We have all wanted a bit of noise reduction, whether on the train, trying to work, or getting a good night’s sleep next to your snoring partner. There are various ways in which you can try to eliminate those noises, from headphones, foam earplugs, white noise 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 ear plugs 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:
- Hi-Fidelity or Musicians
- Custom earplugs
- Sleep specific
- Flight ear protection
As you can see, there are probably more options for ear plugs than you may have first thought when you clicked on this article. Throughout this article, I will go into some more detail about each type and how they work.
- 1 Simple Expanding Foam Earplugs
- 2 Hi-Fidelity or Musician’s Earplugs
- 3 Open Tunnel Earplugs
- 4 Filter Earplugs (Single or Double Filter)
- 5 Diaphragm Filters
- 6 Cores
- 7 Mechanical Hairspring Valves
- 8 Electronic Earplugs
- 9 Sport/Tactical Active Earplugs
- 10 Musicians
- 11 Sleep Specific Electronic Earplugs
- 12 Custom Molded Earplugs
- 13 Flight Ear Protection Earplugs
- 14 Conclusion
Simple Expanding Foam Earplugs
If you have ever worked in a factory or any other industrial workplace with loud noises, you have probably seen and used these, as they are the best earplugs for industrial use, as they are cheap, disposable, made with soft foam, and as simple as earplugs come. However, if you are looking for a good night’s sleep, you may need to look at the others.
Often made from soft 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 soft foam has expanded. Simple ear plugs 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. Also, if you use these ear plugs for sleeping, you may well discover the occlusion effect. That is where body sounds such as chewing can not escape through the ear canal and reflect backward towards the eardrum. Foam earplugs are great for noise reduction but are awful for side sleepers.
Hi-Fidelity or Musician’s Earplugs
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 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 with some noise reduction. 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 earplug.
Tunnel, filter, cores, and valves are the four types of technology for 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.
Open Tunnel Earplugs
The use of a tunnel is a simple method of lowering the amount of sound that can physically reach the eardrum by reducing the ear canal’s size. They are very similar in appearance to the filter varients 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.
Filter Earplugs (Single or Double Filter)
As we are talking about the un-powered filter earplugs, 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 silicone earplugs act a lot like earbuds used for gaming, etc. They produce a seal around the ear canal and stop the soundwaves from 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. Still not very comfortable for side sleepers, though.
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, and nothing like foam earplugs.
The blue section of the silicone 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 diaphragm earplug models 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. They are relatively good earplugs for sleeping, but side sleepers may want to do a trial run before spending all night in them; they are certainly better than foam earplugs, though.
Again, nothing like foam earplugs, core earplugs are a little bit of a meld between filter and diaphragm earplugs. The majority of filter earplugs come with pre-installed filters, and diaphragm earplugs often come with the option for different diaphragms for different circumstances. Core silicone earplugs have different cores for different situations.
For more information about core earplugs, check out our article about Quiet Buds.
Mechanical Hairspring Valves
As I said earlier, there is some uncertainty about 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). The valve stays open at average talking volumes and allows the noise to pass through easily into the ear canal.
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 it takes to close the valve, which is always at the outset of the loud noise, which is the most damaging to the ear. Although the Lee Sonic Ear-Valve (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, the same points of criticism were 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 earplugs for sleep 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 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 uses 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.
The United States Law enforcement and military both use these 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 noise reduction 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 (who also make the foam earplugs) have designed Tactical Earplugs that both amplify soft, quiet sounds such as normal speech and reduce loud damaging noises like gunshots. They are certainly not earplugs for sleeping with!
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 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 noise levels 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. However, they are still the best earplugs for music players of all types.
Sleep Specific Electronic Earplugs
There are an awful lot of websites that I have seen saying that hi-fi earplugs are great earplugs for sleep. If you have used them and found the same, then excellent. They only cancel out some noise. They lower the overall volume to a certain amount and still allow in some ambient noise.
Bose, the company that pioneered noise-canceling technology, actually found that noise masking, with something like white noise, is a better option for a good 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. These are, by far, the best earplugs for sleep.
Custom Molded Earplugs
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, best earplugs that you can buy. These are how foam earplugs want to work! However, if you plan 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. Custom-molded earplugs are one of the best types of earplugs for sleeping if you want a good night’s sleep, even for side sleepers.
Flight Ear Protection Earplugs
Yes, you can get specific earplugs for flying. Do 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 soft silicone inserts’ design takes up the pressure differences between the airplane cabin and the inner ear as quickly as it builds up or drops off. The tiny vent holes give your ears more time to adjust to the pressure differences to stop the pain. However, 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:
QUIET BUDS (Click to read our own review)
As you have seen throughout this article, there are many different 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.