Gear Ear Protection Buyer’s Guide Forrest Cooper December 16, 2021 1 Comments, Join the Conversation Water is wet, gunshots are loud, and ears are sensitive. The first form of ear protection was likely nothing more than some wadded-up cotton. As technology improved, newer and better versions appeared. Today, we’ll specifically be covering over-the-ear electronic hearing protection. Electronic earmuffs run on a different scale than standard ear pro, as they attempt to do the impossible: allow you to hear while protecting you from hearing damage. More than just a simple decibel reduction, electronic protection allows one to hear conversations, environmental noise, and range commands while crushing gunshots and other loud noises to safe levels. Like a cheesy-but-wholesome advertisement, first-time users can’t help but beam with excitement when the power is turned on and they can hear others talking without the need to shout. At first it feels like cheating, and there’s no going back. Traditionally, electronic hearing protection always came with a high price point, but you should be pleasantly surprised by some on this list. For each option featured we’ll cover sound quality, comfort, helmet use, and a newer consideration: communication. Use with a helmet or radio may not fall under your bailiwick at the moment, but that may not always be the case. As always, compare your personal needs and requirements and then balance with your budget. Divine accordingly. Caldwell E-Max Pro Colors: Aqua, FDE, Gray Noise Reduction Rating: 23dBJack/Connection: 3.5mm headphoneFits Under a Helmet: NoBattery: 3 x AAAMSRP: $45URL: caldwellshooting.com Not all situations warrant spending over a grand on hearing protection, but there are very few where having active hearing protection isn’t preferred. Caldwell’s E-Max Pro series fits into a category of safety gear that isn’t too tactical — to the MK18, this set of ear protection is a Ruger Mini-14. It fits well and gets the job done. At home at indoor ranges or on the clays field, the Caldwell E-Max gets the job done, without the frills. You can plug in music or an audiobook and use them during louder chores, or turn that jack into a very impromptu radio rig (receiving the sound through the earpieces, while having to speak into a hand mic with a 3.5mm jack for output). These muffs function as a one-size-fits-all for adults and come in youth sizes as well. For sound quality, the bass is a little more present than competitors, so ambient noise lacks the edge of that tinny-ness found in other places. In trade-off, when the volume is at max, a gentle static persists in the background. Howard Leight Impact Sport Colors: Black, MC Arctic, MC Black, Multicam, OD GreenNoise Reduction Rating: 22dBJack/Connection: 3.5mm headphoneFits Under a Helmet: Mostly yesBattery: 2 x AAAMSRP: $54 (OD Green); $70 other colorsURL: howardleightshootingsports.com The Howard Leight Impact series hardly needs an introduction. Rolling around in range bags, backseats, and behind firearms range counters everywhere, these easy-to-identify muffs deserve their reputation as the everyman’s ear protection. For a headset that costs less than the accessories of other models, there’s no reason anyone should be forced to use unpowered ear pro ever again. Featuring a 3.5mm headphone jack, when paired with a Baofeng radio, these can technically be considered comms-capable, but you’ll need to figure out how to string a mic into the mix. Easy to use, these far outperform their price tag as far as audio quality goes. Capable as a main pair for anyone not needing military-grade communications systems, these are almost necessary as a backup for when going to the range, alone, or with others. Aftermarket support adds to the equation with replacement gel cups, skins, and headbands to add comfort or style, and in a short while these hardly look or feel like sub-$100 headsets. Walker’s Razor Digital Colors: ATACS, Ghost Camo, Multi-Camo (MCB), White (Bone)Noise Reduction Rating: 23dBFits Under a Helmet: Mostly noJack/Connection: 3.5mm headphoneBattery: 2 x AAAMSRP: $90 to $100URL: walkersgameear.com Walker’s Razor Digital are the most expensive of the sub-$100 options, and the best in sound quality of that lineup as well. With a similar profile as the Howard Leight Sport series, the Walker’s surpass their competition in sound quality, having a more neutral tone, but suffer in accessories. Whereas HL Sports can be rigged to fit onto a helmet through companies like AXL Advanced, Walkers stick to what they’re good for: protecting your hearing. When electronic hearing protection measures a sound that breaks the threshold of hearing safe, they typically cut out sound for that brief moment and return to normal as soon as it’s over. The rate at which the sound returns to normal in the earmuffs is critical for both competition shooters and hunters, as the longer the sound is silenced, the longer one’s sense is out of the game. Walker’s have deliberately worked to shorten the time this takes place, and with the Razor Digital hearing protection, the result shows. The sound quality itself lacks some of the artificial ring common to electronic hearing protection. Sounds appear more natural, although slightly amplified, and there’s fewer audio aberrations than expected at this level. To boost the comfort, Walker’s sells a variety of headbands for various circumstances. Champion Vanquish Pro Elite Colors: Gray, TanNoise Reduction Rating: 22dbJack/Connection: BluetoothBattery: Internal rechargeableMSRP: $250URL: championtarget.com From their appearance alone, the Champion Vanquish series of electronic hearing protection give off an air of being built from the ground up for shooting sports. The shape is meant to remain comfortable over time, and minimize some common challenges, such as breaking the seal of the muff when shouldering a stocked firearm. But the beauty is more than skin deep. The Champion Vanquish Pro Elite differ from the other options in this list, as they distinctly perform for shooting sports, while taking a nearly completely different direction than the military, or Mil-Sim direction. Instead of flexing to accommodate radios, Bluetooth connectivity pairs to phones like a wireless headset. The rechargeable internal battery means no spares to track, but also no instant-swap if they die on the line. This direction opened up the Pro Elite series to focus on the needs of non-military shooters, even though we see plenty of overlap. The five microphones pick up and amplify the sounds of the woods, translating them to the speakers for an impressive sense of directional detection. In the tree stand or when stalking prey, the sound quality is almost preferred above natural hearing, though you’ll also hear your own breath. SafariLand Liberator II Colors: Black, OD GreenNoise Reduction Rating: 21dBJack/Connection: NATO/6mm plugBattery: 2 x AAAMSRP: $650 to $700URL: safariland.com The Gen 3 Glock of tactical ear protection, Safariland Liberators bring the core essentials of comms capable muffs. Just as that ubiquitous handgun can be adapted into multiple configurations, and has seen its fair share of imitations, Liberator II’s require a little forethought before commitment — but the payoff is worth it. First and foremost, the boom mic cannot be swapped from ear-to-ear, so it rests on the buyer to double-check they’ve selected the correct option. Historically speaking, the behind-the-head suspension system has distinguished Liberator II’s from other tactical headsets, specifically designed to fit better under a helmet. If the user prefers a classic headband or would rather mount the muffs to the helmet, options are available for both Ops-Core and Team Wendy-style rails. Instead of clipping out loud noises, which can cause a loss of situational awareness in an intense situation, Liberators compress the sound to hearing-safe levels and quickly return to normal. This, combined with the surround-sound like 360-degree, helps the user both hear their surroundings, but also passively comprehend where it came from. With years of military and professional use, they appear on the second-hand market from time to time. Ops-Core AMP Colors: Black, Foliage Green, Tan, Urban GrayNoise Reduction Rating: 22dBJack/Connection: NATO/6mm plugBattery: 2 x AAAMSRP: $950 to $1,200URL: gentexcorp.com Ops-Core AMP’s either go unnoticed or turn heads with recognition depending on where you are. There’s an air of “need-to-know” about them, and the reputation doesn’t come unwarranted. Surprisingly easier to acquire than less expensive counterparts, with the cost comes more than just prestige — just be sure you know what you’re getting into. With these, gone are the years of sacrificing hearing when doubling up on ear protection, as if you choose to purchase the Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI) Earplugs that turn what look like in-ear foamies into directionally functioning speakers. By combining the protection of both in-ear and over-the-ear protection, a double layer helps protect from over-pressure and lessens the bite if the seal is cracked while shouldering a carbine. Ops-Core took the military’s obsession with modularity into consideration when designing the AMP headsets; they can be converted from a headband to helmet-mounted system with relative ease and speed. In this way, we see an evolution in small but important steps, but they come with a price tag. Peltor Comtac Series Colors: Black, Coyote Brown, OD GreenNoise Reduction Rating: 23dBJack/Connection: NATO/6mm plugBattery: 2 x AAAMSRP: $1,465URL: 3m.com Certainly, the most prolifically used ear protection currently found in the American military, second only to those in-ear flange things you see advertised in lawsuits, the Peltor Comtac Series have appeared in battlefields, video games, movies, and comic books. Contrary to many of the military’s purchases, this time it seemed they got it right; many of these headsets continue to serve through decades of use and abuse. In contrast to the memes about what “Mil-spec” quality really means, Comtac’s are far from the lowest bidder. Rugged to last for years and with an ecosystem of aftermarket support, they have so regularly trickled into the civilian market that a used pair bought online might very well have seen action, with the ear funk to prove it. The foundation is solid, with Comtac III’s still proliferating the market, and the newer generations continue to add value in the form of built-in peer-to-peer communication. With a NATO down lead and a microphone that can be swapped from ear to ear, all of the connectors are standardized, supporting respirators and other breathing apparatus with built-in mics. The noise-cancelling and communication components function independently, allowing the wearer to use their radio even in the environments they were designed for. From the shoot house to the battlefield to the range, the Comtac Series continues to set the bar and contend for the ear pro throne. 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