Go Plug Yourself: Ear Plugs, Reviewed

By Alyse Borkan  |  Sep 16, 2014
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Have you ever noticed that, at Duane Reade, next to the band-aids and the Neosporin and the cold compresses, there’s a surprisingly large selection of ear plugs? They sit on the shelf in the aisle named “first aid.” Indeed, as Nicholson Baker notices this in his novel The Mezzanine, he grows “fond of their recherché placement implying, which was often true, that hearing was an affliction, a symptom to be cured.”

But when I was born, the opposite seemed true. The affliction was an inability to hear. I didn’t react to sound as an infant. My parents and doctors thought I was deaf. I very nearly underwent a procedure for cochlear implants: a bionic inner ear that would allow me to hear. I avoided the surgery narrowly. My parents tell me I grimaced at a slamming door. I made a face. A slight response to noise at exactly the right time.

You see, I had this very strange ability as a very small child to turn my ears on and off. It sounds like fiction but it’s not. I can’t explain it. But the affliction, hearing or lack thereof, was something I had cured in myself. I didn’t have to hear my mother yell at me when I didn’t want to. I didn’t have to hear the other kids at school. I could avoid all outside distraction.

As I’ve aged, I’ve lost the superpower; the onslaught of sound is sometimes too much to bear. It’s hard to concentrate when I’m facing a constant barrage of auditory interruption. I think I can directly attribute my Attention Deficit Disorder to it.

Here at Casper, our office is open-plan. We all sit next to each other and hear everything everyone is doing. That important conference call; that person typing out that email next to me; the coughing from across the office.

I’ve been looking for a cure for years. And I found it at Duane Reade. Finally, I don’t know how I’d never thought of it: an external mechanism to turn my ears off – the earplug. But there are so many options there. Did I want foam, silicone putty, or flanged silicone rubber? Did I want a Noise Reduction Rating of 20 decibels or 32 decibels? I didn’t know and I couldn’t choose, so I spent $46.32 on six different kinds of plugs. I was going to test them; I was going to find the best one so I would never have to hear when I didn’t want to again.

When I got back to the office, my boss saw the haul and told me I had wasted my time. “I already have the best earplugs,” she said. “Take these.” She gave me 3M Foam Plugs 1100, which she buys by the hundred. Throw them on the pile: I now had a seventh to try.

I’m a busy guy and it was going to take a long time to try them all by myself, so I enlisted some help. I gave a different set of plugs to a few of my coworkers and we went to lunch at the loudest place we could think of. Chipotle.

Eli wore Mack’s Pillow Soft Silicone Soft Ear Plugs. Eddie wore Walgreen’s home brand of Swim Earplugs. Kaitlin wore Hearos Xtreme Ear Plugs. Employee #1 (name redacted) wore the 3Ms. #2 (name redacted) wore Mack’s Original Foam Ear Plugs, which are the number one doctor recommended brand, according to the packaging. No one wanted to wear the EarPlanes, because we weren’t boarding a jet plane. In an effort to be gender neutral, I tried the Sleep Pretty in Pink women’s earplugs, which are exactly the same as any other pair of earplugs, save for their pink color.

We plugged up and set off. On our two-block walk, things were different. We noticed things we hadn’t noticed before, like how difficult it is to walk and not talk. We couldn’t hear oncoming traffic like normal, which would have been dangerous were we not such splendid law-abiding street-crossers. A man riding his bicycle on the sidewalk behind us got very angry when we couldn’t hear him yelling, asking us to get out of the way. I told him (though, honestly, unsure at what volume) that this type of thing is exactly why he should be riding in the street!

At Chipotle, we had no problems ordering our food. The assembly line makes it easy. And while the employees may have thought it a little strange that none of us reacted as expected when asked what kind of meat we wanted, or when we were told that the guacamole cost extra (but of course we already knew the guacamole cost extra), we didn’t see much reaction to a large group, six deep, walking around town wearing earplugs. Though of course, we couldn’t have heard people talking about us if they had been.

Wearing earplugs and going to lunch is an exercise in lip reading.

You can hear, a little: “no plug can create artificial deafness. Even if the auditory canal is sealed shut, loud noise, especially lower-pitched sounds, can vibrate through the body and be ‘heard’ by the eardrum,” as Slate’s Ulrich Boser points out. But, depending on the type of plug, you really can’t hear much, so you’re forced to focus on the words being formed, on the shape of the mouth. You must concentrate to communicate. Eating feels like slow-motion. “Ever since the burrito started, I’ve only been listening to my mouth,” Eddie said.

You start experiencing your own voice in a totally different way. It’s the opposite effect of hearing your voice recorded. Nothing sounds as full and rich as your own voice, heard through the vibration of the jaw into the inner ear. As Eli said, who was wearing silicone putty plugs, “I’m just really loving the sound of my own voice right now.”

You reexamine the nature of sound.

Unfortunately, this testing mechanism really didn’t work to find the best earplug. It’s a subjective thing and everyone only tried one type, anyway, so while we certainly had a fun and strange lunch, when we got back to the office, I was still sort of lost. I set about trying each plug, thinking about comfort, ease of use, and noise blocking ability. They’re all about the same price, so I didn’t think much about value, nor did I rate in terms of durability because they’re all cheap enough to just throw away.

