The Best Shooting Ear Protection in 2023
Dive deep into our expert take on all kinds of shooting ear protection. From NRR ratings to comfort, find the best gear to protect your hearing.
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Products are selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases from a link. How we select gear.
Few pastimes have the kinds of hearing risks like shooting, so hearing protection (along with eye protection) is really non-negotiable. But what to look for?
The best shooting ear protection is the kind that’s comfortable to wear all day long on a range without noticing it. If you’re even a little uncomfortable you’ll find reasons to avoid using them — possibly putting you in the position of sacrificing hearing protection for comfort, which is the last thing you want to do.
In the same way we only have a single set of eyes, we only have one set of ears, and once you cause hearing damage, there’s no getting it back.
We run through the best ear protection for shooting in various settings to help you land the proper ear protection for you.
In This Article
Side By Side Comparison
How We Selected
Noise Reduction Rating (NRR)
NRR is a measurement of how effective the hearing protection is at reducing noise exposure. We looked for the highest NRR in a given product type.
Fit & Comfort
Hearing protection should fit comfortably, especially if you plan on wearing it for hours on end, and accommodate other shooting gear, like hats or glasses.
Type of Protection
We evaluated the three different types of hearing protection, in-ear plugs, over-ear muffs, and electronic hearing protection, to find the best mix of features for each.
Durability and Quality
High-quality products help ensure longevity and more consistent performance, so we look for products that can withstand the typical wear and tear of shooting environments.
In-Ear Hearing Protection
1. Best Foam Earplugs: Howard Leight Foam Ear Plugs
In a pinch, foam earplugs are great to have on hand whether you find yourself at a range, concert, using power tools, or running equipment. These soil-resistant foam earplugs from Howard Leight are hard to beat when it comes to price-point and can also be considered a base layer of ear protection.
When put into the ear correctly, these are NRR 33.
2. Best Custom Plugs: PremEar Hearing Custom Plugs
I have been wearing custom PremEar hearing plugs since 2015. They are the most advanced instant silicone product line available to the hearing industry and have an NRR of up to 37 dB.
The downside is they’re considerably more expensive than other options and you have to get a custom mold created by PremEar to take advantage of their custom fit.
They also make plugs with a stopper so you can open and close to talk to someone without entirely removing the hearing protection.
3. Best Passive In-Ear Pro: Safariland Pro Impulse
One of my favorite in-ear options, Safariland’s Impulse Earing Protection ear plugs instantly reduce higher dB sound levels while still allowing regular speech and audio to be heard by using what’s called a piezo filter.
They’re fantastic and pull a hat trick of usability, performance, and absence of batteries (a huge plus in my book.)
The mechanical filter can be popped in and out of the tips to change from one size to the other, which is straightforward enough, but the little filters are about the size of a hearing aid battery (and just as slick) so avoid swapping them in the field (or at least do it over a table) because a dropped filter is a gone filter.
The filters automatically engage with higher-dB impulse explosions — like those caused by a rifle report — but allow lower-dB audio (like speech) to be heard clearly.
These have an NRR of 33 dB and are comfortable to wear all day long (although I pair them with over-ear muffs as they’re not quite enough for higher-density shooting settings.)
I prefer these for any range time with a rifle as my big, round head can make over-ear protection anathema to a decent cheek weld. They also include two different plug sizes, giving you two fits for the price of one (I prefer the large.)
They can shift around in your ear canal when recoil impulse changes their position, so I find myself tapping them back into my ear more than full foam plugs, but the ability to clearly hear other people at the range is well worth it.
Removing the tips from your ears involves pulling on small tabs molded into the units. They’re easy enough to grab with bare hands but can get a little challenging to locate with gloves on.
Beyond the range, I use them for concerts or anywhere I’m going to encounter really loud sounds but still want to be able to hold conversations.
They also include a nice metal, keyring-friendly carrying case, which my only gripe about is the case is black — which means it can be a challenge to locate in the bottom of a range bag (if it was the same red color as the filters it would be much easier to find IMO).
That said, you can get ahold of them for less than a pair of sawbucks, so I never hit the range without them.
Over-Ear Hearing Protection
4. Best Passive: Howard Leight Ultraslim
Howard Leight is one of the more well-known hearing protection manufacturers.
These ultraslim earmuffs are lightweight and easily collapsible. The ear cups are soft and replaceable as they wear down over the years. The headband also features padded foam to minimize pressure on the head.
The NRR on these is 23 dB.
5. Best Budget Passive: Walkers Game Ear Folding Muffs
Walkers is another company that takes hearing protection seriously with a variety of products on the market.
These low-profile muffs are lightweight and also fold up to store easily when not in use. The ear cups are PVC padded, which helps prevent issues with a good cheek weld.
