Expert Advice on Hearing Protection for Shooters: Interview with Howard Leight Shooting Sports

Not long ago I interviewed Josh Lantz, from Traditions Media, which works with Howard Leight Shooting Sports. I asked him about hearing protection for shooters and dispel some confusion about the technology involved, and provide a great explanation as to why enthusiasts should consider an electronic pair.

GJS—What are the major advantages of a shooter using electronic hearing protection?

JL—As opposed to passive means of hearing protection like foam earplugs or standard muffs, electronic hearing protection includes an amplification feature that allows wearers to hear and even amplify ambient sounds. The primary advantages of this feature are the ability to conduct conversation, hear range commands, or hear approaching game.

GJS—Without diving too deep into the technology, how does electronic hearing protection let conversations and range commands pass through, while blocking the dangerously loud report of a firearm? 

JL—Electronic hearing protection combines passive sound attenuation—either and over-the-ear muff or an in-ear plug—with analog or digital circuitry to compress or “shave the peaks” off dangerous sounds above a certain level. These models employ external microphones, internal speakers and a gain adjustment, allowing the user to hear surrounding sounds at normal or even louder-than-normal levels. When a dangerously loud sound (over 82dB for Howard Leight electronic earmuffs) is detected, the circuitry cuts off the amplification to the speakers inside the earcups until the noise returns to a safe level. During this period where amplification to the internal speakers is cut, the passive design of the muffs or plugs is what delivers the noise reduction, just as standard (passive) earmuffs or foam plugs do.

GJS—Is there clipping or filtering involved, and if so it the blocked noise determined by frequency or loudness?

JL—Different manufacturers employ different technologies in their electronic hearing protection devices. These may include low-pass and high-pass filters that filter certain frequencies, along with various forms of compression which automatically adjust gain.

GJS—Does that filtering begin with the microphone and is there an advantage to more than one mike?

JL—Yes and yes. Many mistakenly refer to the amplification control on their electronic hearing protection as “volume,” but the adjustment settings really control “gain.” The difference is where the sound coming through the internal speakers is being regulated…not at the internal speakers themselves, but through the external microphones. Think of gain as controlling or regulating the sound entering into the microphones. Having a microphone for each ear allows for stereo sound, which gives the wearer better situational or directional awareness.

GJS—Should shooters be concerned about battery life?

JL—Battery life in electronic hearing protection varies widely. Analog circuitry provides longer battery life (up to 350 hours in Howard Leight analog models—Impact Sport and Impact Pro) than digital circuitry (up to 150 hours in Howard Leight digital models—Impact Sport BOLT). Models with Bluetooth connectivity greatly reduce battery life. People commonly forget to turn their muffs off, so Howard Leight electronic hearing protection models come with a 4-hour auto shutoff feature to preserve battery life. All Howard Leight models also include batteries.

GJS—Getting a good cheek weld with some electronic hearing protection when shouldering a rifle is a real challenge. Does your company have models that address the problem?

JL—Howard Leight’s popular 22 NRR Impact Sport and Impact Sport BOLT electronic earmuffs employ a slim ear cup design plus recessed cutouts that provide even more stock clearance when shouldering a firearm. Shooters should always select a hearing protection product with an NRR (Noise Reduction Rating) that matches their specific firearm and shooting conditions. They should realize that Noise Reduction Rating in over-the-ear muffs is largely determined by the size/volume of the ear cups. Slim and sexy is great, but the greater the volume/size of the ear cup, generally, the greater the attenuation. Howard Leight uses patented Airflow Control technology to maximize sound attenuation while minimizing ear cup size.

GJS—Is the decibel reduction about the same in all electronic hearing protection and how much of it is determined by the seal/construction of the ear muffs?

JL—As previously mentioned, ear cup volume largely determines NRR. That said, materials, technologies and additional design factors can be employed to maximize NRR in a given ear cup size. I can’t speak for any other manufacturer, but at Howard Leight, the replaceable ear cushions that snap into their electronic muffs are integral to the earmuffs’ performance. This is something shooters should be aware of. If they replace or modify their cushions with aftermarket products, they are altering the design of the product, which may have negative impacts on performance with respect to NRR.

GJS—Do you recommend doubled up with foamies when using hearing protection, say for example when shooting a .50 BMG at a firing line with a metal roof?

JL—You’ve just described one of the loudest shooting situations possible. Shooters in this situation should employ hearing protection offering the maximum available NRR. That may mean Howard Leight Super Leight Foam earplugs which when used properly offer a 33 NRR, or Howard Leight Impact Pro electronic muffs, which deliver 30 NRR. Doubling up is also advisable in this situation, but shooters should be aware that “doubling up” with foamies under muffs does not result in a total NRR of both products. For example, wearing 33 NRR plugs under 30 NRR muffs does not result in a total NRR of 63. Realistically, one can expect to gain an additional 1-5dB of NRR, which still amounts to a significant increase in protection. Because sound intensity doubles every 3dB, if “doubling up” results in 3 more dB of protection, that still means twice the protection!

GJS—When selecting a set of electronic hearing protection, what are the most critical ratings they should look for?

JL—Definitely NRR. It’s the performance rating system used in North America (and many other parts of the world) that appears on the packaging of every hearing device sold. Price, comfort and convenience regularly impact shooters’ hearing-protection buying decisions. Too often, however, performance—the variable that matters most—is not given adequate consideration. The best thing you can do—certainly with any new shooter—is give them the highest NRR available, so they are comfortable and enjoy the sport more. The higher the number, the better the product protects. There is a huge difference between a NRR of 23 and a NRR of 29. Remember that sound doubles every 3 dB, so a product with a 29 NRR is actually 200 percent better than a product with a NRR of 23. There are also considerations to be made based on what and where someone is shooting. For example, certain firearms produce more sound than others. A high-powered rifle that produces a peak of 158 dB is going to be 600 percent louder than a .22 cal. rifle that produces 140 dB. Shooters should make hearing-protection decisions accordingly. The shooting environment matters, too. Indoor shooting produces a lot of reverberation and covered outdoor shooting can be just as bad. Sound has nowhere to go in these environments. For louder firearms or indoor or covered shooting situations, Howard Leight’s Impact PRO electronic earmuff (NRR 30) or foam earplugs (up to NRR 33) are the smart choices.

GJS—And, is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?

JL—This is the golden age for shooting sports. We have great products that employ wonderful technologies and designs to improve our experiences. But this is also the age of counterfeit and deception. Every day, products flood into the USA that are cheap imitations that often do not perform as advertised. My advice when it comes to buying electronic hearing protection is to always buy a reputable brand, whether that is Howard Leight or another top, trusted brand. My second message is to hunters. We don’t usually lose our hearing while shooting at the range, we lose it in the waterfowl blind and other hunting scenarios, because for some reason we still don’t wear hearing protection when we take to the field. There are no more excuses. Today’s electronic hearing protection choices allow us to protect our hearing while maintaining the social aspects of hunting as well as our ability to hear approaching game. 

I interviewed more experts on today’s hearing protection for shooters. Here’s what they told me.