Ear Muffs: Bringers Of The Sound Of Silence

Ear Muffs: Bringers Of The Sound Of Silence

When it’s the dead of winter, there’s nothing better than having something warm and cozy covering your ears, preventing the cold from coming in. Many people use ear muffs for this purpose. 

On the other hand, ear muffs can also be a great acquisition if you want to block out external noise. Some are designed to cancel noise, giving you some quiet moments with yourself. In addition, they can provide possible hearing and ear protection. 

A pair of ear muffs doesn’t look any different than some fancy headphones. Some of them may even act as headphones, depending on how modern they are. 

What Are Ear Muffs?

Ear muffs are items that were designed to cover a person’s ears to provide warmth or hearing protection.

They are usually made from metal or thermoplastic headbands that will fit over the back or top of your head. The cups are also cushioned to provide full coverage of the external ear.

Different ear muffs.

A pair of ear muffs doesn’t look any different than some fancy headphones. Some of them may even act as headphones, depending on how modern they are. 

The Difference Between Ear Muffs And Ear Plugs

When it comes to protecting our ears, there are two ways for us to go: either for earmuffs or ear plugs. Both of them have advantages and disadvantages – but what many people don’t seem to realize is that they aren’t the same. Here are the main differences between earmuffs and ear plugs:

Ear Muffs

This item is very easy to use, in the sense that you only place it over your head, allowing the two sides to cover your ears. They fit easily, and they are usually one-size-fits-all. Because of this, they are the preferred choice when it comes to construction or landscaping work.

These items are also perfect in cooler climates. As opposed to ear plugs, these also provide warmth and comfort, and you can work with them on for a longer time. The same thing cannot be said about ear plugs.

The Cons

Ear muffs are very comfortable, but when it comes to sound protection, they aren’t at the same level as ear plugs. The latter will go directly into the ear canal, isolating it, whereas ear muffs will only cover the ears from the outside.

Plus, if you live in a warmer environment, you may experience some “heated” issues.

Ear Plugs

Unlike ear muffs, ear plugs will go directly into the ear canal, providing a higher level of sound protection.

They are usually the preferred choice if you work in a very loud environment such as an airport, a factory or a foundry.

Ear plugs don’t require as much space, and they can easily be carried in a pocket.

Plus, if your job requires you to wear safety glasses and helmets, then earplugs are the more suitable, space-saving option.

Yellow ear plugs.

The Cons

As opposed to ear muffs, ear plugs are quite cumbersome to fit. You can only get full protection if you manage to properly fit them in your ear canal – which can be quite challenging.

There’s nothing more annoying than having to take off your ear plugs just to hear someone, and then having to go through the process of putting everything back the way it was. Ear muffs are more convenient since all you’ll have to do is drag them back on. In a matter of seconds, you’ll be good to go.

A Brief History

Everything started in 1873, with Chester Greenwood. At some point that winter, his ears got so cold that he knew something had to be done. Since he had sensitive ears, every breeze would almost turn them from chalky white to deep blue.

Chester also had a problem with the usual wool scarves. Their touch would make his skin itch, so he could not really wear them in winter. He took advantage of his grandmother’s sewing skills, and he used his ideas to put together a new “warming device” for his ears.

To make the “ear shield,” Chester used some beaver fur for the outside of the muff and black velvet for the inside. He used farm wire as a headband, giving it a shape that he could securely attach to his head. Before long, every kid in the neighborhood was asking their parents to make one for them as well.

The ear muff wasn’t a success from the very beginning, though.

Chester believed that the ears were flapping way too much and that they weren’t bringing too much warmth because of that.

He used flat spring steel instead for the band, and the result was that the muffs had a more secure hold.

By the end of the “designing process,” not only the kids that were allergic to wool wanted a pair of muffs – but everyone did.

Ear muffs worn in the past.

They became a fashion statement, and in March 1877, he even received an award from the United States Patent Office.

At that time, Greenwood was barely 18 – and everyone already knew his name. He was a Maine celebrity, and he was reaping the success of running an ear muff business.

Types Of Muffs That You Can Purchase

There are two main reasons why people buy ear muffs: to block the sound or to prevent the cold. Based on that, we have two basic types of ear muffs:

Thermal Ear Muffs

These are ear muffs for winter that you use when you are not a fan of caps or wool scarves. They are designed to protect you from the wind and cold temperatures, and you can find them in various shapes and styles.

Since their purpose is to offer warmth, they are designed to be fashionable and come in a myriad of different colors.

A typical thermal ear muff will usually be made of a plastic band that goes over the top of your head and a fluffy or padded circular material that will cover your ears.

Acoustic Ear Muffs

These ear muffs are also known as “ear defenders” or “noise canceling ear muffs.” The cups are lined with a sound-deadening fabric, looking pretty much like a combo between thermal ear muffs and headphones in appearance.

