Protecting your hearing from unsafe noise levels is a matter of critical importance. Once your hearing is gone, it’s gone for good.
Other than hearing aids, there are no known treatments for noise-induced hearing loss. As such, it’s highly important that you protect your hearing whilst you still have it.
Choosing hearing protection for you or your employees can be tough. One of the first steps is choosing between over-ear ear defenders and in-ear ear plugs. So, what’s the difference?
To help you to understand the areas where they differ, we’ve broken down the differences into three key sections: cost, comfort, and noise reduction.
Whilst we would never advise skimping on your hearing protection, if you’re looking to buy hearing protection for your employees, getting the biggest bang for your buck is highly important. You should look for the option that provides the best protection at the budget available to you.
In general, ear defenders are more expensive on the low end, but considerably cheaper at the high end.
The most expensive ear defenders are cheaper than custom-moulded ear plugs, but budget ear defenders are more expensive than basic mass-produced ear plugs.
In terms of pure protection, high-end ear defenders don’t need to be custom-moulded for the wearer’s ears. This one-size-fits-all design makes ear defenders a cheaper option at high noise levels.
Unfortunately, they can’t really compete with ear plugs for cheapness on the lower end of the spectrum.
Because ear plugs are considerably smaller and often made of a single material, they’re extremely easy to mass-produce. Cheap disposable ear plugs can be purchased in bulk for very little money.
If fitted properly, they’re even capable of providing a superior level of hearing protection. However, where they start to become expensive is on the upper-end.
For maximum hearing protection and comfort, you’ll need a custom-moulded pair. This requires an appointment with an audiologist, which is not cheap. Depending on the ear plugs, you could be looking at upwards of a few hundred pounds.
Comfort often gets overlooked by people choosing hearing protection. It is frequently found that hearing protection is most effective when it is actually being worn. As such, it’s important to choose hearing protection that doesn’t become uncomfortable over long periods of time.
Because of their larger nature, ear defenders can afford to offer a lot more padding to the user. Many ear defenders come with thick padding on the ear cup. This helps to prevent the tension on the headband from uncomfortably crushing the wearer’s ears. It also helps to provide a better seal against the ear.
Cheaper ear defenders may opt for less padding, making them unsuitable for extensive use. Good hearing protection shouldn’t leave the wearer’s ears sore, but cheap ear defenders can be extremely uncomfortable when used for more than short bursts.
Another issue with ear defenders is that since they fit over your head it can be hard to find a pair that fits well if you have a larger than average head. See some of the best ear defenders for people with large heads here.
Ear plugs are generally quite comfortable, though it depends heavily on the wearer. Some people are naturally able to wear ear plugs without discomfort, while others find generic ear plugs to be painful to wear.
The primary issue with comfort in ear plugs is improper insertion. Unlike ear defenders, which are extremely easy to put on, ear plugs require a careful hand to insert them properly.
If worn improperly, ear plugs can be very uncomfortable to wear, and even painful in some circumstances.
Ear plugs can also be less hygienic since they fit directly into your ear, so you will need to replace them frequently or take care in cleaning and storing them.
If you’re working in a noisy environment, noise reduction is probably the most important thing to look for in your hearing protection. It doesn’t matter how comfortable or cheap your hearing protection is if it won’t protect you from loud sounds.
The noise reduction of a hearing protection product is usually advertised as its NRR (noise reduction rating). The NRR is simply the volume in decibels that an incoming sound will be reduced by.
In practice, the hearing protection will not perform as well as the NRR indicates. This is due to real-world conditions differing heavily from laboratory conditions.
Ear defenders offer good noise reduction due to their size (see the best ear defenders for noise reduction here). However, a lot of this effectiveness is lost due to the far weaker seal found on ear defenders.
Ear defenders shift around on the wearer’s head as they move. This can cause gaps in the seal and thus reduced effectiveness, particularly over longer periods or when you’re simply moving around a lot.
Thanks to the better and more consistent seal afforded by ear plugs, their NRR is generally slightly higher (see these high-NRR ear plugs).
When worn properly, ear plugs should have a strong airtight seal which prevents noise from getting past the hearing protection. They’re also a lot less prone to shifting around as the wearer moves, keeping the hearing protection constant throughout the workday.
Ear plugs and ear defenders are well-suited to different tasks and different people. For the most part, it’s a matter of personal preference which is chosen. Some jobs may even require both to be worn at once if the noise level is high enough.
There really isn’t a superior option. Unless your job specifically requires the benefits of a particular option, we recommend that you experiment with a variety of products and pick the one that suits you best.
To help you make your decision, we have broken down the key pros and cons of each option:
Ear Defenders – Pros and Cons
+ Cheaper at higher NRRs
+ Intuitive to use
– More expensive at the low end
– Prone to shifting around
Ear Plugs – Pros and Cons
+ Extremely inexpensive when purchased in bulk
+ Less encumbering than ear defenders
+ Higher NRR when worn properly
– Can be quite expensive if custom-moulds are required
– Uncomfortable for some users
– Less intuitive to use