The NRR rating is 22 decibels.
6. Upgrade Over-Ear Pick: Pro Ears Earmuff
Pro Ears has been making premium hearing protection for years, all handmade in the USA. These passive earmuffs are on the higher protection end with an NRR of 30 dB, making these an excellent option for indoor shooting range use.
The ear cups are made from leather, and the headband is padded as well as adjustable, so these are sturdy, high quality earmuffs that will keep your hearing safe in almost any situation. The downside is they’re heavy at 12 ounces, so you’ll need to be stationary when using them.
Electronic Hearing Protection
7. Premium Electronic In-Ear: OTTO Noizebarrier
OTTO’s rechargeable electronic earplugs are a premium offering of comfortable earplugs with electronic capabilities.
These have an NRR rating of 40 dB, are IP67 water-resistant, and have a dual mode for active hearing protection and hearing enhancement for sound localization.
8. Budget Pick: Caldwell E-Max
Caldwell designed their e-Max Power Cords electronic in-ear protection specifically for shooting and hunting. These have an NRR rating of 23 dB, include Bluetooth connectivity, and come with six sizes of foam tips so you can find a custom fit to your ear canal.
These also shut off automatically after 4 hours of inactivity.
9. Also Great: Walker’s Silencer Digital Earbuds
These digital earbuds by Walker’s are NRR 25 dB. Each earbud adjusts separately for volume control and comes with three different sizes of foam tips to ensure a secure fit. What is neat about these buds is that any sounds over 85 dB get reduced by 25 dB.
This ability to automatically control the amplification is a massive benefit to shooters, so the wrong sounds don’t get amplified even more so.
10. Best for Indoor Ranges: Peltor Sport Tactical 500
The Peltor Sport Tactical 500 is considered the Cadillac of electronic hearing protection. They feature NRR 26 dB, are made in the USA, include Bluetooth technology, and automatically suppress gunshot noise.
This headset has clear voice tracking to amplify speech to improve intelligibility. These use AA batteries have an auto shut-off, and the low-profile cups have cut-outs for use with cheek welds on long guns.
11. Best Slim Cups: Walkers Razor Slim
These muffs from Walker’s also have directional microphones to pick up outside noise and broadcast clearly in your ears, but a staggering 0.002 second reaction time to impulse sounds to keep your hearing safe.
These run on AAA batteries and have an NRR of 23 dB.
How Shooting Damages Your Hearing
Shooting any kind of live ammunition out of just about any firearm can cause significant hearing damage. Even the unassuming .22 caliber rifle emits around 140 dB, with larger caliber rifles and pistols producing over 175 dB of sound.
If you shoot at an indoor shooting range, the decibel rating is likely even higher due to reverberation. Even a single shot at a deer without hearing protection can cause hearing loss for the rest of your life.
So what is a safe decibel level?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend maintaining environmental noises below 70 dBA over 24-hours (75 dBA over 8-hours) to prevent noise-induced hearing loss.
Shooting isn’t the only activity that can get pretty loud. One of the most common needs for hearing protection outside of shooting is when using power tools. People who work on a construction site may wear hearing protection for the entire time they are on-site due to the myriad high decibel activities surrounding them.
An electric saw can produce over 100 decibels of noise, which is over the recommended 70 dB. It’s a good idea to wear hearing protection when mowing the lawn or even using a leaf blower, especially for prolonged periods.
Let’s put some of this into perspective for you. A refrigerator hum is about 40 dB, while a washing machine or a dishwasher can emit 70 dB. A motorcycle is around 95 dB, which if you ride often, earplugs should be used because just 50 minutes of exposure can produce possible hearing loss.
Identifying Hearing Loss
Have you ever left a live concert and noticed that voices sound softer or you have to turn the radio up a little bit louder to hear it? That’s because entertainment venues (nightclubs, bars, concerts) typically operate at around 105-110 decibels, potentially causing hearing loss in less than 5 minutes.
The silver lining is many of these kinds of low-level hearing loss are generally temporary and often disappear within 48 hours. Exposure to too many decibels too often or for long periods is where things get dicey.
What is unique about noise-induced hearing loss is that it is not immediately obvious, but if you pay attention, there are signs that something has impacted your hearing. Sounds can be muffled, you may start to turn up the TV or radio a little more than usual, and if you are exposed to very loud noise, you can develop tinnitus, a tell-tale sign of hearing damage.
Tinnitus is a ringing or buzzing noise in your ears or head that can be constant or come and go throughout your life. Sometimes, this can even be present in only one ear.
Defining Proper Hearing Protection
All hearing protection is hardly created equal. You should invest in quality ear protection with a high noise reduction rating (NRR) to protect your hearing sufficiently. To understand the NRR Rating of hearing protection, you must first calculate how much sound it genuinely reduces.
