The Best Hearing Protection While in the Workshop

Listen up; workshops are noisy. Make sure to protect your ears with one of these top products for hearing protection.

By Tom Scalisi | Updated Dec 6, 2021 10:23 AM

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The Best Hearing Protection Options

Photo: Tom Scalisi

If you spend a lot of time in a workshop, you’re undoubtedly making a bit of a racket. While you may know how important it is to protect your eyes, not enough focus goes toward using the best hearing protection to safeguard your ears.

Tools are great for fixing and building, but they’re tough on the body. Power tools like circular saws, miter saws, and air compressors can wreak havoc in your ears. Loud noises damage the sensitive cells in your ears, and eventually, those cells will die. Instead of letting your hearing slip away, keep loud noises from blasting your ears with some of the best hearing protection.

To help you choose the best hearing protection for whatever projects you’re tackling, I performed hands-on testing with some excellent products. Keep reading to learn what I found out while putting these models through their paces.

  1. BEST OVERALL: Professional Safety Ear Muffs by Decibel Defense
  2. BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: 3M Peltor X2A Over-the-Head Ear Muffs
  3. BEST BLUETOOTH: 3M WorkTunes Connect Hearing Protector with Bluetooth
  4. BEST EARPLUGS: SureFire EP4 Sonic Defenders Plus filtered Earplugs
  5. BEST SEMI-INSERT EARPLUGS: Howard Leight by Honeywell Quiet Band Foam Earplugs
  6. MOST COMFORTABLE: Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs
  7. BEST FOAM EARPLUGS: Ear Buddy Soft Foam Earplugs
  8. BEST FOR HARDHATS: 3M PELTOR Optime Dielectric Earmuffs
The Best Hearing Protection Options

Photo: Tom Scalisi

Types of Hearing Protection

When it comes to protecting your hearing, there are a lot of products on the market in many different styles. Some of these options are more comfortable than others, while some have features, like reusability, that might appeal to eco-conscious shoppers. The following are some of the most common types of hearing protection.

Earplugs 

If you’ve ever seen someone working with brightly colored dots inside their ears, they were using earplugs. These hearing protection products block the noise by closing off the ear canal completely, significantly reducing the decibel levels experienced by ears.

The plugs are usually a soft foam, which are rolled between fingers to compress. Once placed in the ears, they expand and take the shape of the ear canal to prevent excessive noise from getting in. These foam plugs can be reused a few times throughout the day, but eventually, the foam breaks down from the repeated compressing.

There are also rubber earplugs, which look like little pine trees. These plugs are far more reusable but may not offer the level of protection that foam plugs do.

Semi-Insert Earplugs 

If you’re not a big fan of shoving plugs in your ears, semi-insert earplugs might be preferred. Instead of rolling and compressing these to fit inside of ears, they use rigid headbands with rubber or foam plugs on the end. The headband creates just enough pressure to clamp the plugs in place over the ears, significantly reducing the exposure to loud noises without inserting a plug deep inside the ear canal.

The plugs are generally cone-shaped or rounded, providing a proper seal around the entrance of the ear. They can be reused time and time again. They’re great for a home workshop, as it’s easy to take them out of your ears and wear them around the neck while performing quieter tasks and quickly throw them on when firing up a power tool.

Over-the-Ear

Over-the-ear hearing protection protects hearing without putting anything inside the ears. Muff-style hearing protection uses rigid headbands to hold hard shells with soft foam pads over ears. They keep abrasive noises from entering by creating a seal around the entire ear.

These muffs do an excellent job of protecting hearing, but the foam can also trap heat, and the shells can be a bit heavy. They’re indefinitely reusable unless the padding rips or deteriorates. They work well in a shop, but because they can be a little cumbersome, they are less likely to be kept around the neck when not in use. This means having to find them when it’s time to make noise, which isn’t always convenient.

The Best Hearing Protection Option

Photo: amazon.com

What to Consider When Buying Hearing Protection

The great thing about having so many options is there’s a choice among the best hearing protection for your personal needs. When deciding on a set of plugs or muffs, there are a few things worth keeping in mind. The following are some important considerations that will help you decide on the best hearing protection for your workshop.

Comfort 

If hearing protection isn’t comfortable, it’s less likely to be worn. It’s essential to choose plugs or muffs that are comfortable in your ears and, if applicable, around your neck.

If placing plugs in ear canals feels fine, earplugs can be the most comfortable ear protection. They’re light, soft, and some come with a thin strap so they can be worn around the neck when not in use.

