Hazardous noise comes in many forms, from continuous noise such as generators or vehicles, to impulse noise such as weapons fire or explosions. Failure to wear hearing protection can result in hearing loss, difficulty understanding speech (especially with background noise) and tinnitus. Hearing damage is more severe when the number of exposures to such noise or the exposure duration increases. Hazardous noise is also found in many everyday experiences, such as operating a lawn mower or using a vacuum cleaner.
Selecting appropriate hearing protection can be a daunting task with so many different kinds and models available. You obviously want something that protects you, is comfortable and easy to use, and fits well. You don't want it to interfere with face-to-face or radio communications. Unfortunately, there is no perfect hearing protector that does it all, but tips are available for selecting appropriate hearing protection.
Just about every protector provides significant noise attenuation (or protection). All point-of-sale packaging contains a Noise Reduction Rating, called the NRR that describes in a single number how much attenuation is provided. A higher NRR number indicates more attenuation. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health provides a searchable compendium listing performance of many hearing protectors.
Users will achieve the listed NRR only when the device is worn correctly and fits properly. Follow manufacturer's fitting instructions carefully. Difficult to fit hearing protectors may be uncomfortable and, therefore, not worn. Appropriate protection selection is a balance between getting the performance while retaining qualities like comfort.
The amount of attenuation provided by a hearing protector should closely match the required protection need. For most noise exposures, such as lawn or shop tools, passive earplugs or earmuffs should work well; the latter are easier to fit and will provide more reliable protection. Be cautious when using devices that provide much more protection than is needed, as speech and other warning sounds may be difficult to hear or understand. A hearing health professional, such as an audiologist, can help you understand how much protection is needed.
If you want to be able to hear everything that's happening around you all the time while remaining protected from sudden loud sounds (for example, when visiting a shooting range), the best hearing protection is probably something more specialized, like a level dependent device. Examples include earplugs that have a mechanical filter inside that prevent loud sounds from getting to the eardrum while allowing softer sounds to pass through, or devices that instantly cut off loud sounds electronically. Expect to pay more for the electronic products.
The conclusion from all this is that the best protection is the one that meets your situational needs, fits well and is comfortable when worn. If you find a device that meets your attenuation requirements, but isn't comfortable, keep searching! Many hearing protection choices are available.