earplugs that both amplify soft, quiet sounds such as normal speech, and reduce loud damaging noises like gunshots.
Very similar in design technology to the tactical earplugs. However, they are much less rugged, and can often have better sound quality. Earplugs like the 3M above, are waterproof up to 1 meter for 30 minutes, but you are not likely to get any waterproofing at all with musician variants.
Although the physical abilities of them are not similar, they all still work in the same fashion. They both use a microphone to detect noise levels, and a circuit to either increase or decrease the levels of noise allowed into the ear.
Because of the lack of requirement for ruggedness, musician earplugs can have more technology money spend on clarity, and you still pay the same money, if not less.
Sleep Specific Electronic Earplugs
There are an awful lot of websites that I have seen saying that hi-fi earplugs are great for sleeping. If you have used them and found the same, then excellent. But, if you want to take my advice, then scroll back up to the hi-fi section at the top and re-read it. They cancel out some noise. Some. They lower the overall volume a certain amount and still allow in some ambient noise.
I prefer to use the foam type, although they can be uncomfortable overnight. Or custom earplugs, which we will go into next, or better still, noise-masking “sleepbuds”.
Bose, the company that pioneered noise-canceling technology, actually found that noise masking is a better option for sleep due to the occlusion effect that we spoke about earlier in the article. If you have tried to sleep with standard earplugs in, then you may have found that you can wake yourself up with your snoring.
Yes, I will agree, these can be pricey, but think about how much money you spend on a bed and mattress for a good night sleep. If sleep specific earplugs can give you that, I am sure that you will be happy to pay it.
Custom earplugs are as they sound. First, you have a mold of your ears taken at either an audiologist or the company that you buy the earplugs. The company then makes the custom plugs to fit perfectly in your ears, and they can have any of the above features built into them. They are, by far, the most comfortable that you can buy. However, if you are planning on having extras such as electronic inserts, then be ready to pay more.
If you take a look back at the red valve earplugs earlier in the article, you will see that they, too, are custom-molded plugs with the valves inserted.
Flight Ear Protection Earplugs
Yes, you can get specific earplugs for flying. You know that feeling of pressure building up or dropping from your ears? It is painful, isn’t it? Well, you can buy specific flight earplugs that help with the pressure differences. Take a look at the image below:
As you can just about see, these bulbous earplugs have tiny vent holes in each end of them. The design of the soft silicone inserts take up the pressure differences between the airplane cabin and the inner ear as quickly as it builds up or drops off. Then, the tiny vent holes give your ears more time to adjust to the pressure differences to stop the pain.
One problem that we have found, though, is that all of the earplugs from one manufacturer have the same pressure release rates. That may mean that if you have sensitive ears, you may need to try a few out before getting the right ones for you. Here are a few of the best that we have found:
As you are aware, earplugs are to reduce noise. No matter which of the above you are looking at buying, you need to know what the rating is. All earplugs are designated an NRR number in the US, and an SNR number in the EU.
There is a difference between the two numbers, but there is no direct formula to change between the two ratings.
SNR stands for Single Number Rating and provides a rough estimate of the reduction given by the earplugs in decibels. So, if you have earplugs with an SNR of 20, they will reduce the noise by about 20dB.
NRR stands for Noise Reduction Rating and should work in the same way as SNR. However, the testing of SNR’s are independent, and manufacturers test their own NRR’s. That can, and does, lead to higher clinical testing of perfectly fitting ear defenders. That may sound good, but are you going to get them to fit you the way the manufacturer does in the lab? Probably not.
Therefore, with NRR, there is often a higher number stated than the realistic expectations. Therefore, it is widespread to derate the NRR to the following formula:
(NRR-7) ÷ 2
So, you would calculate the de-ration of a pair of NRR 20 earplugs as follows:
(20-7=13) ÷ 2 = 6.5
Bear in mind, though, that the resulting number is what you need to derate the NRR number by, and is not the final rating. So, you still need to subtract 6.5 from 20, which works out at 13.5.
As a rule of thumb, though, it is always best to get higher protection rating earplugs than you think you need. For more information about Occupational Noise Exposure, visit OSHA here.
As you have seen throughout this article, there are many different types of earbuds from which you can choose. Making the right decision for you will depend mainly on what you intend to do with them. If you aim to sleep better, though, I still highly recommend the Quiet Buds. They remove all unwanted sounds and replace them with soothing, relaxing tones to help you sleep.
I hope that this article has helped you get some quiet, or at least helped you save your hearing! Your ears are precious, protect them.