Semi-insert earplugs are an ideal option for comfort if a foam earplug-type isn’t preferred. The headbands only provide enough pressure to keep the plugs in the ears without creating discomfort. They’re light and easy to wear around the neck when they’re not in the ears.

Over-the-ear-style hearing protection can be a bit clumsy, but for those with particularly sensitive ears, they may be the only style that feels comfortable. It’s critical to find a pair that fits well but doesn’t create discomfort or overheat when worn around the neck.

Noise Reduction 

A Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) describes how many decibels a particular product lowers noise. For instance, a product with a 30 NRR will reduce a 100-dB noise level to 70 dB.

Earplugs tend to have the best NRR. Some offer reductions as much as 33 dB. The most that can be achieved from a set of over-the-ear earmuffs is 31 dB. If both of these styles are combined, an NRR of 36 dB can be created.

To figure out what level of NRR is needed, it depends on the work that’s being done. Circular saws run somewhere in the range of 90 dB. To lower this to the accepted safe level of 70 dB and below, hearing protection with a 20 NRR or more will be needed. Here are some popular tools and the typical decibels they create:

  • Circular saws: 90 dB
  • Miter saw: 102 dB
  • Router: 95 dB
  • Table saw: 92 dB
  • Air compressor: 40 dB to 90 dB

PPE Compatibility

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is incredibly important for many reasons, but these pieces aren’t always compatible with every type of hearing protection.

Earplugs are fairly universal, working with all PPE. Semi-insert plugs are slightly more of a challenge, as the headband could tangle with a respirator’s straps or safety glasses.

Over-the-ear earmuffs are the biggest challenge. They may not work with a respirator, mostly due to the neck straps and the harness. Also, safety glasses that need to tuck underneath the muffs will create space for noise to sneak through, reducing the effective NRR rating of the muffs.

Temperature & Humidity

Temperature and humidity have less to do with effectiveness and everything to do with comfort. Due to the nature of hearing protection products, they aren’t breathable and can trap body heat. This isn’t an issue with earplugs or semi-insert plugs, but it’s a major concern with over-the-ear earmuffs.

Over-the-ear earmuffs trap lots of body heat, both in the shell and the headband (especially when worn around the neck). The thick foam and airtight coating don’t allow the muffs to breathe, which can be particularly uncomfortable in non-air-conditioned spaces like workshops or garages. If this describes your shop, consider using an earplug to stay cool and comfortable.

Communication & Audibility

While the ability to hear the surroundings may seem strange in an article about hearing protection, situational awareness can be equally important to staying safe in a workshop environment. If working with other folks in a workshop, being able to hear and understand them can help increase the workflow and keep everyone safe.

If this is important, check into electronic hearing protection that detects and blocks dangerous decibel levels while still allowing the user to hear normal conversation and safe noises. These electronic plugs are a bit more expensive than standard options, but they can make a huge difference when working around other people.

Bluetooth 

Music can increase workflow, and it helps some focus on the task at hand. However, it can be challenging to hear a stereo through earplugs. A handy option is going for a Bluetooth-enabled set of earplugs or muffs.

With Bluetooth hearing protection, tune into a favorite music app and enjoy the melodies while working the day away. They also protect hearing from excessive noise levels. The same considerations apply as standard hearing protection, however, so they need to be comfortable and compatible with Personal Protective Equipment.

Additional Features

There are a few other things that hearing protection shoppers might want to look for when searching for the best hearing protection. When it comes to earplugs, some may prefer those that hang from a soft neck cord. Concerning earmuffs, others might consider looking for something lightweight that won’t hang uncomfortably from the neck.

Our Top Picks

Now that you know the features and benefits of various hearing protection types, you may now have an idea of which type of hearing protection will work for your needs. The following is a list of some of the top products for protecting hearing. Regardless of what you’re looking for, there is a product on this list that will work for most every situation.

And, to ensure I’m only suggesting the very best hearing protection, I performed hands-on testing with each of the following products. While my hearing isn’t the best, and providing an accurate NRR during testing is beyond my capabilities, all of these products were effective at reducing noise. Most of my testing came down to comfort and functionality.

Best Overall

The Best Hearing Protection Option: Professional Safety Ear Muffs by Decibel Defense
Photo: amazon.com

Decibel Defense’s Professional Safety Ear Muffs are definitely worth a look for anyone who needs as much hearing protection as possible but doesn’t want to stick an earplug in their ears. While few earmuffs can offer more than 31 dBs of hearing protection, OSHA rates these over-the-ear earmuffs at 34 dB (ANSI certifies them at 37 dB), offering as much protection as many earplugs.