The formula for calculating noise exposure is:
- Subtract seven from the NRR Rating of the hearing protection
- Divide the answer to number 1 by 2
- Subtract the answer to number 2 from the original noise exposure level (ex: shooting=175dB)
The least effective kind of hearing protection is the disposable foam plug inserts designed for anyone other than shooters in mind. They range in NRR Ratings from the low to mid-20s — but even this isn’t the main problem. The central issue is they are rarely installed correctly — or at least correctly enough to do their job of reducing sound effectively.
First, the foam ear has to be squished and inserted into the ear canal. Then, you have to give the foam time to expand and push the plug down into the ear. If you can hear someone talking easily, your ear protection is probably not doing its job effectively.
The highest end of the NRR Rating is 33 NRR, which should be used in the loudest situations — such as indoor shooting, for which hearing protection should always provide between 28 and 31 NRR. You should generally always look to purchase the highest rating possible.
Types of Hearing Protection
When it comes to hearing protection, there are three broad types: earplugs/in-ear, over-ear/ear muffs, and electronic hearing protection.
Passive & In-Ear Protection
Passive earplugs or in-ear protection go directly into your ear canal to block out sounds and noise. The biggest downside to in-ear protection is that they have to be inserted correctly to work, and not everyone’s ears or ear canals are the same dimensions, so your mileage may vary.
If you are a shooter and prefer in-ear hearing protection, one thing to consider is investing in a pair of custom earplugs molded to your specific ears.
The upside to in-ear protection is that you can double up your ear protection by wearing earplugs in combination with earmuffs. Plus, in-ear protection generally doesn’t interfere with your head position when shooting, as larger earmuff-style ear protection can bump the buttstock when shooting on the move.
- Effectively blocks noise
- Can be combined with earmuffs for added protection
- Doesn’t hinder shooting posture
- Customizable fit with molded plugs
- Requires precise insertion
- Varying fit due to different ear canal sizes
- Risk of reduced effectiveness if not inserted correctly
Over-ear protection or earmuffs feature two ear cups attached to an adjustable headband. Shooting earmuffs are available in a vast array of sizes and dimensions — they can be both big and bulky or slim and compact — plus they’re available in sizes for both kids and adults.
The upside to earmuffs is that they are generally on the higher end of the NRR rating scale. The ear cups are often soft and made of foam, and they tend to be easily adjustable to fit just about any head size comfortably.
The biggest downside to earmuffs is that when you are shooting a shotgun or rifle with a good cheek weld, the gun’s stock can knock the ear cup out of place, eliminating your hearing protection altogether.
Doubling up on ear protection can help you avoid this situation, giving you the added security and ease of use of over-ear with the simplicity of in-ear protection.
- Can be combined with in-ear protection.
- Available in various sizes, suitable for kids and adults.
- Generally high on the NRR rating scale.
- Soft, foam ear cups for comfort.
- Easily adjustable to fit most head sizes.
- Gun stock can displace ear cup during shooting, reducing protection.
- Can be bulky depending on the design.
Electronic Ear Protection
Electronic ear protection is an excellent option because it allows you to protect your hearing without sacrificing situational awareness or the ability to hear what people around you are saying.
So often, people will temporarily remove one side’s ear protection to listen to what someone has to say, only for gunfire to start again while hearing protection is not in place.
Even this one slip-up can cause damage, making electronic ear protection a worthwhile investment.
Most electronic earmuffs have a slim, low profile, with a dial on one side which controls external volume — like someone’s voice. Many of these devices also have Bluetooth enabled so you can listen to music, and some offer built-in microphones so you can even take a phone call on the range.
Electronic in-ear protection devices also provide just as much decibel coverage, with all of the same features of the electronic muffs.
Shortcomings & Alternatives
The biggest issue with hearing protection is finding what works for you, which means putting up with some trial and error.
This could mean buying several types of hearing protection before landing on a pair that is comfortable to wear all day. That said, there are specific shortcomings to both in-ear and over-the-ear protection.
Over-the-ear hearing protection can cause headaches from the pressure of the muffs squeezing on your ears all day long. This could also be a sign that the headband is too small for you.
They can also interfere with a cheek weld if the ear cup is too large for your frame.
It can be just as challenging to find in-ear protection that will stay in your ears comfortably — plus it’s much easier to lose one or both earbuds vs. the larger over-ear muffs.
On the topic of size, in-ear protection can also be difficult to locate in a range bag, which can complicate things if you’re in a hurry.
Consider having at least two pairs of hearing protection no matter what and double up with in-ear and over-the-ear when you can.
Invest in quality hearing protection because once you lose hearing, it is gone forever. No amount of shooting is worth being deaf for the rest of your life.