Most of these ear muffs can be worn either as a headband or as an attachment to your hat (if you work on a construction site). Some manufacturers even combine ear defenders with headphones so that you can block all sounds while carefully listening to what’s on the other end.

Acoustic ear muffs used in construction.

A lot of people with sleeping disorders also use them as sleeping ear muffs. Since these individuals usually wake up at every random sound in the room, a set of acoustic ear muffs will block the sound out. This way, they will finally be able to sleep.

Passive Ear Muffs

Acoustic safety ear muffs are also divided into two different types, based on their sound properties and their ability to attenuate it. Thus, we have passive ear muffs and active ear muffs.

Passive ear muffs use certain materials to attenuate the signal. The materials used are usually cupped foam pieces that were coated in hard plastic. The foam will act as an insulator and will block any sounds from passing through.

Some passive muffs are also equipped with a microphone and an electronic component that will permit the user to communicate with others while blocking the noise in the background.

For instance, if you work in a loud setting, you may still be required to receive commands from your boss or talk to a colleague. They’re basically ear muffs with radios.

These muffs are fully controllable, and you can decide whether or not you want to attenuate any sound.

Active Ear Muffs

These ear muffs incorporate Active Noise Cancellation to block the sounds coming from the outside. These electronic ear muffs use a microphone, a speaker, and inner circuit to cancel the noise properly.

The technique is rather simple. Once a signal is received through the microphone, the circuit in the earmuff will send a signal right back at 180 degrees, therefore canceling the signal.

Active ear muffs.

These ear muffs usually work against continuous low-frequency signals such as heavy tractors, airfields, or diesel locomotives.

The Composition Of An Ear Muff

If you had asked us “what are ear muffs made from” in the 18th century, we would have told you that it’s wool and wire. Technically, that still is not really wrong.

The answer will usually depend on the type of ear muff. For instance, the “skeleton” of an earmuff will always be the same: a headband that will hold the two pieces in their places.

Depending on the producer, it can be made of plastic, wire or anything else – as long as it’s thick enough to keep the muff secure on your ears.

The materials that cover the ears are also different. While wool used to be the main materials for thermal ear muffs, nowadays we use various synthetic materials to provide warmth and prevent allergic reactions.

The muffs can come in different styles: puffy, fancy, velvety – whatever taste you may have.

Acoustic ear muffs, on the other hand, are a bit more complicated than that. While they may have the extra warmth padding, they are mostly focusing on materials for reducing the sounds.

The main material is always some type of foam; whatever comes next is purely decorative. In the case of electronic muffs, they may also use noise-repelling circuits that will cancel any noise your way – by using another noise.

Fabric versus plastic, thermal versus acoustic – the material will pretty much depend on its purpose.

The Way Earmuffs Work

If someone ends up being exposed to a loud environment (over 85 dB), the chances are that they are going to need hearing protection tools to prevent them from losing their hearing. These tools should be worn every time you use power tools, firearms, or very loud yard equipment.

Loud noises are especially dangerous if you work in there for a prolonged time. The louder it is, the less you should be able to stay there without suffering from hearing loss.

So, if the plan is to stay there for more than a couple of hours, then you’ll need hearing protection.

Attenuation Characteristics

An ear muff will generally block (or attenuate) the sound by 23 dB – as tested in the controlled conditions of a laboratory. However, these results rarely match the attenuation in real life – which is much lower.

Noise canceling ear muffs.

Studies show that an ordinary ear muff may attenuate sounds from 33% to 74%, allowing some noise to go through the material. This may be caused by device deterioration, improper fit or insincerity over the attenuation levels.

However, despite of this fact, people still seem to enjoy using ear muffs more over ear plugs, being the more appropriate and convenient choice for providing hearing protection.

When you decide between ear plugs and ear muffs, you need to keep the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) in mind. This number represents approximately how much noise it can attenuate and how useful it will be for a particular environment.

Ear muffs usually attenuate 500Hz less than earplugs do, so if you are caught in a situation where noise is going to the extremes, then you may find ear plugs to be effective.

Also, ear muffs won’t be any good at reducing infrasonic frequencies, so if you have to deal with low-frequency energies, then you may give ear muffs the pass. Otherwise, if it’s not that noisy, then you can safely go for ear muffs.

When Should They Be Used?

Depending on how much you plan on being exposed to the noise, you need to select a correct set of ear muffs. Here you have the general standards for various levels and how much exposure you should be able to withstand.

Noise Level Maximum Exposure

  • 85 dB-A - 8 Hours
  • 91 dB-A - 2 Hours
  • 97 dB-A - 30 Minutes
  • 103 dB-A - 7 Minutes

As you can see, the higher the frequency, the less exposure you should have. Depending on the noise level at your workplace, you need to pick a set of ear muffs that will cover at least 70 or 80% of the noise.

Gun ear muffs will need extra protection since the noise level goes way over one hundred.

Dual Protection

Now and then, the average ear muffs won’t be enough to provide protection against higher sound frequencies – in which case, it’s necessary that you mix both ear muffs and ear plugs to receive appropriate protection.