These earmuffs have thick padded foam for closing off the ear, as well as a comfortable headband with individual pads to allow airflow. The telescoping arms allow for ideal adjustment as well.

During testing, I found the Decibel Defense earmuffs to be very comfortable and effective. They didn’t squeeze my head much, and the pads were comfortable. While the NRR claims are excellent, what I liked most about this pair of earmuffs was the comfort while I was wearing them in my ears or on my neck. Also, the steel wires that attach the muffs to the headband were thicker than the other models, giving these muffs a higher-quality feel. The only issue I had was the foam inside one muff was misaligned, so I had to remove it and reinstall it.

Product Specs

  • Style: Over-the-ear
  • NRR: 34 dB
  • Extra Features: None

Pros

  • Higher NRR than other earmuffs
  • Comfortable on head or hanging from neck
  • Quality materials

Cons

  • Foam needed realigning

Best Bang for the Buck

The Best Hearing Protection Option: 3M Peltor X2A Over-the-Head Ear Muffs
Photo: amazon.com

For those looking for a basic set of earmuffs to protect their hearing on a budget, check out the Peltor X2A Over-the-Head Ear Muffs from 3M. These earmuffs offer an NRR of 24 dB, protecting hearing in all but the loudest scenarios.

The open headband uses two separate wires to allow for plenty of airflow, while the plastic cups are lightweight to reduce discomfort. The soft foam ear cushions create a tight seal while not being uncomfortable. Should those cushions start to deteriorate over time, replace them with the 3M Peltor X2 Hygiene Kit (available here on Amazon).

I found that I really liked this pair of earmuffs during testing, despite their being quite a bit less expensive than other models. First, I liked that these muffs have large yellow trim, as it makes finding them in a crowded toolbox much easier. Next, I liked the split headband design, as it allows for ventilation and reduces weight. Also, there isn’t any fabric or nooks and crannies for sweat, sawdust, and other funk to hang out in, which makes cleaning them very easy. The only downside I found is that the cups don’t collapse up into the headband like other models do, so they take up more space in a toolbox.

Product Specs

  • Style: Over-the-ear
  • NRR: 24 dB
  • Extra Features: None

Pros

  • Affordable price point
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Split headband for ventilation
  • Easy to clean

Cons

  • Not as compact as other earmuffs

Best Bluetooth

The Best Hearing Protection Option: 3M WorkTunes Connect Hearing Protector with Bluetooth
Photo: amazon.com

Sometimes, keeping the tunes going is the preferred way to happily pass the workday. Anyone in the market for a pair of wireless Bluetooth headphones that let the good times roll without letting harmful noises reach their eardrums should check out the 3M WorkTunes Connect earmuffs.

These muffs provide an NRR of 24 dB, which is perfect for most workshop activities, and allow for media streaming through a Bluetooth-enabled phone, tablet, or other devices. They also have a built-in microphone to enable users to take phone calls without removing their hearing protection—ideal for when their hands are busy finishing a project on a deadline. The high-fidelity speakers will produce high-quality audio, allowing users to enjoy their favorite album while working in their shop.

I have to admit, these headphones were by far my favorite. I enjoy listening to music while I work, and the sound quality and microphone clarity were top-notch. The battery life is also outstanding, lasting more than 30 hours on a full charge. And it’s not just the music that makes these earmuffs so nice; the headband is ventilated for comfort. The few complaints I have about them are these earmuffs are heavier than the rest, and they don’t collapse for compact storage.

One note: These earmuffs are outstanding and will totally sweep a user away from the surroundings if they are not being careful. When working with power tools, it’s a good idea to turn the music off and just use the muffs as is. Save the music for lawn mowing or other Zen activities.

Product Specs

  • Style: Over-the-ear
  • NRR: 24 dB
  • Extra Features: Bluetooth headphones and microphone

Pros

  • Excellent sound quality and microphone
  • Long battery life
  • Ventilated headband for all-around comfort

Cons

  • Noticeably heavier than other over-the-ear earmuffs
  • Doesn’t collapse for compact storage

Best Earplugs

The Best Hearing Protection Option: SureFire EP4 Sonic Defenders Plus filtered Earplugs
Photo: amazon.com

The EP4 Sonic Defenders are a nice combination of protection and convenience. The filtered plugs block off the ear canal, creating an NRR of 24 dB. However, users can also maintain a semi-normal conversation when removing the caps without removing the plugs from their ears. This means the earplugs will always be handy, and users don’t have to worry about keeping them clean when they take them out. If they do decide to take them out during the day, they come with a detachable neckband to keep them in place during a break. They use a soft medical-grade polymer that makes them both comfortable and durable.