All I did was put the earplugs in, put my over-ear headphones on, and listen to my favorite song.

Below are the results of the test, ranked from plugs that let me hear the most Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan to the plugs that let me hear the least.

(Note: some brands call their plugs “ear plugs” while some call them “earplugs.” We neither know nor care why there is no commonly agreed upon spelling; we just wanted you to know.)

 Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.37.01 PM7. EarPlanes, $7.99

This test was never really fair for EarPlanes. While they are technically ear plugs (because, you know, you plug your ears with them), they don’t pretend to block out sound. That is not their main aim.

Made of a soft, flexible, flanged silicone, EarPlanes are meant to relieve “Air Pressure Discomfort with the Exclusive CeramX Filter.” And they work! My sister uses them on flights all the time.

They also “reduce harsh noise,” as they claim on the packaging, but not very effectively. They have holes running through them that let sound in. We assume it’s quieted by their CeramX Filter, but it doesn’t do much.

Their Noise Reduction Rating is only 20 decibels, which is roughly the equivalent of rustling leaves. Sorry EarPlanes, you never really had a chance.

1 out of 10 Ears (for this application, because really, they’re very good at what they’re intended for. At least according to my sister.)

 Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.37.12 PM6. Walgreen’s Swim Earplugs, $4.99

These swim plugs are almost exactly the same as EarPlanes, though a little more substantial and attached to each other by a stylish lanyard. This isn’t very surprising – they’re both manufactured by Cirrus Healthcare Products. These earplugs are rated at 26 decibels, which again, is significantly more substantial than the EarPlane (decibels measure sound logarithmically, so 26 decibels is much, much more than 20), but Young Thug and Rich Homie came through loud and clear.

This product is nontoxic, which is a plus, I guess, but they “may interfere with breathing if caught in windpipe,” and what’s worse, if the cord gets wrapped around your neck, it “could lead to serious injury or death.” Too potentially scary for me, and besides, I can’t normally hear underwater anyway. Why do I need these?

2/10 Ears

 Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.37.19 PM5. Mack’s Pillow Soft Silicone Earplugs, $6.49

You’d think that balling up a wad of silicone putty and shoving it in your ear would be really effective, right? You’d be wrong. The supposedly “snore proof” plugs may be the “official earplugs of USA Swimming,” as it says on the box, but they’re definitely not for me.

To apply, you “shape the whole plug into a ball,” and place it in your ear, to “form an airtight seal.” I believe that these would help prevent swimmer’s ear, like they promise, but they don’t prevent errant noise. They’re NRR is only 22 decibels, and you can tell, easily.

These plugs are probably the best at keeping material objects like dust and water out of your ears, but they don’t handle soundwaves so well. And they’re just sort of weird.

3.5/10 Ears

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.37.34 PM4. Hearos Xtreme Ear Plugs, $6.79

These Xtreme plugs offer an “Xtremely high” Noise Reduction Rating of 33, the highest of the lot. This type of noise reduction can make a jet taking off (in which you would wear your EarPlanes, duh) sound like the average volume you watch your TV at. They’re Xtremely effective!

Honestly, in the top four, we’re sort of nitpicking. They’re all foam ear plugs, so they all offer the most noise reduction and the most comfort.

The problem with the Xtreme Hearos is that they’re too big.

Foam earplugs have a specific method of insertion, in which you take the plug between your thumb and forefinger, form it into a thin, tight cylinder, and shove it into your ear canal. Hearos are so fat they just won’t stay in the ear. Maybe I haven’t practiced the technique enough. Maybe I should “refer to the audio and video instructions at Hearos.com.” But then again, maybe I shouldn’t.

8/10 Ears

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.37.57 PM

3. Sleep Pretty in Pink, $5.99

These would be perfect ear plugs if they weren’t fucked-up sexist. Putting a butterfly on the box and making everything pink somehow suddenly changes normal ear plugs, which are obviously universally unisex, into “women’s ear plugs.”

Manufactured by Hearos (which is a really strange company, they make four types of ear plugs and something called the “Snap ‘n Sip” which turns soda cans into sippy cups), these are very similar to the Xtremes, though they’re obviously pink. The real important difference is in size: the Pretty in Pinks are smaller and fit my ears better.

Their NRR is 32 decibels, so its slightly less effective than the Xtremes, but they fit better.

9/10 Ears, one ear deducted due to Xtreme sexism.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 4.38.47 PM

1. Tie! 3M Foam Ear Plugs 1100  $18.62 (200 pairs) and Mack’s Original Foam Earplugs, $5.79

They’re almost exactly the same, apart from color. The “#1 Doctor Recommended” Mack’s and 3M both offer 29 decibels of noise protection, so they’re not quite as effective as the Hearos’ brand, but they make up for it by being cheaper and less annoying. I was tempted to give the title to the 3Ms because they’re much cheaper, but they don’t come with that handy traveling case that Mack’s do. It’s a toss-up.

They’re both great.

 10/10 Ears


— Josh Segal

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