Dual protection is also the recommended option when shooting firearms since the sound can easily go over 140 dB. Keep in mind that the NRR of the two protectors won’t combine if used together.

For instance, if you have a 20 dB ear muff and 25 dB ear plug, the result won’t be 45. Instead, you will add 5dB to the one that has the highest number. In this case, it will be 25+5, meaning 30 dB.

Dual protection - ear muffs and ear plugs.

Most industrial noises do not go over 100 dB-A, so the chances are that you will not need dual protection. However, if you are highly sensitive to noise or have recently suffered an injury to the ear, you may want to mix both to be on the safe side.

When Is It Too Much?

“How much noise is too much?” is a fairly broad question that can be interpreted in many different ways. For instance, damage to the ear usually starts at 120 dB if you go without hearing protection. However, if you expose yourself too much to 85 dB, you can also experience hearing loss.

It all depends on the length of the exposure. If you stay for 2 hours in a 91 dB area, then you might be experiencing ear ringing for a while – but it will eventually pass.

However, if you stay for longer than that, then the damage might be irreversible, which is why you may want to invest in some highly insulating ear muffs.

Keep in mind that these levels are different for children and adults. A child will be more sensitive to 5 minutes in an 85 dB zone than an adult would be.

Considerations For People With Hearing Loss

A worker who has hearing loss will come across various issues on the working site, such as the inability to hear alarms or where certain sounds are coming from. This happens because the hearing protection device basically brings down the volume even lower than the already-disturbed ear can hear.

The OSHA requires that even though you have lost most of your hearing, you have to wear ear muffs – or any kind of hearing protection device.

The standard requirement for people with hearing loss is 84 dB A. This will allow for comfort, ease of communication, but also limitation of the exposure levels – which would only make things worse for the wearer.

A worker may be tempted to wear their hearing devices under the ear muffs.

It is not recommended, however, to wear these hearing aids if the noise levels are highly dangerous.

Hearing aid put on a persons ear.

You may want to talk to a professional and see whether or not you can wear the hearing aid under the ear muff for an extended period. As a general rule, however, hearing aids are prohibited because they might cancel the effects of the ear muff.

Basically, the hearing aid will increase the sounds while the muff will try to decrease it. It will be like trying to set fire to clear water.

Popular Manufacturers To Consider

Aside from Chester’s business that literally started the ear muff line, there are many other manufacturers who realized there’s actual profit in this business. Here are some of them:

  • 3M - 3M is popular for the fact that it combines their trademark “Peltor protection” with the newest technology, creating a very durable and comfortable ear muff. Their best peltor ear muffs provide various levels of hearing protection to fit every kind of environment.
  • Howard Leight - Howard Leight ear muffs will manage and block sounds coming from challenging environments. Their products are appropriate for construction sites, and they come with various NRR numbers.
  • Caldwell - Aside from construction site-friendly muffs, Caldwell also specializes in devices for shotgun and action shooters. Their NRR goes well over 85dB, so Caldwell ear muffs provide adequate protection.
  • Walker’s Game - These guys also provide the best ear muffs for noise reduction if you are planning to go on a hunting spree. Their technology also allows you to hear important noises (such as the game approaching) while canceling the sound made by the gun.
  • Decibel Defense - Decibel Defense ear muffs are perfect for any environment going from construction sites to hunting grounds. You can get muffs with an NRR under 25 dB or over 85 dB.
  • Pro For Sho - Pro For Sho ear muffs feature a special technology that makes them lighter while providing maximum protection. Not only do they offer the best ear muffs for men who want to go hunting, but also for the more sensitive ladies.

Tips For Effective Hearing Protection

To make sure that your hearing will not be compromised, here are some tips that you may want to consider.

  • Use the ear muffs all the time when exposed to prolonged noises – not just when the noise becomes “too much.”
  • Make sure that your ear muffs are not loose. Poor fitting hearing protection won’t offer you proper sound insulation.
  • Keep your muffs in good condition. Damaged or cracked earmuffs will let the sound enter, rendering the hearing protection device useless.

It is recommended that you stay away from extreme noises as much as possible. If you find that you need to raise your voice to make yourself heard, then you might want to consider moving to a quieter place.

Maintaining The Hygiene Of Your Ear Muffs

To keep your ear muffs from deteriorating, you need to inspect the cushions for any leaks or cracks on a regular basis. If you notice that the ear cushion is damaged, you need to replace it. Cushions also need to be replaced every 3-4 months.

Standard ear cups may be washed with regular water and mild soap. Don’t go for stronger substances, since the cushion may be damaged. Also, do not dip them in water; just wipe them with a washcloth.

Final Thoughts

Ear muffs are a great investment for your health if you spend most of your time in noisy environments. They come in various shapes, sizes, and protection levels, so you can choose whatever suits your needs.

For more info on how to pick the best noise canceling ear muffs, you are invited to read our buying guide as well.

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