As far as earplugs go, I found that I could seriously forget I was wearing these. They were super comfortable and lightweight, meaning they feel like they don’t exist both in-ear and around the neck. While I couldn’t really tell the difference between the different decibel levels, I did find that attaching the filter made the plugs feel like they were going to touch my brain, so I decided to fiddle with them out of my ear. Other than that, I liked that they came with the neck strap and carrying case to keep them clean and on hand.

Product Specs

  • Style: Earplugs
  • NRR: 24 dB
  • Extra Features: Adjustable filters and neck strap

Pros

  • Incredibly comfortable
  • Offers two levels of protection
  • Comes with handy carrying case

Cons

  • Attaching filter was uncomfortable

Best Semi-Insert Earplugs

The Best Hearing Protection Option: Mack's Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs
Photo: amazon.com

The Quiet Band Foam Earplugs from Howard Leight by Honeywell are a great option for anyone who likes the protection of an inner earplug but wants the reusability of an over-the-ear system.

This semi-insert earplug kit blocks off ear canals with soft foam pods, while the headband keeps them in place, providing an NRR of 25 dB. To have a conversation, simply pull the plugs out of the ears and rest the headband around the neck. This allows for normal conversation while also keeping the earplugs clean and within easy reach when it’s time to get back to work.

There’s something to be said for the convenience of semi-insert hearing protection. Not only were they easy to throw in my ears, but they were also easy to remove and place around my neck to keep them clean. I like that the kit comes with three of these models, each with an additional set of plugs. Also, the bright colors make them easy to find. The headband might’ve been a bit too snug for me, but I prefer over-ear protection, so nothing in-ear particularly thrills me.

Product Specs

  • Style: Semi-insert
  • NRR: 25 dB
  • Extra Features: None

Pros

  • Lightweight and comfortable around the neck
  • Bright colors make them easy to find
  • Comes with additional plugs

Cons

  • Maybe a bit tight

Most Comfortable

The Best Hearing Protection Option: Howard Leight by Honeywell Quiet Band Foam Earplugs
Photo: amazon.com

There are a lot of benefits of foam earplugs, and this pack of 50 shows why. These foam earplugs create an NRR of 33 dB, making them very effective while also being exceptionally comfortable. Users can wear these in the shop, or even to bed, as they’ll barely notice them once they’re in.

The soft foam rolls easily and expands inside of the ear canal, blocking off sounds. They’re also reusable for two or three uses before they start breaking down. For anyone who doubles up their hearing protection with a set of over-the-ear earmuffs, Mack’s earplugs’ soft foam will ensure that their ears stay comfortable while providing tons of NRR.

The day that I tested these earplugs, it was very cold. It took them a long time to expand in my ear canal. But, once they did, I found them to be the most comfortable form of hearing protection in the group, despite not loving earplugs. And, since they come in a pack of 50 pairs, I like that they’re inexpensive on a use-by-use basis. I reused mine five times, and I didn’t notice any foam breakdown, but I’m sure they were no longer as effective as they might have been out of the jar. I doubled them up with a pair of earmuffs, which allowed me to judge their comfort and effectiveness in that setting, both of which were great.

Product Specs

  • Style: Earplugs
  • NRR: 33 dB
  • Extra Features: None

Pros

  • The most comfortable way to achieve an NRR of 33 dB
  • Inexpensive on a per-use basis
  • Reusable to a point

Cons

  • Took forever to expand in the cold

Best Foam Earplugs

The Best Hearing Protection Option Ear Buddy Soft Foam Earplugs
Photo: amazon.com

Whether they’re for the workshop or a job site, foam earplugs can go a long way toward protecting hearing while keeping a user comfortable. Ear Buddy’s Foam Ear Plugs do an excellent job of each, offering 32 dB of protection while being lightweight and pleasant to wear.

Like other foam earplugs, the Ear Buddy’s compress and roll to allow the user to insert them in their ear. Once they do, the Ear Buddy expands and fits the ear canal and seals out the noise. These plugs come in a pack of 50 pairs, which breaks the per-use cost down to be very affordable.

During testing, the Ear Buddy earplugs fit in my ears nicely and did a good job of blocking out the noise. I also liked that they’re orange, as it makes it easier for other people to see that I’m wearing them. Under earmuffs, these earplugs remained comfortable and effective. The only issue I found was that cold weather affects how quickly they expand, slowing them down by quite a bit.

