HEARING IS BELIEVING
November 7, 2014 By Dave Brown
Hearing loss is cumulative and once gone, ever returns. The loss you suffer at 20 will still be there at 30 and will impact your quality of life before you turn 40. Professionals who routinely deal with loud noises need to treat hearing loss very seriously.
Unless you’re in a life-threatening situation where auditory exclusion kicks in as a self-protection mechanism, sudden noise impulses like gunshots can do the greatest damage. It’s not just the high volumes; it’s also the damaging frequencies that result when a bullet breaks the sound barrier. This is why proper hearing protection is vitally important to police.
When I started competition shooting, in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, “protection” was often .38 wadcutters stuck in the ears. They must have looked funny sticking out the side of our heads, but the mass of lead actually stopped a lot of noise. Unfortunately, they also tended to fall out at the most inopportune time, usually about half way through prone shooting.
Today, even the cheapest passive earmuffs work well and active electronic ear protection effectively reduces the volume and frequencies of gunshots while also amplifying ambient sound. Popular with combat soldiers and tactical teams, they do have their drawbacks.
In a comprehensive test of the best tactical electronic earmuffs (see the March 2010 issue of
This is where the Etymotic Research (www.etymotic.com) EB15 LE earplugs come in. They use sophisticated electronics similar to active earmuffs to amplify ambient sound, but compresses the circuitry into a compact package that fits entirely within the ear. Not much larger than hearing aids, the instant they detect a gunshot, they shut down the amplification and then ramp back up so quickly that all you hear is an echo.
I first became aware of them when I saw professional musicians use them on stage. Almost all performers at last year’s Grammy music awards wore them.
The EB15 LE earplugs come with a flexible neck cord, case, filters and filter tool, cleaning tool, a variety of ear tip designs and a pair of #10 hearing aid batteries, which are inexpensive and have a long storage life, though they last only a few weeks once opened and exposed to the air. Due to their size, the earplugs have no on/off switch. Battery life can be extended slightly by leaving the battery door open when not in use. (Although not mentioned in the manual, we found common 384/392 silver oxide batteries, which are the same size and last longer, also work.)
Designed for natural hearing and 360° situational awareness, the EB15s protect from both loud impulse noise like gunshots or explosions and continuous loud noise like vehicles and machinery. A unique dual-mode switch allows you to select the amplification level. The LO setting has an automatic three-stage action that provides natural hearing, a 15 dB sound reduction for continuous loud noise and maximum attenuation up to the limit of the ear tip seals for sudden gunshots or explosion blasts.
The HI setting provides a 15 dB boost to amplify normal sounds up to five times their volume, plus maximum attenuation at high sound pressure levels for sudden loud noises above 90 to 120 dB.
A good seal is critical but with seven choices of ear tips, from foam to flanged rubber, that shouldn’t be a problem. I prefer the grey three-flange rubber tip and found that moistening the ear tips before insertion helped get a better seal. Completely blocking the ear canal may take a bit of getting used to but once you hear how effectively they work, you may never go back to the more traditional earmuffs.
In head-to-head shooting tests the EB15s actually blocked slightly more noise than the muffs because the seal is entirely within the ear. Muffs rely on a much larger seal area and will always leak slightly, especially when you wear shooting glasses.
The EB15s also pass my “clap” test; all I hear is an echo when I loudly clap my hands. There’s only a very slight bit of sound humping as the amplification level drops and then quickly recovers. They work much better than any of the cheap electronic earmuffs, which cut gunfire noise for far too long. (Read the article for more and to learn why the best tactical muffs are easily worth their $300 to $400 cost.)
So why pay up to $500 US for the EB15s when disposable plugs cost less than $3 each? Well, other than the frustratingly short battery life, I especially like my EB15s for carbine and shotgun training. They provide very compact but also very sophisticated protection.
I usually leave them on HI so I can hear every whisper; there’s virtually no difference in battery life in either position. I toss in a few spare packages of both types of batteries and am good for months of protection.
The EV15s look like large hearing aids and so don’t give off the “there’s-going-to-be-a-gunfight” look like the old shooting glasses with yellow lenses.
As a competitive practical pistol shooter in the 1980s, I became a big fan of the “Miami Vice” TV series and especially firearms coordinator Jim Zubiena. Playing a cameo role as a hitman in what became the most famous draw on television, Zubiena’s character draws a concealed pistol from his waistband in less than the blink of an eye and fires three rounds so fast that even the sound effects editor missed the third shot. All I could think was, “I am going to need WAY more practice!”
I ramped up my skills on the shooting range and began passing that knowledge on to others, training police, military and emergency response units on advanced firearms skills as a career. Ten years later, I began a second career coordinating firearms use on film and television shows. Like Zubiena, I have even done a few cameo roles, although I could never match the speed of his draw.
I have trained some of the top names in Hollywood (I once let Samuel L. Jackson try on my EB15s. All he could say was, “Damn!”) and traveled as far as LA to talk about my career and standards for firearm safety.
Take it from someone who deals with gunshots every day. Silence is not always golden and .38 wadcutters never did make good earplugs.
Next month marks Firearms Editor Dave Brown’s 20th anniversary writing for
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