Product Specs

  • Style: Earplugs
  • NRR: 32 dB
  • Extra Features: None

Pros

  • Effective at blocking out noise
  • Orange color makes it easier for others to see
  • Effective and comfortable under earmuffs

Cons

  • Expands slowly in colder temperatures

Best for Hardhats

The Best Hearing Protection Option: 3M PELTOR Optime Dielectric Earmuffs
Photo: amazon.com

When it comes to wearing a hard hat, typical earmuffs won’t do the trick. But, with 3M’s Peltor Optime earmuffs, that bulky headband is no longer a problem. This set of earmuffs snaps into the rim of most hard hats, offering protection that works with the hard hat rather than against it.

This set of earmuffs allows users to protect themselves on the construction site or while felling trees with a crew or at home. The user can swivel the muffs down to protect their ears and swivel them back up and out of the way when they need to hear what’s going on around them. With an NRR of 27 dB, they’re some of the most effective earmuffs on the market.

During testing, it was easy to see the value that these 3M Peltor Optime earmuffs offer. I liked that they swiveled up and down, allowing me to keep my hard hat on while choosing whether or not I wanted to wear the muffs. Also, they attach securely, so there isn’t any concern of them becoming loose or falling off. And, while I couldn’t tell the difference between these earmuffs and others with lower ratings, I appreciate the higher NRR value. My one complaint is that they did not fit my hard hat, which has a wide brim all the way around. I had to order an extra hard hat to test these out.

Product Specs

  • Style: Over-the-ear
  • NRR: 27 dB
  • Extra Features: Hard hat clips

Pros

  • Swivels up and down for easy on and off
  • Attaches securely to a hard hat
  • Better protection that most earmuffs

Cons

  • Won’t fit all hard hats

Our Verdict

Anyone hunting for the best overall hearing protection based on value, comfort, and effectiveness may want to consider the Professional Safety Ear Muffs by Decibel Defense. But, for those who like to keep the day moving with some music or podcasts, the 3M WorkTunes Connect Hearing Protector with Bluetooth likely won’t disappoint.

How We Tested the Best Hearing Protection Options

I always have a project going at my house, and I was actually in the middle of trimming out my office while testing these hearing protection products. With the table saw, miter saw, air compressor, and nail gun at the ready, it was a perfect opportunity to test these models while I hung trim.

First, I donned each pair of hearing protection to check their comfort. Then, I cut a few pieces of trim with the miter saw to see how effective they were at blocking the noise. Right around the same time, I ripped a few pieces of trim to width on my table saw. After running the air compressor and nailing some of the trim in place, I had a good idea of what I liked about each product and what I didn’t like.

The Advantages of Owning the Best Hearing Protection

It’s not hard to damage your hearing. In fact, a single exposure to a loud noise can cause permanent damage. Imagine what exposing yourself to power tools day in and day out can do. Owning the best hearing protection for a shop will help preserve hearing from years of potential damage.

Hearing protection that’s comfortable for you may not be comfortable for someone else. Purchasing the best hearing protection for your personal needs will ensure you use it instead of taking your plugs out or muffs off and setting them aside. After all, they won’t do any good sitting on a workbench.

If an employer requires hearing protection, ensure that you have the best hearing protection possible instead of just using theirs. Often, employers purchase inexpensive PPE to meet particular insurance or OSHA requirements, and they’re likely to be inferior to a high-end product. Buying hearing protection will help you avoid damage allowed by cheaper protection.

  • Protect your hearing from years of damage.
  • Choose the perfect fit for your comfort needs.
  • Ensure you’re using high-quality hearing protection.

FAQs

If you still have questions about the best hearing protection products, that’s perfectly understandable. There can be a lot riding on this choice, and it’s not a decision that should be made lightly or quickly. Here are answers to some of the most common questions about hearing protection.

Q. What is the best noise reduction rating?

One of the best hearing protection products regarding NRR are earplugs, and they provide up to 33 dB of noise reduction. If you double them with an over-the-ear earmuff with an NRR of 31 (the maximum available), you can obtain a combination NRR of 36 dB.

Q. What is a dangerous decibel level?

The widely accepted safe decibel level is anything less than 70 dB. Above 70 dB, you should consider wearing hearing protection to lower your chances of damaging your hearing.

Q. Which is better: in-ear or over-the-ear protection?

In-ear hearing protection does a better job of reducing noise, but over-the-ear protection is better than nothing. It’s largely dependent on what you’re comfortable with and what you’ll use. It doesn’t matter if in-ear plugs are better if you’re too uncomfortable to shove them in your ears.